The Spook Who Sat by the Door (film)

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The Spook Who Sat By The Door
Spook Who Sat by the Door 1973.jpg
1973 movie poster
Directed by Ivan Dixon
Produced by Ivan Dixon
Sam Greenlee
Written by screenplay by
Melvin Clay
Sam Greenlee
based on the novel by
Sam Greenlee
Starring Lawrence Cook
Paula Kelly
Janet League
J.A. Preston
David Lemieux
Music by Herbie Hancock
Cinematography Michel Hugo
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates September 21, 1973
Running time 102 min.
Country USA
Language English

The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a 1973 film based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Sam Greenlee. It is both a satire of the civil rights struggle in the United States of the late 1960s and a serious attempt to focus on the issue of black militancy. Dan Freeman, the titular protagonist, is enlisted in the Central Intelligence Agency's elitist espionage program as its token black. Upon mastering agency tactics, however, he drops out to train young Chicago blacks as "Freedom Fighters." As a story of one man's reaction to ruling-class hypocrisy, the film is loosely autobiographical and personal.[1][2]

The novel and the film also dramatize the CIA's history of giving training to persons and/or groups who later utilize their specialized intelligence training against the agency.

In 2012, the film was added to the National Film Registry.[3] The soundtrack of the film was composed by Herbie Hancock.[4]


The story takes place in the early 1970s in Chicago. The CIA has been required for political reasons to recruit African Americans for training. Only one of them, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), secretly a black nationalist, successfully completes the training process. He becomes the first black man in the agency and is given a desk job—Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief (which means he's in charge of the copy machine). Freeman understands that he is the token black person in the CIA, and that the CIA defines his function as providing proof of the agency's supposed commitment to integration and progress. Therefore, after completing his training in guerrilla warfare techniques, weaponry, communications and subversion, Freeman puts in just enough time to avoid raising any suspicions about his motives before he resigns from the CIA and returns to work in the social services in Chicago.

Upon his return, Freeman immediately begins recruiting young black men living in the inner city of Chicago to become “Freedom Fighters” teaching them all of the guerrilla warfare tactics that he learned from the CIA. They become a guerrilla group with Freeman as the secret leader. The “Freedom Fighters” set out to ensure that black people truly live freely within the United States by partaking in both violent and non-violent actions throughout Chicago. The “Freedom Fighters” of Chicago begin spreading the word about their guerrilla warfare tactics across the United States; as Freeman says, “What we got now is a colony, what we want is a new nation.” As revolt and a war of liberation continues in the inner city of Chicago, the National Guard and the police desperately try to stop the “freedom fighters.”

The film provides discussions about black militancy and the violent reactions that took place by white America in response to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement.

Historical context[edit]

The political atmosphere in the United States during the time of the book's publication was particularly contentious as civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements became visible in the public sphere. Tim Reid, whose company helped to release Spook on DVD, said to the Los Angeles Times in 2004: "When you look back at the times...Martin Luther King was assassinated, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. Black people were really angry and frustrated; we were tired of seeing our leaders killed. What do we do? Do we have a revolution? There is nothing that comes close to this movie in terms of black radicalism."[5] Reid notes how Spook served as a reactionary piece in the way that it addressed the feelings of black people during the late sixties and early seventies. Soon after its release, with the facilitation of F.B.I. suppression, The Spook Who Sat By the Door was removed from theaters as a result of its politically controversial message. Prior to its release on DVD in 2004, it was a relatively difficult film to get. In a 2004 feature for NPR, Karen Bates reported that the director of the film, Ivan Dixon, admitted that United Artists would not show the film in a way that would allow its political message to come through when clips were viewed prior to the film’s public release. “Dixon says when United Artists screened the finished product and saw a Panavision version of political Armageddon, they were stunned”.[6] Perhaps it is a testament to the powerful message of the film that it was deemed potentially too influential, as if the film would encourage black people to militantly rebel against the white power structure.[citation needed]

Critical reception[edit]

Film critics agree that The Spook Who Sat By the Door is a significant movie in that it presents a highly politically charged vision of black people. In a review for Philadelphia City Paper, Sam Adams recognizes the importance of Spook’s questioning of politics and race in America, despite some other technical weaknesses. Adams writes: “the movie's sly polemicism has arguably aged better than the revolutionary rhetoric that inspired it.” In this way, although the film’s militant messages are not necessarily applicable today, its controversial questioning of politics and race is still significant. Adams also notes the conflict within Spook in its use of stereotypical imagery along with its revolutionary political message: “Hailed as a landmark and denounced as racist, 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' is, at the very least, still worth arguing over”.[7] Similarly, Vincent Canby’s 1973 review of the film for The New York Times notes the film’s use of stereotypes in order to convey the message at the heart of it: “The rage it projects is real, even though the means by which that rage is projected are stereotypes. Black as well as white”.[8] Canby also notes the difficulty he had with reviewing the film in that, although it is not technically impressive or innovative, its political and racial significance is not to be underestimated or dismissed. “...'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' is a difficult work to judge coherently. It is such a mixture of passion, humor, hindsight, prophecy, prejudice and reaction that the fact that it's not a very well-made movie, and is seldom convincing as melodrama, is almost beside the point”.[9]


The title refers to a practice in the early days of affirmative action, when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would be seated close to the office entrance, so that all who came and went could see that the company was racially mixed. The word "Spook" in the title has a dual meaning: it is used as a racial slur against Blacks, as well as a slang term for a spy.[10] The same dual meaning plays a role in the plot of the 2000 Philip Roth novel The Human Stain as well as in the film made after the book.



  1. ^ "DVD Reviews: Spook Who Sat By the Door". DVD Talk (Monarch // PG //). January 27, 2004. 
  2. ^ Fuchs, Cynthia, PopMatters Film and TV Editor (29 March 2004). "The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973)". PopMatters. 
  3. ^ King, Susan (December 19, 2012). "National Film Registry selects 25 films for preservation". Los Angeles Times. 
  4. ^ "Herbie Hancock – The Spook Who Sat By The Door", discogs.
  5. ^ Beale, Lewis (Feb 28, 2004). "‘Spook’ unearths a radical time capsule of a movie; Pulled from theaters but now on DVD, the 1973 film imagines a black political revolution in the blaxploitation era". The Los Angeles Times. 
  6. ^ Bates, Karen (March 2, 2004). "Profile: Importance of the Movie 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' on the release of a 30th anniversary DVD". All Things Considered (Washington, D.C.: NPR). 
  7. ^ Adams, Sam (July 1–7, 2004). "Review: The Spook Who Sat By the Door". Philadelphia City Paper. 
  8. ^ Canby, Vincent (September 22, 1973). "Using the CIA: Ex-Agent Is Spook Who Sat By The Door". The New York Times. p. 18. 
  9. ^ Canby, Vincent (March 29, 2004). "Movie Review: The Spook Who Sat By the Door". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ William L. Andrews; Frances Smith Foster; Trudier Harris, eds. (2001). The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 376. ISBN 978-0-19-803175-8. 

Additional reading[edit]

  • Joiner, Lottie L. “After 30 years, a Controversial Film Re-Emerges.” The Crisis, November/December 2003: 41.
  • Peavy, Charles D. “Four Black Revolutionary Novels, 1899-1970.” Journal of Black Studies 1 (December 1970): 219-223.

External links[edit]