A movie thought suppressed for three decades has just emerged from the shadows, with an indirect assist from LaVergne-based Ingram Entertainment. Thanks to a partnership with an Ingram home-video subsidiary, Monarch Home Video, contemporary audiences will finally see the film version of the novel the Black Panthers once considered a playbook for urban warfare.
Seen today, The Spook Who Sat By the Door looks radical even by the standards of early-1970s Hollywood. Its studio, United Artists, must have thought it was getting a cheap, profitable entry in the cresting blaxploitation genre. While filming, the director, Ivan Dixon, an actor and TV veteran known for his role as Kinch on Hogan’s Heroes, reportedly showed the brass nothing but action scenes out of context. If that’s true, this stroke of subversion suits the movie’s by-any-means-necessary message.
The title of Dixon’s film refers to Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black CIA agent recruited to give the Agency a whiff of diversity. He completes his training without question, accepts menial tasks with a shit-eating grin, and dutifully trucks out for visiting white do-gooders, who exclaim on cue, “Now that’s affirmative action in progress!” What they don’t know is that Freeman is biding his time. When he checks out of the CIA (for social work, he tells his patronizing bosses, who nod and smile), he returns to his native Chicago and puts his government training to useby building and mobilizing a ghetto army to revolt against the very same government.
Strictly as moviemaking, The Spook Who Sat By the Door has plenty of flaws. It’s didactic, somewhat slow and stiffly staged, and it’s broadly and unevenly actedexcept by Cook, whose deep-cover Uncle Tom seethes with cold fury. Also, after watching an endless parade of ofay buffoons, bigots and monsters, a white viewer may get a clue how African Americans feel after a bellyful of The Birth of a Nation. Even so, as a satire of assimilation and an attack on the post-civil-rights entrenchment of institutional racism, the movie seems fresh as teeth marks. To start the revolution, Freeman’s commandos infiltrate the offices of the enemywhite Americadisguised as janitors and window washers, always ready with a smile. “A smiling black man,” Freeman explains, “is invisible.”
The nod to Ralph Ellison isn’t accidental. When the fighting starts, the army turns into invisible men, camouflaged in ninja black, unseen in plain sight by the police and National Guardsmen they slaughter. For that alone, the movie qualifies as genuine outlaw cinema. But The Spook Who Sat By the Door doesn’t just smash black-white taboos: It picks at scabs that Hollywood generally tried to ignore, such as tensions between light- and dark-skinned blacks. Where Undercover Brother tiptoed in the name of farce, more than a quarter-century after Dixon’s film, Spook goes marching in combat boots.
The Man didn’t hesitate to respond. In 1973, Spook was dumped in urban grindhouses for one-week runs: Filmmaker Robert Townsend recalls catching it in Chicago at the bottom of a triple bill. Dixon never directed a feature again. Rumor had the movie squelched by the government, and for 30 years it went largely unseen.
The turning point came when the source novel’s author, Sam Greenlee, who also co-wrote the screenplay, happened to meet the married actor-filmmaker team Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell-Reid at a conference last year. “He said he had the rights to the movie,” Maxwell-Reid says in a telephone interview, “but all he had was a bad VHS copy he’d been duping.”
With his wife, Reid, the former WKRP in Cincinnati star and director of Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored, owns New Millennium Studios, a production company headquartered in Virginia. One of its side ventures is Obsidian Home Entertainment, an outlet for video and theatrical distribution. Obsidian has a distribution deal with Monarch, a little-known branch of the Ingram conglomerate that specializes in indie features and low-budget genre films.
With the blessing of Greenlee and director Dixon, Obsidian obtained the rights to The Spook Who Sat By the Door and decided to digitally restore and remaster it for DVD release. There was one problem: no print. After a long search, Maxwell-Reid says, a print was finally located in a Los Angeles vault. Today, on DVD, the movie’s image and colors may well look even better than they did on its brief theatrical run. Maxwell-Reid says the movie will have a limited release in a few major markets, and Greenlee will speak at some of the screenings.
Still, it’s likely the disc will bring the movie its widest audience yet. The DVD just came out last Tuesday, in a single-disc special edition that includes an interview with the fiery Greenlee and columnist DeWayne Wickham, an appreciation by Hollywood Shuffle director Townsend, and trailers that only hint at the movie’s incendiary content. And then there’s the movie. It has waited patiently by the door for 30 years, waiting for just the right moment to touch flame to its fuse.
Also on DVD this week:
♦ If your bag is watching dead-meat campers succumb one by one to a flesh-destroying virus, Cabin Fever is the movie for you. In theaters last summer, the low-budget shocker was a hoot with a big audience, even if the fun of watching people decompose quickly palls. But the movie’s goodie-packed DVD qualifies as some kind of nutbrain gotta-see. Extras include a “family-friendly” cut of the movie (i.e., a minute of establishing shots cut to a drippy folk song) and five separate commentaries, with enthusiastic director Eli Roth showing off his splatter-movie erudition. But the real find is a trio of Roth’s “Rotten Fruit” shorts, indescribable claymation horror musicals that resemble a Herschell Gordon Lewis bloodbath starring the California Raisins. Who knew cherries bled cherry juice, and so copiously? Look for it everywherethe disc, not the juice.
♦ Up from Home Vision are three films by the incomparable Seijun Suzuki, the prolific Japanese stylist once fired by the Nikkatsu studio for making “incomprehensible” films. His elliptical yakuza dramas, as stylized as kabuki, have been scarce in this country, although their influence has found its way into films such as Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. Of the three, which include 1958’s Underworld Beauty and 1963’s Kanto Wanderer, the one to catch may be 1965’s Tattooed Life, the story of a renegade yakuza who seeks refuge in a rural mining village. It’s in splashy color and stunning ‘Scope, and it’s not as hard to follow as later Suzuki classics like Branded to Kill (if not as exhilaratingly bizarre). All three retail for $19.95.