February 26, 2017

Blacksploitation: The Spook Who Sat by the Door

You could easily argue us out of categorizing this as a straight up Blacksploitation movie. But if you did, you'd still have to admit that the filmmakers utilized elements from the genre to disguise their subject matter. Either way you look at it, the elements of this film fit the genre, and this becomes a singularly significant (an excellent) Blacksploitation film that deserves a larger audience.

The plot unfolds something like this: The CIA has decided it needs to diversify, so they set about hiring their first Black agent. And although they have no intention of actually hiring any of the candidates, they're putting on quite the show running the 100 or so men through basic training and everything. But this is the exact kind of opportunity Dan Freeman has been waiting for, and he is absolutely ready to seize it. He alienates the other candidates and presses forward in the perfect balance to genuinely impresses the white recruiters, eventually earning him the job that was never actually on the table. And the CIA has exactly what they needed: a token Black man. They stick him in the basement making copies and trot him out to anyone they need to impress with their diversity. Freeman plays the token roll for a few years before abruptly announcing his departure from the agency to pursue other opportunities. No one bats an eye. Now it's Freeman who has exactly what he needed this whole time: the keys to overthrowing the kingdom. All he needs now is foot soldiers, and he knows just where to start. He hits his old neighborhood in Chicago and starts convincing local hoodlums who already fight for nothing, to start fighting for something. It doesn't take long before has an army who's armed, loyal, covert, and trained in the same methods as CIA operatives themselves. They'll never see them coming.

The best parts: The direction in this film solidifies our wish that Ivan Dixon had directed more films. He implements some directing tricks that are not easy to effectively use, and he does so flawlessly. It makes us ill to think what he could have done with a solid script. The acting in this film is also really solid, there's no ham-fisted performances glued together with action and wardrobe, everyone delivers a genuine performance and most are fantastic. The cinematography and editing are fantastic as well, especially during an effectively realistic, and pretty long, riot scene. Really it's a movie with only one glaring flaw.

The only problem: We watched this movie, with it's epic story, interesting action, surprisingly realistic riot scene, superb direction and dynamic acting, and yet something major was not gelling. Honestly, we're used to watching movies that are bad in really easily identifiable ways, so this one was a conundrum for us, explicitly because it worked on almost every level. It wasn't until we'd had lot of discussion about it that we realized the problem: every single character was written as a hollow representation of a person. Characters do change over the course of the film, but they have almost no arcs or deep emotional revelations because of that change. (Or if they do, we don't get to see it on screen.) That might work in certain kinds of films, but The Spook Who Sat by the Door is presented as a deadly-serious drama that is incidentally heavy on the purely entertaining elements, in this instance it just makes the film feel off balance. It might be the very first time we've encountered this as the only flaw in a film that is otherwise very enjoyable. 

Pulled from theaters: This is the second movie we've covered in this theme that was pulled from theaters after it's release. This movie was pulled for a very different reason; it was viewed as being genuinely dangerous. When people talk about it now, they often say this movie was basically a DIY guide to overthrowing a government, but that's kind of overstating the content of the film. Never the less, the only reason you can watch this film now is because someone had stashed away a copy and mislabeled it, so it escaped destruction. Seriously, that's how much someone didn't want this film seen. 

Not a guide exactly: No mistake, this is a pretty solid primer on what gorilla insurgencies looks like, but it's far from a DIY guide. (I mean, unless you're able to get a job in the CIA, then it kind of is...) But if we're talking about overthrowing a government with the landmass and military power as ours, it's a far cry from a how-to movie. But it is full of interesting perspective that's presented in a way that connects big ideas. And that's something that the powers that be absolutely Do. Not. Want., and that's the number one reason you should watch it.

Cast and crew: This film started as an independent production, therefor was able to have a much more diverse crew (because studios weren't trying to staff the crew from the start). Notable on the crew side of this production: Ivan Dixon directing & producing, Sam Greenlee writing & producing, and Cheryal Kearney decorating set. Notable cast members include a young Paula Kelly, J.A. Preston, and of course Lawrence Cook. There's also a notable white guy on this one, Michael Kahn editing. (Side note: researching the crews of these films has taken loads of time, and LOADS of guessing/taking peoples word for things in interviews, so if you're reading this and have additional info on the crews that fall under this theme, I would L-O-V-E to hear about it in the comments.)

As big as it's one flaw is, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is otherwise a really great movie and we truly recommend it. And you can watch it on youtube! See how good it is for yourself:

*Total tangent, analyzing this movie unlocked the final piece of why I hated Fear no Evil so much. That was a movie that failed on every. single. level. and I will never forgive it.

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