Diversity and representation have long been a serious issue in the film industry, and 12 Years A Slave winning some Oscars hasn’t exactly changed that. Outside of that prestigious anomaly, people rarely imagine black film to be much more than gangster movies, cookout comedies, and Tyler Perry. Our very own Dominic Griffin will prove otherwise, shedding a light on unsung, underrated, forgotten and new films that show the breadth and versatility of the black voice in film. Named after one of Billy Dee Williams’ affectionate nicknames, this is Dark Gable Presents…
When I started this column, I put together something of a shortlist of titles I wanted to revisit or explore for the first time, and the first one I remember writing down was The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Having never seen it previously, my desire to cover the film for Deadshirt came from some combination of my love of spies, blaxploitation and triple-entendre laden titles. You may have noticed I skipped a week with this entry, largely because I just couldn’t find myself in the right mindset to sit through this film and write about it. Over the last several days, with everything going on in St. Louis and the mainstream media’s coverage of black strife, it was all I wanted to watch. Having seen the film now, I want nothing more than to make everyone in the world do the same.
Going into this viewing, the main thing I knew about Spook was the premise, which is pretty killer in terms of high concept pitches. Both the film and the Sam Greenlee novel it’s based on begin with the same hook: the CIA’s first African American agent leaves the agency to use everything he’s learned to train a militia of freedom fighters to revolt against White America. As gritty and socially relevant as the story is, that hook gives it a pulpy zest that is difficult to articulate. Many films from the blaxploitation era have this same sort of comic-booky zeitgeist to them, but Spook manages to transcend the confines of the genre, functioning as an action thriller, a subtly wry comedy, and a meditative exploration on the nature of revolution and the cost of waging a war. Imagine the last page of The Dark Knight Returns meets Shaft, written by Paddy Chayefsky and Paul Mooney.
Maybe the Batman comparison seems odd, until you meet Dan Freeman, our protagonist.
The first twenty or so minutes of Spook take their sweet time introducing us to our hero, utilizing a somewhat frustrating pace that wouldn’t fly in modern Hollywood, but serves to better set up the pressure cooker that is the film’s last act. Our story begins with a white senator being fed computer generated statistical analysis and voter polling information from his black assistant. She informs him that if the election were held today, he would lose, because the Negro voters weren’t on his side. His retort (“I’m the best friend the blacks have in Washington!”) is the first of many hilarious, straightly delivered lines of dialogue to be found. To curry favor from the black voters, the senator accuses of the CIA of discriminatory hiring practices, forcing the agency’s hand in openly recruiting black agents.
We’re treated to a montage of homogeneous, erudite, and non-threatening black candidates being put through the paces before we finally meet Dan Freeman, of similar build, complexion and demeanor as the so-called “Uncle Toms” in the running, but with a unique, implacable quality about him. He walks the walk and talks the talk of the unintimidating, ambitious office type the CIA is looking for, but his interactions with his peers and a particularly bigoted commanding officer only hint at the real Dan Freeman. Ultimately, he gets the gig, and is promoted to Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief. They let him run the photocopier.
We watch as Freeman settles into his new gig, making his boss happy and fitting in perfectly. These scenes almost feel like the sort of swerve-building prologues we’re often treated to in serial killer movies, building the same false sense of security with the audience that Freeman builds with his superiors. He spends five years with the agency, and then quietly resigns to go back to Chicago and take a job as a social worker. His boss buys this bit because it feeds into his own fantasy of Freeman, “one of the good ones,” going back home and taming his fellow blacks, rounding the square pegs to fit the round hole of the establishment.
When he makes it to Chicago, we begin to see what Freeman actually has planned. He checks in on old haunts and baits a local gang, The King Cobras, into a fight, so he has them as a captive audience. He harnesses their raw anger and passion and begins to build his army. In a brilliantly edited sequence that mirrors the earlier set piece with the CIA recruits, we watch Freeman show his new students martial arts, marksmanship, and the fine art of making explosives. He instills in them ideology and methods for enacting true change in their ecosystem, showing them how small their world really is and how much they’ve let outside forces control their destiny.
What truly sets this film apart, in my eyes, is that today, this film would slowly turn into a cautionary tale. Freeman would be eroded into a morally compromised villain and perhaps some nicer supporting character would learn from his militant folly and rise up to be the real hero we need, who eschews violence and extremist measures for higher minded, peaceable protesting. Maybe Idris Elba would play Freeman and his idealistic usurper would be Michael Ealy. Either way, the film would have to downplay the notion that the only way to change a broken system is to destroy it without prejudice and rebuild in its aftermath.
LOL NOT THIS FUCKING MOVIE
That entire first act of watching Freeman play Stepin Fetchit is worth the film’s uncompromising second half when we realize that at no point are the filmmakers going to betray their intentions or water down their message and that this film is decidedly pro-fucking shit up all the way into its open ended conclusion. The world we experience within the confines of the screen may be broadly drawn at times and perhaps paints a one-sided picture, but today, in 2014, I defy you to sit through the harrowing riot scenes as police bring dogs out on peaceful protesters and not feel even the slightest pang to join up with Freeman’s Freedom Fighters. In a world where unarmed black men continue to be gunned down for no discernible reason and any depiction of protest must be spun into some form of criminal activity, you can hardly blame a Dan Freeman for infiltrating the establishment and using their own methods against them.
This movie pulls zero punches. As the Freedom Fighters begin waging a literal war on the National Guard, who won’t leave downtown Chicago because of the rioting from earlier, Freeman’s men kidnap their colonel, paint him in minstrel black face and force feed him acid. In the next scene, he’s riding a bicycle through a war zone with a smiling Sambo visage in an undershirt and no pants. Moments after telling his confused men that he’s just met “the most interesting group of niggers” he is shot multiple times through the chest. It’s a bold, over the top piece of imagery that is both haunting, and, cruelly, completely hilarious.
Lawrence Cook’s performance as Dan Freeman is one of the most underrated turns I’ve ever seen on screen. Being unfamiliar with his work as an actor, the primary thing I noticed about him was the seething, quietly cutthroat intensity bubbling beneath his cool exterior. An easy comparison (albeit an odd one) would be James Spader’s current work on The Blacklist, but undiluted by hammy theatrics and unbridled scenery chewing. Cook’s Freeman is a fiercely intelligent, driven, and dedicated man whose spartan existence is in the singular pursuit of a war he feels personally responsible for fighting. You know, like Batman. Except if Freeman has to shoot somebody, he will. If he has to blow some shit up, he will. If he needs to slide a knife into his best friend’s rib to keep his operation running smoothly, he will.
These are all qualities rarely seen in a black protagonist on film. Any number of water cooler topic television series are fueled by men of this nature, generally played by middle aged white men whose indiscretions and moral failings are excused or rationalized as being “complex” or “fascinating.” It’s refreshing to see a film where the hero is an uncompromising black man never once painted as the villain, no matter how extreme his methods are. I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to disagree or disdain Freeman’s choices in this film, but the sheer fact that this film exists, and was released in 1973, is astonishing to me.
This isn’t some thrown together piece of exploitation, either. Director Ivan Dixon frames his shots sharply, and the film was edited by Michael Kahn, who Steven Spielberg has been working with for years. Also, the Herbie Hancock score is baller as all get out. Jazzy and staccato one minute, then tense and disorienting the next, it’s a master work.
Novelist Greenlee and co-writer Mel Clay craft some incredible passages of dialogue, poignant and memorable exchanges that stay with you long after the film has ended. Their portrait of Sam Freeman as a purist agent of change is unflinching and incredible to behold. Every person he comes into contact with is altered by his words or actions. Though I wish she was given more to do, Paula Kelly’s supporting role as an escort who transforms into a black nationalist with natural hair is a visually fascinating example of Freeman’s effect on his peers. Similarly, his friendship with Dawson, a cop, though besmirched by tragedy, reminds me of the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon, although that dramatic change with Paula Kelly is replaced by a frustrating stalemate between two men on either side of a line, neither willing, or able, to budge.
I myself have a difficult time reconciling some of the radical positions depicted here with my own personal beliefs, but with everything happening in the world today, after a solitary viewing, I am grateful to have my stance shaken, proud to have witnessed a piece of cinema so shocking and powerful that the FBI had to silence it for years. Being black in America means you can get choked out by police on video and be blamed for your own death. You can be walking down the street with a friend, posing no threat to anyone, and be shot until you no longer draw breath. If on the surface, the extreme measures Dan Freeman is willing to go to gain freedom for his people seem too harsh, just remember the world we live in. Sometimes it’s important to draw a line in the sand, and even moreso to stand on that line and remain unmoved.
Seek this film out, by any means necessary. I’m pretty sure it’s still up on YouTube.
If you have any films you would like to see covered in this column, hit us up on Twitter @DeadshirtDotNet and we’ll get them in front of Dom.