Friday, July 29, 2011

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Holy fuck! This is the real deal shit- a movie that absolutely pulls no punches. Nine times out of ten when you see a trailer that makes a movie look uncompromising, you finally watch the movie and find it wimps out by about the second act. But The Spook that Sat by the Door is so uncompromising that United Artists actually had it pulled from theatres shortly after its release claiming it was too politically sensitive and it wasn't seen again for about thirty years. Rumor has it the FBI strongly suggested they pull the film, which was doing quite well, from release. For once, I believe the rumors.

I've said before that what's missing from neo-grindhouse movies is the political subtext of the 60s and 70s. Those old movies were made by people who were outside of and often pretty angry at the establishment- they were trying to say something- while fanboys are usually apolitical and uninterested in the world outside of film. This movie is a prime example of what I'm talking about- it became a cult classic largely because it's extremely, even frighteningly radical. You couldn't make a movie like this today, partly because of the production/distribution system, sure; but also because nobody today has the sort of consciousness required to think something like this up. Instead, we get something like Machete that isn't entirely sure what it's about.

One of the brilliant touches of the film is how it plays off of and subverts your expectations. We're introduced to Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a token black candidate for the CIA training program who, for at least the first third of the movie seems to be struggling earnestly to make it in a white man's world. There are some very sharp observations here about black assimilation and we find it very easy to wonder if Freeman hasn't deluded himself about the reality of racism in the CIA. He's clearly the token- the spook who's sat by the door to impress newcomers with the 'integration' going on- and the film leads us to believe that he'll struggle to prove himself in the institution. I've read reviews that say it's clear from the start that he's a 'black nationalist' but it wasn't to me.

In the next act, he returns to Chicago after a fruitless tenure in a meaningless government sinecure to help the inner city black community. The initial implication is that he's going to found a community center of some sort, but when he hears some young kids talking about black militancy in a pool hall, he offers to teach them real tactics of guerrilla warfare to use against the white authorities. Then he founds a militant group, the Black Freedom Fighters, and teaches them all of the dirty tricks and paramilitary maneuvers he learned from the CIA! In the third act, they wage war against the National Guard and the police, blow up the Mayor's office, dose a General with LSD, paint him in black face and assassinate him, and the film ends with a black terrorist revolution consuming the inner cities of America! There is no cop out to speak of.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door is clearly a reaction to the deep frustrations of the black community in the early 70s, when the most important black leaders were being killed. At the time, a revolution seemed imminent. Does its message of revolution resonate today? It's hard to say. Does the movie work as more than a political pamphlet? Not entirely. Freeman is more a cipher than a character. Is he angered by his time in the government bureaucracy, or does he begin with dreams of revolution? Is he flawed or heroic? The film doesn't give him many dimensions and, by comparison, gives most of the supporting characters even less. But it's still bracing and somewhat exhilarating to watch. So many action and exploitation movies promise to blow your mind. This one does.

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