When a senator desperate for re-election discovers he is going to lose, he decides to garner black votes by accusing the CIA of racism and segregation. The result is the CIA recruitment of their first black spy – a concession held with contempt by those in the organization, who are under the belief that none of the recruits will pass the rigorous tests. But one recruit, the quiet, unassuming Dan Freeman (Larry Cook) slips through cracks, becoming the first black agent in the CIA. Assigned to the third sub-basement, Freeman is given the thankless task of running the photocopy machine, until one day he is asked to give a group of visiting politicians a guided tour of headquarters. This leads to a promotion that finds Freeman with a desk at the front office, making him the first person anyone sees when entering the CIA building – a token symbol of desegregation. He is the spook – a slang term for CIA agents, as well as a racial slur for black people – who sits by the door.
After five years of playing the role of a dutiful Uncle Tom, Freeman leaves the CIA for a high paying position as a social worker in his hometown of Chicago. To his former bosses and those around him, he has the difficult task of working with the King Cobras, a notoriously violent street gang. But Freeman has a hidden agenda. He is secretly training the Cobras in counter intelligence and guerilla warfare. Freeman's ultimate goal is set up a nationwide army of black revolutionaries that will rise up and liberate black America. And when Chicago police shoot and kill a two-bit dope dealer, it sets of a riot, that Freeman and his army use to launch their bid for freedom.
As a film, The Spook remains incredibly faithful to the source material; and as such, it can become very frightening in its implications. Both the book and the film vividly show the beginning of a race war many people thought was imminent during the late sixties and early seventies. So it really should come as no surprise, that the film was met with mixed reactions. It came out in 1973, receiving mixed reviews, but pulling in record box office totals. Inner-city theatres in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Oakland filled to capacity while people lined up around the block to see the film. And then, after less than three weeks, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was pulled from theatres, and mysteriously disappeared. Both Greenlee and director Ivan Dixon assert the removal of Spook from theaters was a result of FBI pressure on the distributor, claiming the movie would incite race riots. Given the FBI's tactics and reasoning with COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), such a theory is not all that far fetched.
After being pulled from theatres, The Spook Who Sat by the Door vanished, until it began to resurface a decade later, showing up on poor quality video bootlegs. The DVD release of The Spook – courtesy of filmmaker Tim Reid – features a beautiful digital remastering from the original camera negative. After years of murky color and terrible sound, the film looks and sounds infinitely better. Of course, it is still rough around some of the edges, but that has more to do with the low budget constraints than it does the image transfer.
The DVD also features a brief video commentary by filmmaker Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle), who waxes rhapsodic about seeing the film as a teenager in Chicago. "The Spook Who Sat by the Door changed my life", says Townsend, who goes on to recount how much the movie meant to him, as a teenager, as a filmmaker, and as a black man. The disc also features an interview with Sam Greenlee, who co-wrote the script and co-produced the film. Short of a sadly missing audio commentary, Greenlee's interview offers more background on The Spook Who Sat by the Door than anything that has ever been written about the film.
After over thirty, the Spook Who Sat by the Door remains a provocative film. What is terrifying now, however, is not the message of revolution or the fist-in-the-air polemics – which may seem dated to some – but how much the racism the film attacks still remains in this country. Contrary to what many people thought at the time, the film was not about hating or killing white people. "This is not about 'hate white folks'", says Freeman at one point in the movie. "This is about loving freedom enough to die or kill for it if need be."
It is that sentiment that makes The Spook Who Sat by the Door as important now, as it was back then.