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You Really Wanna Mess With Whitey?

February 9th, 2011 · 1 Comment

Promoting I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988, Steve James, who appeared as “Kung Fu Joe” in the blaxploitation spoof, commented: “I always hated that label ‘blaxploitation.’ I wondered, why couldn’t there just be films with black stars? You know, you’d go around the corner from a theater showing one of them, and there’d be Dirty Harry. And nobody was calling it ‘whitesploitation.'” Right on, Steve! So in February, I’ll take a look at ten films featuring black stars from a certain era.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973)
Directed by Ivan Dixon
Screenplay by Sam Greenlee and Mel Clay, based on the novel by Sam Greenlee
Produced by Ivan Dixon, Sam Greenlee
102 minutes

Any trip through “blaxploitation” would be missing something without The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Written in 1966 and published in 1969, Sam Greenlee‘s political thriller notched 1.5 million copies sold. The author went into business with Ivan Dixon, an actor and television director who’d gunned his way into features with Trouble Man in 1972. Greenlee & Dixon’s plan to finance and distribute the film independently stalled when black investors proved scarce; Greenlee’s attorney put up roughly $800,000 to get cameras rolling and United Artists acquired distribution rights, contributing $200,000 in completion bonds. Yanked from release by exhibitors fearful that the movie would spark revolution in theater lobbies across America, The Spook Who Sat By The Door went underground for almost 30 years.

In 2000, actor/producers Tim and Daphne Reid offered to distribute the cult classic on DVD through their Obsidian Home Entertainment. Fitting to Greenlee’s fantasy of America’s ghetto masses mobilizing into a resistance movement, The Spook Who Sat By The Door is hard hat wearing, metal lunchbox swinging independent filmmaking at its finest, a professional piece of work that makes up for what it lacks in budget with ample amounts of backbone. The material goes easy on the sermonizing to settle into a potent blend of social drama, character study and espionage thriller. Lawrence Cook is exceptionally well cast in the lead, soft spoken and scholarly, highly motivated and lethal, a militant Jack Ryan. Herbie Hancock composed a musical score that’s as durable, spartan and means-business as the movie.

Running a tight reelection campaign, a U.S. senator opts to raise his profile among urban voters by appointing a token black agent to the Central Intelligence Agency. One promising finalist appears to be Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), ostracized by his classmates for studying too much and initially overlooked by management due to his habit of fading into the woodwork. But Freeman’s physical, intellectual and personal assets match what the CIA is looking for and he wins the spot. Freeman spends five dutiful years in a sub-basement toiling as a document “reproduction section chief”, growing estranged from his childhood love, a social worker (Janet League) who wants to get married and start a family. Instead, Freeman resigns his position as the first black spy to return home to Chicago, ostensibly to become a social worker.

Freeman makes contact with the leadership of a street gang he ran with as a teenager. Unimpressed with the gang’s puny resistance against the pigs, Freeman drills the hoodlums in guerilla warfare tactics, from building explosives, to organization, to how to rip off the enemy (“Remember, a black man with a mop, tray or broom in his hand can go damn near anywhere in this country, and a smiling black man is invisible.”) Freeman connects with an ex-hoodlum turned cop (J.A. Preston) he hopes to flip to their cause, as well as a D.C. prostitute Freeman dubs “Dahomey Queen” (Paula Kelly) who becomes a crucial source of information. The Black Freedom Fighters of North America find their plans for armed resistance rushed into the field when Chicago police shoot a dope peddler, striking the match for rebellion.

What do you say?

Tags: Alternate universe · Based on novel · Blaxploitation · Crooked officer · Cult favorite · Famous line · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist · Interrogation · Man vs. machine · Master and pupil · Military · Prostitute

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Edward B. // Apr 24, 2012 at 3:38 am

    I had the chance to see this movie, really good one, recommended to all.

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