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Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

February 22, 2014

For part 1 of this ongoing series, begin here.

spook_who_sat_by_the_door_xlgGordon Parks’ The Learning Tree set the wheels in motion for black filmmakers everywhere to take advantage of the cinematic medium and create their own depictions of life. The 1970s gave way to an explosive, confrontational genre of film like no other before it: Blaxploitation. Starting with Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a daring, psychedelic story of a hustler turned hero, Blaxploitation broke the levee in cinema allowing dozens upon dozens of films that centralized on the struggle against a black hero and the system or “the man” to flood the market. Parks soon followed up his debut with the iconic film Shaft and shortly afterwards veteran actors Ossie Davis and Sidney Pointer began directing their own films. While empowering in its nature, Blaxploitation got its name from the often seen exploitative aspect of the genre that soon was controlled by white producers to make money.

Parks and Peebles were among the many black directors creating films with a desire to broaden the consciousness and will of the people. But, as the genre expanded even more white directors and producers began to take control by investing in films that told similar stories which usually always guaranteed a profit as this new market catered to fans in urban areas who were starved to see representations of their life and issues on screen. On the heels of the Civil Rights movement and at the cusp of the Black Power movement, “Hogan’s Heroes” television star Ivan Dixon adapted Sam Greenlee’s harrowing novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, for the screen. The novel alone was a daring social commentary on the problems of urban life and the rise of an intelligent black man to help spark the flame of fight. Nevertheless, Dixon’s eye for realism turns the story into an in-depth piece of social propaganda that not only showcases the need of guerrilla warfare in the fight for social justice, but calls on audiences to join in.


Dixon created a film that represents the frustration and anger held by blacks during the period who felt increasingly desolate about the abrupt end of leaders fighting for social justice. During a scene where our lead is heading a meeting with his radical black activists, the men joke about plantation films and the absurdities of how slavery was portrayed in them. The men jokingly act out a proud, defeated southern slave owner who relays to his befuddled “darkie” slave that the loss of war has granted him freedom to which the slave is willing to reject due to his devotion and dependence on his master. As the men laugh, they bring up that these films never mention whips, chains, or any of the other awful brutalities involved with subjugating human beings at the time. After laughing off the impromptu skit, Freeman responds, “you have just played out the American Dream. And now we’re going to turn it into a nightmare.”


Laurence Cook takes the reins playing a Dan Freeman, a social worker in one of Chicago’s heavily black populated districts. His path crosses with the Central Intelligence Agency when a white senator finds himself in fear of losing due to a 2% margin of the black vote. In order to have a scapegoat, thus increase his needed votes to win, the politician is swayed to accuse the CIA of a racially discriminatory hiring process. To avoid the negative press, the CIA decides to hire their first black Central Intelligence Agent. Of the 10 in the training process, only one stands above the rest, Freeman, whose ability to go unnoticed rivals his intelligence, passion, and hard work. Once he’s granted the position Freeman goes underground back in Chicago to recruit junkies, gang members and crooks to start a militant group looking to break the system and free urban blacks from the perpetual cycle of drug use, poverty, miseducation, and low status.

Dixon patiently tells his story in three parts. The first deals with the CIA’s training program,  the 2nd focuses on Freeman’s training of urban youth, and the last third centers around the fight they become involved in order to shake up the status quo through a series of expertly executed plans and motions. While a bit of the film tends to drag in parts, its strongest elements is Cook’s charming screen presence and Dixon’s engaging mode of storytelling keeps The Spook Who Sat by the Door is sharp and intriguing. A number of long shots and poised blocking flourish throughout the film making for photogenic sequences. Other times edits perfectly dissolve into another matched by body positioning as focal points. In one of the more powerful scenes of the film, Dixon captures the chaos of a riot that sparks after the death of a dealer. Through handheld camera Dixon forces viewers right into the outraged faces and fallen beaten bodies as they angrily protest police actions and destroy what they can in retaliation in a spine tingling five-minute scene.


Freeman’s intelligence and determination make him an admirable hero to follow and his ideals come across loud and clear bringing to life the spirit of Greenlee’s novel and Dixon’s adapted screenplay. What’s most interesting about The Spook Who Sat by the Door is its tenacity. It carries a bravado about itself that loudly challenges standard images and ideals of African Americans. The Spook Who Sat by the Door was rumored to have been the cause of a number of well-orchestrated robberies as well as having American government officials attempt to halt production. It was even the reason United Artist head, David Picker got fired. In the wake of murdered peace fighters Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the harsh treatment of Freedom Riders and black advocates, The Spook Who Sat by the Door retaliates by encompassing Freedom Fighters into its story who fight within the system and its stereotypes to bring about change. The Spook Who Sat by the Door pushes the message that education will be the freedom of blacks, both book and street smarts. It personifies the frustrations of the period into an interrogating, head on battle that sparks a war to make the change that peaceful cooperation historically couldn’t.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gede Prama permalink
    February 24, 2014 3:05 AM

    I am happy to read it. Have a beautiful day

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