The Spook Who Sat By The Door

1973, Movie, PG, 102 mins

Review

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Magnifying the elements that made SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971) a cause celebre, THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is as racially divisive as any film ever made. Unabashedly bigoted, stridently hateful, it wants to be incendiary and controversial, but only manages thuggish and dull.

Forced by public pressure to solicit black agents, the CIA strives to disqualify and discourage all applicants, but Dan Freeman (Larry Cook) makes it through training and promptly gets assigned to the copy room in the sub-basement. After five years of menial work as the token minority employee, he quits and heads to Chicago, ostensibly to become a social worker, but actually to recruit black hoodlums off the streets and train them to overthrow the white power structure. Stealing heavy weaponry, they send emissaries to other cities to train local recruits for an all-out race war. When a black pusher is killed by the Chicago police, riots ensue and Freeman's trainees, the Cobras, wage guerrilla war on the streets. Freeman's former girlfriend suspects his involvement and tips off her policeman husband, Freeman's longtime buddy Dawson (J.A. Preston). A confrontation between the two men leads to Dawson's death, after which Freeman explains to the Cobras that nobody "black or white" can stand in their way and live. Meanwhile on TV, a reporter announces uprisings in eight other cities and a state of national emergency.

It's typical of the film's heavy-handedness that the hero is named Freeman. "You really want to mess with whitey?" he asks the gang members who initially come to chase him away, thinking he's a do-good social worker. "I can show you how." This includes kidnapping the Colonel of the National Guard, painting him in blackface, dosing him with LSD and sending the grinning man riding a bicycle in his underwear back to his troops. Then--lest anyone think this is simply lame satire--he is killed him with a sniper shot for good measure.

In the early stages of the film, Freeman shares his favors with a cultured girlfriend in Chicago as well as a prostitute in Washington, suggesting some amount of texture to his character. But the moral ambiguity of his relationships is completely ignored in favor of using them as leaden plot devices. The girlfriend leaves him to marry one of her other boyfriends, a professional man, and winds up betraying Freeman in the end. The prostitute (who is nameless in the film but credited in the cast list as "Dahomey Queen" because she reminds Freeman of African royalty) winds up warning Freeman of a plot against him. The overall message apparently is that success equals betrayal of one's roots, while prostitution and street crime are noble pursuits.

Based on Sam Greenlee's cult novel--a popular read among inner-city blacks--and co-scripted by Greenlee, the film's dialogue is dopey, the acting flat, the nighttime heist scenes too dark to see what's going on, the riot scenes without any sense of excitement or danger, the fights pathetically staged and shot. It's a measure of the filmmakers' ineptitude that with a premise so blatantly contentious, at no point does the viewer care about any single character, either positively or negatively. All are cardboard. Surprisingly, Larry (aka Larry) Cook went on to win the best actor award at the Third World Film Festival.

Director Ivan Dixon began acting on stage in the 1950s before appearing in several milestone films with African-American casts (A RAISIN IN THE SUN, A PATCH OF BLUE, PORGY AND BESS, SOMETHING OF VALUE), taking the lead role in the social drama NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964). Throughout the 1960s, he worked extensively in television as well, eventually turning his hand to directing episodes of the early black series, "The Bill Cosby Show" and "Julia." In later years, he split his time between acting and directing for TV, with occasional forays into cinema (including the blaxploitation film TROUBLE MAN, which he directed in 1972). But despite his seminal work in black media, he is most remembered for the character Kinchloe, whom he played for five years on the TV show "Hogan's Heroes." (Violence, adult situations, substance abuse, profanity.) leave a comment

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