Sam Greenlee’s classic novel “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” originally couldn’t get published in the U.S. for a completely understandable reason. It was the riot-torn, late ’60s and no one in the business was going to touch a viable blueprint for defeating the occupation army of police departments subjugating urban Black America. Not with a 10-foot pole.
So, in 1968, Greenlee took it to England where, within a year, the book that otherwise would never have seen the light of day in the U.S. was a hit and eventually translated into French, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Finnish, Swedish, and German. When it was released in the States, critics ignored it. But Dick Gregory called it, “an important, original, nitty-gritty book.”
Donald Trump can’t possibly know it exists or every copy would’ve been rounded up and burned by now. It’s a frank, fluidly penned story that, in the tumultuous aftermath of George Floyd’s death, could have been written this morning.
Dan Freeman disciplines Chicago street gangs into an organized guerrilla fighting force that, instead of warring with each other, takes it to the real enemy with hit-and-run tactics that grow so successful in battle the operation expands to other major cities.
With armed revolt in effect, authorities call in the National Guard, which has about the same results as the U.S. did in trying to defeat the North Vietnamese on their home terrain.
The objective for Freeman was never to actually beat the enemy, but to outwit and consistently thwart everything they threw and him and his resistance fighters to the extent that the government was so tied up contending with this national crisis it was forced to come to the table and do something about rectifying the conditions of Black life.
In 1973, television actor Ivan Dixon (“Hogan’s Heroes”) directed a film version starring film-television veterans Lawrence Cook, Paula Kelly and J. A. Preston. It was a modest, sharply crafted production that, thanks to the characters and action being brought to immediate life, was even more powerful than the novel and just as disturbing to the establishment.
It had to be shot mostly in Gary, Indiana, because Chicago Mayor Richard Daley refused to have it filmed in Chicago. The movie was little better received than the book. In fact, the distributor, United Artists, gave it negligible support, censoring promotional trailers to make it look more like so-called Blaxploitation flicks of the day than a serious drama with a profound message.
Not long after being released U.A. yanked it from theaters and, for decades, if you hadn’t caught it at the movie house, you missed out unless you lucked up on a bootleg video.
That is until 2004, when actor-director Tim Reid, best known for cutting up as Venus Flytrap on the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” and directing “Once Upon A Time…When We Were Colored,” tracked it down and released it on DVD, where it’s available today through Monarch Home Entertainment.
Robert Townsend is quoted in the liner notes: “It changed my life…I love this film.” In 2012, it was added to the National Film Registry, which selects 25 films each year that it deems culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. Without question ‘Spook’ is all three.
“One of the things I was saying with that book,” Greenlee reflected, “is that gangs could become the protectors of the community rather than predators.” He also stated, “The purpose of the film was to encourage Blacks to create an action plan to ‘survive in the belly of the beast,’ rather than always reacting as victims of a racist society.”
To this day, the premise remains dangerously threatening, a feasible means of bringing White supremacist America to heel. All that’s missing is a Dan Freeman. Aubrey Lewis, one of the FBI’s first Black agents recruited to the Bureau in 1962, imparted to Sam Greenlee that “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was required reading at the FBI Academy.
That’s how dangerous it was and still is.