A Subversive Pedagogy

thespookwhosatbythedoor

(versão em português aqui)

Released in 1973 at the peak of Blaxploitation era, The Spook Who Sat by the Door may at first suggest one of the many established genres variations that were popular during the cycle, but it is not a satire of spy movies, even if it openly plays with elements of the genre for subversive purposes.In fact, The Spook Who Sat By the Door’s premise cannot be more delicious: a senator looking for a good electoral theme decides that the CIA has no black agent and the agency is obliged to make an affirmative hiring, the winner. spends five years there as an unremarked ghost, and after leaving the government, he uses his agency skills to begin a Black uprising.

It is easy to understand why the film remains relatively little known even if its reputation was considerably restored over the past decade.It’s not quite a Blaxploitation movie, its protagonist Lawrence Cook is not Fred Williamson, and the film asks him to play an unseductive infiltration and insurrection brain and the talent behind the camera does not inspire auteurist appreciations (interestingly co-editor Michael Kahn would eventually become Steven Spielberg’s chief editor).Director Ivan Dixon began his career as an actor (he was the black soldier in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes) and later  directed a lot of television.I saw Dixon’s only other feature film Trouble Man a good Dashiel Hammett inspired private eye movie adapted to the realities of Black Americans.An above-average Blaxploitation film, but well within the genre and one that is remembered today mostly for Marvin Gaye’s great score (Herbie Hancock composed Spook’s, but it’s not one of his most impressive works).The film’s main creative force was probably Sam Greenlee, author of the original novel, co-screenwriter and producer, but his name only catches the eye among those with an interest in radical African-American art.

What it lacks in cinephile credentials it more than make up on subversive ones: with Chicago exteriors shot guerrilla-style after City Hall denied a shooting permit (most of it was done in Indiana), one of its supporting actors (David Lemieux) was a Black Panther and the film was hastily removed from theatres on under explained situation (Greenlee insists that the FBI put pressure on exhibitors). It’s a movie that ends with the US president declaring a state of emergency and includes several sequences in which methods of subversion are discussed. The original back cover of Greenlee’s novel read “Your city is in the sight of a weapon so powerful you can’t escape its best, a weapon loaded with 300 years’ worth of hate and hostile neglect. The weapon—a united Black America. This is the story of what could happen when the weapon strikes—it could happen before you finish the book!””.

This is not a discreet movie (its main character is called Dan Freeman), but it is notable for its patience.We follow every step of Freeman’s entry into the agency and then stay with him as he gets put into the most unimportant bureaucratic work possible.At first we do not even know that Dan is the lead, his discretion is so characteristic that he goes unnoticed among the candidates.Dixon, Greenlee, and Cook are very adept at describing the ways in which Freeman’s colleagues underestimate him and offend him in both passive or aggressive ways.The first half of the movie is one long and justifiable resentment pressure-cooker.

As a good revolutionary film, The Spook Who Sat By The Door has an emphasis on didacticism.Pedagogy is written in its logic.Many of the early sequences focus on direct lessons of espionage and indirect ones on the order of white supremacism in which the agency is very established on.In the midsection we often see Cook teaching his young recruits on the ways of insurrection without any safety net.We keep waiting for the moment when the movie will pull the brakes and suggest that the violent intervention is too much, but it never comes (on the contrary The Spook Who Sat by the Door clearly considers the civil rights movement insufficiently revolutionary).Dixon draws a good contrast between Freeman’s classes at the hands of the FBI and the tone he adopts with his would-be revolutionary candidates drawn mostly from local gangs.One of Freeman’s teachings: Black man is a great spy because as long as he takes on the role of a junior employee as a janitor he has free access to any area.

It is a rather angry film, but not without its bitter humor based on the certainty that the Blacks will always be underestimated by the White man (and there is also no claims to allies here).The film has a good domain of caricature and a little like, for example, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s movies, it knows how to specify a truth in what might on the surface seem as just too much.The scenes at the CIA are full of those moments.There is a recurring joke that Freeman’s superiors only respect Blacks’ physical prowess, while the movie always reinforces that it is the story of a very intelligent man (at one point, Freeman plans a complicated bank robbery designed to finance subversive activities with the certainty that police will credit it to whites).Dixon is quite adept at extracting humor from racist ignorance without reducing the threat these characters’ pose, their stupidity only makes them even more dangerous and uglier.

The movie makes the most of Greenlee’s big find: the subversion of the CIA’s subversive handbook.The novelist himself worked in US foreign service in the 1950s, especially in the Middle East (Pakistan, Iraq).One never doubts about seeing imperialist logic being turned upside down.Freeman’s infiltration stems from this desire to absorb all the logic used to subvert the undesirable and to take it back into the mainstream US.A swallowing of the structures that sustain supremacy.The find within the find: by bringing this idea to its logic conclusion. the film reinforces how for the poor Black American the United States is just a different version of the Third World. Slavery was one of the basis of colonialism. The Spook Who Sat By the Door is very aware of class distinctions.It is a movie certain that the equality achievements of the previous decade were far truer for some than for others.The last finding: the certainty that there’s no reconciled way out for American segregation.

The bipartite structure allows the film to very keenly discuss Black sacrifices and negotiations while transiting through spaces dominated by the White man.The metaphor of espionage holds true for forms of social theater as well.Cook’s performance is remarkable precisely because he manages to hold together a character who intentionally projects diverse images into every setting he moves around (that of the White government, the Black middle class, the revolutionaries from the popular strata).The Spook Who Sat By the Door is a radical movie also in the way it discusses the inherent tensions between the latter groups.It is worth notice that, Freeman won’t find support in his former college girlfriend, but in the prostitute he meets on his CIA nights out.The film is very insightful about the modes of social pressure and how individualism betrays any class and race consciousness.Radical refusal of any conciliation includes looking suspiciously at black careerism.The climax of the film comes at a meeting between Freeman and his best friend, a police officer who could easily be the main character of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and who is disgusted with the discovery that his friend is the dangerous subversive that has been “terrorizing” the city.The Spook Who Sat By the Door is not resolved in a confrontation with racists, but with giving Dixon’s a chance to stage a duel of ideologies central for the Black American movement, revolution and reformism.I don’t think I need to say which side The Spook Who Sat By the Door stands on.

It is much of this last point that I believe keeps the whole movie urgent in our current days. What Dixon, Greenlee, Cook, and other collaborators extract here is even more alien today than in its revolutionary context. It’s hard to think of another movie of such  subversive character while keeping popular ambitions coming from within American industry. It was true in 1973 and it is true today. Early on I mentioned how the film is not easily entered by auteur take and the obvious reason is that the price of subversion is the later silencing of the main creative people involved. The price of Oscars attention and big budget Disney productions is another form of appeasement. The Spook Who Sat By the Door remains in this context a big point off the curve.

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