The Spy Movie That Upset the American Dream

“The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” a 1973 parable about institutional racism, was pulled from theaters after only a few weeks. The New York Film Festival is giving new life to the cult film.


By J. Hoberman

There are movies whose back stories and reception histories are as compelling as the movies themselves. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is one.

An added attraction at this year’s New York Film Festival (where the movie is available online through Wednesday), this much-mythologized bombshell was conceived in fury, born in flames and, on its 1973 release, advertised as America’s “nightmare.”

Directed by Ivan Dixon, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was adapted from a best-selling novel by Sam Greenlee that, according to its author, was rejected by nearly 40 American publishers before it was brought out by a British house in 1969.

Both the novel and the film, which Greenlee produced with Dixon, concern an apparently docile Black C.I.A. employee with the allegorical name Dan Freeman. Recruited as a public relations gesture, Freeman plays the long game, using what he has learned at the agency to mastermind an guerrilla war in Chicago.

The novel was a thriller, but Greenlee — a veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service — used it as an exposé of institutional racism. “Spook” is both a racial slur and a slang term for spy; seated “by the door” suggests a person hired for show.

To direct, Greenlee enlisted Dixon, an actor (then a regular on “Hogan’s Heroes”) who had recently directed Robert Hooks in the slick studio-produced blaxploitation film “Trouble Man.” Made outside the movie industry, “Spook” was meant to mess with pop culture conventions. Greenlee originally wanted Clarence Williams III (“The Mod Squad”) as Freeman, the earthbound superhero who, disguised as a mild-mannered social worker, transforms a Chicago street gang into an underground fighting force. The part ultimately went to a 42-year-old member of the Negro Ensemble Company, Lawrence Cook.

Racial solidarity is the movie’s subject and the project’s DNA. Not only did Greenlee raise money from Black investors and get a fellow Chicagoan, Herbie Hancock, to write the score, he was able to use Gary, Ind., one of the first large American cities to elect a Black mayor, as a stand-in location for Chicago, thus enjoying the cooperation of the municipal authorities for powerful riot scenes.

The white characters (mainly male authority figures) are fools, brutes, knaves and patronizing liars. The Black ones are also stereotyped but given greater depth. The movie suggests a live-action animated cartoon in which the whites have two dimensions and the Blacks have three.

But, if “Spook” is a cartoon, it’s one animated by the ideas of the radical psychiatrist and champion of decolonization Frantz Fanon. The movie is an analog to anti-imperialist films like “The Battle of Algiers,” albeit in the guise of a blaxploitation cheapster, which is how it was presented to the distributor United Artists to secure completion money.

“Spook” opened in September 1973 in the midst of televised Watergate hearings, several years after the F.B.I.’s secret Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) disabled the Black Panthers. Paranoia was high. The year’s other independent features included the white vigilante tale “Walking Tall” and the John F. Kennedy conspiracy docudrama “Executive Action.” An anticipatory article in The Chicago Defender, the nation’s pre-eminent African-American weekly, wondered if “Greenlee’s masterpiece” might “touch off race warfare.”

Unsurprisingly, reviews were mixed. New York Magazine characterized “Spook” as “completely irresponsible.” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby gave a more cautious appraisal: The movie is “seldom convincing as melodrama,” but “the rage it projects is real.” Indeed, midway through, the police trigger a violent chain reaction — shooting an unarmed kid as he flees through a back alley — that is still unfolding when “Spook” ends.

Some weeks later, The Times ran a Sunday think piece with the headline “This ‘Spook’ Has No Respect for Human Life.” It concluded that “not just a film about Black people,” “Spook” was “a valuable lesson” in dramatizing “man’s response to oppression.” By then, the movie had pretty much disappeared. Greenlee said that after three weeks in release, during which F.B.I. agents hounded exhibitors to pull the film, UA withdrew it from circulation, citing poor box office grosses. (According to the Internet Movie Database, “Spook” brought in $270,000 during its abortive run.)

White America was spooked. The movie was blamed for serving as a Black Panthers textbook and for inspiring the Symbionese Liberation Army, the largely white revolutionary cell that would go on to kidnap Patty Hearst. Lawrence Cook’s big-screen career went nowhere and, despite becoming a prolific TV director, Dixon would never direct another theatrical movie. Still, “Spook” had a fugitive existence, circulating for years on bootleg VHS tapes in video stores.

In 2003, the actor Tim Reid found the only extent 35-millimeter print stored under a different title. In 2004, the movie was reissued on DVD. Seven years later, it was the subject of a documentary feature and a year later, it was named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. In 2018, the novel was optioned by Lee Daniels for a TV mini-series, and the movie occasioned an anthology of academic papers.

Like all cult films, “Spook” blazed a unique path to the canon. Historically, it can be bracketed with two earlier, highly successful independent productions — “Putney Swope,” a 1969 absurdist comedy by the white director Robert Downey in which an African-American takes charges of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Melvin Van Peebles’s groundbreaking celebration of a Black outlaw, released in 1971. But unlike “Swope,” “Spook” is something other than hip satire and, as opposed to “Sweetback,” it did not lend itself to recuperative commercialization.

“Sweetback” spawned blaxploitation (Van Peebles demanded that his movie’s X rating apply only to white patrons); “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” subverted it. Although the movie was deemed PG, one can only imagine the ruckus had it been released during the upheaval of 1970. Seen today (or juxtaposed with the 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” an investigation into the police killing of Chicago’s charismatic Panther leader), the title has a third meaning.

“Spook” may be a eulogy, but the most shocking thing about this unquiet movie is how relevant it remains.

The New York Film Festival runs through Oct. 11, largely online. For more details, go to filmlinc.org.

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