Tuesday, February 16, 2010

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) - Ivan Dixon


The Spook Who Sat By the Door is the Anarchist's Cookbook of blaxploitation movies, a powder keg of political filmmaking hiding out in genre clothes, much like its CIA desk jockey-turned-militant black revolutionary main character. I hesitate to call Spook a blaxploitation flick in fear of associating it with its fun but frivolous Afros and bell bottoms genre brethren, those usually directed by white TV directors. Spook is much, much savvier than that. It delves deeper into race politics, the double-edged sword of using militant force to achieve freedom ends, the double and triple roles African-Americans often have to play in a predominantly white society. It's directed by a black man within the system (using United Artists money no less).

Spook starts on a deeply cynical though ingenious note -- an opportunist white politician in need of black votes decides to publicly chide the CIA for having no black recruits. In response, the old boy network reluctantly institutes an equal opportunity hiring spree within Langley's walls. Hiding out within that batch of recruits is Dan Freeman (a superb Lawrence Cook), a seemingly mild-mannered college grad/social worker great at blending unnoticed into the white walls of power and being what his fellow recruits call an "Uncle Tom." But little does anyone know that Freeman is a guerilla revolutionary in waiting, quietly collecting the skills and strategies to use the white man's own methods against him in a multi-tiered streetwide insurgency back in his hometown of Chicago. Even his old girlfriend and college chum (now turned cop) don't suspect him.

It's easy to see why Spook was buried and banned from distribution for so many years. Apart from its incendiary title (a racially-charged play on the slang for a CIA op), it's practically a primer on how to start an inner-city race war. Spook may be shot like a cheap exploitation film (you can see the boom shadow in many shots), but its writing and direction is all detail, bubbling over with ideas about identity, assimilation and revolution from within. Apparently, the director Ivan Dixon (best known heretofore as "the black guy on Hogan's Heroes") tapped into some very personal feelings after working years in the goofy shadow of auto-focused Bob Crane. A good thing, because it resulted in one Molotov cocktail of a movie, the best genre movie I've seen in quite a while.

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