My notes on The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973)
‘Don’t quit until you either win or you die.’
Most 1970s blaxploitation films had a token political streak, but tended to focus on individualistic superspade characters who weren’t liable to join the Black Panthers – Shaft respects his militant brothers, but has his own agenda to pursue. Directed by Ivan Dixon and scripted by Sam Greenlee (from his own novel) and Melvin Clay, this is a more committed, angry, speculative exercise. A smug white Congressman (Joseph Mascolo) is told he is behind in the polls with the Negro vote after a law and order speech and arbitrarily makes a crusade about the all-white nature of the intelligence services. This forces the CIA to recruit a class of black applicants, then put them through intensive training designed to make them all drop out before graduation – with a hulking white karate champion showing up to demonstrate why none of them are worthy to be in his beloved Company. Most of the class do flunk, but Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), who keeps his head down and applies himself, literally stays the course, and graduates in a spare ceremony where he sits alone among rows of empty chairs and is congratulated as a credit to his race by the sole official present.
Given that few of the cast are that familiar, even among the black talent pool seen in 1970s exploitation films, Cook’s quiet, tough Freeman (he proves his black belt is as good as the bearlike instructor’s) emerges from the crowd as the central figure exactly as the character does – more obviously charismatic types flunk out, and when he’s called a ‘Tom’ for working so hard he doesn’t argue or fight back. Of course, the CIA put this trained agent to use by giving him a fancy job title that boils down to working the xerox machine – a detail that doesn’t quite ring true, in that the intelligence agencies in the 1970s would have had a lot of work for a black agent, especially in the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to infiltrate the counterculture or the CIA’s involvements against communists in Angola and other African states. After five years of this, Freeman resigns to become a social worker in Chicago, but proceeds to take over the street gangs and train them in all the insurgency tactics he has learned at the CIA, stealing state-of-the-art military hardware to replace their feeble weapons (he advocates resisting the draft but also recruits as many ‘Nam vets as possible) and planning a general multi-city uprising to take over the ghettos.
Dawson (J.A. Preston), Freeman’s black cop friend, only realises what Freeman is up to when there’s open war on the streets – and Freeman feels forced to kill him, making the point that revolution won’t just be a question of offing the hated whitey. Informed by the Watts and Chicago riots (the unnamed Mayor is clearly a Daley figure) and the rise of the Black Panthers, The Spook is at once a program for revolution for African-Americans and a prophecy of worst-fears-fulfilled for white conservatives (‘we’re going to turn the American dream into the American nightmare’). It’s full of credible street level detail and the slow-burning Freeman is a believable leader – albeit free of the criminal records, egoist streaks, politico-religious quirks and vices which tended to sideline 1960s and ‘70s radicals of all races. It’s not designed to show any solutions, and indeed it’s hard to see what Freeman’s endgame strategy might be, but it dramatises a way that things might go if society doesn’t change. Generations on, it remains a potent set of arguments and surprisingly good drama; it’s one of a handful of contemporary films – The Revolutionary, The Man, even Wild in the Streets – which tried to look at the turmoil in America at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s.
I dare say that Spook is one of a handful of genuinely radical exploitation/blaxploitation films, along with Sweet Sweetback and Ganja and Hess.
It’s due for a revival.