Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Director Ivan Dixon describes his film THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, an adaptation of Sam Greenlee's 1969 novel of the same name, as a "fantasy". It is in fact a highly controversial polemic that went "missing" for many years. Allegedly seized by the government weeks after its debut in 1973. Another fist shake at the white establishment of the time, but not as angry or violent as pictures like SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSS SONG. In its era, it might not have seemed so fantastic. The U.S. was under siege by near constant protests, demonstrations, and frequent riots and may well have seemed vulnerable, ripe for the sort of scenario this film imagines. Same as it ever was??

SPOOK opens with a meeting of a white senator seeking re-election and two of his staff. His secretary is a black woman who explains in a flat, professional voice free of any hint of ethnicity of his dismal percentages among minorities. He hatches a plan to save face, to plot a swift PR move - open CIA slots to blacks. To the Agency's surprise, one not only passes their rigorous examinations but proves to be one of their best. He masters guerrilla techniques and espionage training.  Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) gets the job and finds himself  "Reproduction Center Sections Chief", which means he's in charge of the copy machine in the basement.  He comes off as relentlessly serious in his work. Unfailingly subservient. The Agency is proud to use Freeman as proof of their adoption of integration and progress.

Freeman has a covert plan. After 5 years of service, he abruptly resigns to accept a social services gig in his hometown of Chicago, to help out his fellow man. To help youngsters get an education and kick the junk and gang members to stop the madness, yes, but also to learn sophisticated warfare tactics, just like he learned in the CIA. To build a band of Freedom Fighters. To become "free". By any means necessary, as it was said.

There are complications on the road to freedom. Freeman rekindles a friendship with an old buddy, now a cop, who is determined to foil the increasing crime perpetrated by the Fighters (and who is unaware of Freeman's role in it). There is also a reunion with an old girlfriend, now married, who broke off their earlier relationship because she wanted someone with more stability. One of the gang members Freeman trains is white, but insists he is black and is very willing to join the cause.

When the police kill a local junkie, it sparks a citywide riot, creating a perfect segue to a New America.  A revolution, city by city...

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a sloppily made, sometimes technically inept, but undeniably powerful film.  The low budget in fact works in the film's favor - its crude production makes it appear as if the film was made by guerrillas themselves. The result is a frighteningly effective piece of propaganda. A "paranoia" exercise that will have some viewers recoiling in discomfort, and others cheering.

Director Dixon is easily best known for his role on Hogan's Heroes, work that he indirectly refers to as "junk" in an interview included in the disc's extras. He is proud of SPOOK, of its fearless and unapologetic message. Is it irresponsible? Racist? Fair? A cautionary tale?

The PG-rated SPOOK is also surprisingly free of the usual blaxploitation elements, further giving credence to its serious message without side steps into unnecessary sex scenes and/or overly stylized violence. There is a typically funky, memorable electronic score by Herbie Hancock. And the film is not entirely free of humor. Not cheeky, easy vulgarity, but rather at least one moment of scathing satire, such as the ultimate fate of a gung-ho white National Guardsman.

Important topic or not, SPOOK is not immune from the sharpened quill of criticism. Perhaps the film would've been more effective if "whitey" wasn't always drawn so stereotypically. As one-dimensionally racist buffoons (as in your typical blaxploitation pic). My favorite moment: when Freeman's file is reviewed by CIA chiefs, one remarks, "He has athletic ability, that figures!" It recalled for me that moment in TRADING PLACES, when one of the white Duke brothers hears the black Reggie singing in the next room: "They are a musical people, aren't they?" 

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, whose title can be interpreted in at least 3 ways I can think of,  also sports one of those curious 1970s endings, a final scene freeze frame that feels abrupt, anti-climactic maybe, but is most certainly a nod to those revolutionaries of centuries past....

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