It seems hard to believe that one of the more radically militant black films of the 1970s was directed by Ivan Dixon, who was one of the most mild-mannered, likable actors of the 1960s. For five seasons he played the only African American POW, Sergeant James “Kinch” Kinchloe, in the popular World War II based sit-com “Hogan’s Heroes.” Dixon was also the star of director Michael Roemer’s fine film about racial discrimination, “Nothing But a Man” (1964). See my February 23, 2015, hidden gem
article on this film at https://readbuzz.com/2015/02/23/hidden-gem-nothing-but-a-man-1964/.
While Dixon was mostly a veteran director of television programs, his 1973 feature film “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was a powerful, thoughtful alternative to the popular black power/Blaxploitation films of this period, like “Shaft,” “Super Fly,” “Foxy Brown,” “Cleopatra Jones” and others. It concerns the training and subsequent ramifications of the first African American CIA agent.
Based on a novel by African American writer Sam Greenlee; Greenlee and writer Melvin Clay adapted this into the film’s screenplay. The film opens in the office incumbent Senator Hennington (Joseph Mascolo) who shows concerns about his lower polling numbers with black voters. Instead of facing these issues head-on, he notes and lays blame on the CIA’s lack of diversity and general discrimination in their agency.
During the film’s opening credit sequence we witness a group of black recruits undergoing a series of CIA personal interviews and physical tests as the process of selecting a few token men begins.
The main story concerns Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a man who plays “the straight and narrow”, nearly an Uncle Tom like character, who quickly pleases the white establishment in his training as a CIA agent. Further tests show that Freeman was an outstanding candidate for his intelligence and fine athletic abilities. He eventually undergoes instruction on explosives and covert bomb use, as well as black belt training in Washington D.C. Ultimately this leads him to become the agency’s “Reproduction Section Chief”, a menial job that mostly involves photocopying documents.
Later when Freeman decides to return to his Chicago neighborhood through a Social Services Foundation he is determined to educate the poorer community members to encourage their more positive life choices. Eventually, Freeman begins using his agency knowledge to turn against the government and to plot a new American revolution.
He organizes militant gang members of a local group called the Cobras and various Vietnam War veterans in an uprising against the police, National Guard and local government. Freeman comments to a colleague, “My grandmother said, ‘Get your education, boy, because that’s the only thing the white man can’t take away from you.’”
Then in training the Cobra members, he designates Pretty Willie, a white guy who is passing for an African American, to be the group’s propagandist. When Willie exclaims that he hates white people, Freeman sternly corrects him about their mission, “It’s not about hating white folks; it’s about loving freedom.” Soon there is widespread rioting in the streets, which director Dixon captures in chilling realistic style.
The film was shot mostly in Gary, Indiana and several sources claim that the then Mayor Richard J. Daley refused to allow the film’s production to use many Chicago locations. The film’s title has a double edged reference in its use of the word “spook”. In government vernacular it means a “spy”, while it still contains a cruder, racist slur in reference to an African American.
The film’s co-stars include J. A. Preston (the future co-star Ozzie Cleveland of tv’s Hill Street Blues) as Freeman’s old friend Dawson, who is now a Chicago policeman and Paula Kelly, as Dahomey Queen, a prostitute who Freeman tries to teach the pride of African history, and later she provides Freeman with secret information. Famed jazz artist Herbie Hancock composed the music for the film.
This unique, independent film was released and quickly vanished from theatres in 1973. On July 20, 2018, New Yorker Magazine article Richard Brody notes, “it was pulled from theatres soon after its release. Its prints were destroyed; the negative was stored under a different title; and Greenlee claimed that the FBI was involved in the disappearance”—although no official record was ever found of this. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is a much respected film by the few who were fortunate to see it.