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Long-missing SPOOK comes to DVD


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#1 of 2 Richard Carnahan

Richard Carnahan

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Posted February 28 2004 - 04:56 AM

'Spook' unearths a radical time capsule of a movie
Pulled from theaters but now on DVD, the 1973 film imagines a black political revolution in the blaxploitation era.

By Lewis Beale, Special to The Times

When it comes to sticking it to the Man, there is no blaxploitation film more subversive than "The Spook Who Sat by the Door." The 1973 feature, which has been rarely seen since it first came out, has more in common with "The Battle of Algiers" than "Foxy Brown" — it's the ultimate black revolutionary fantasy.

Based on a 1966 novel by Sam Greenlee, "Spook," which was recently released on DVD, tells the story of Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), the first African American to enter the CIA's elite espionage program. After putting up with racist supervisors and co-workers for five years, he resigns his post, returns home to Chicago and begins training urban street gangs in guerrilla warfare tactics. Freeman's goal: to launch a revolutionary war against the white power structure in every major U.S. city.

"Spook's" plot line may sound ridiculous, but that's what makes the film bizarrely compelling and a real time capsule. It's as if Italian neo-realism had met "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," and spawned its own subgenre. But if the concept of highly trained gangbangers taking over America's cities plays like pure fantasy these days, it had the tinge of reality in the post-Watts Riots era.

"I thought the book represented the fantasy of every black man or woman at one time or another in this country," says Ivan Dixon, who directed and co-produced the film. "It relates to the history of blacks in America, and the social situation of blacks in America at that time or at any time."

"This movie is the only truly black radical movie ever made," adds Tim Reid, whose Obsidian Home Entertainment is releasing "Spook" through Monarch Home Video.

"When you look back at the times," says Reid, "Martin Luther King was assassinated, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. Black people were really angry and frustrated; we were tired of seeing our leaders killed. What do we do? Do we have a revolution? There is nothing that comes close to this movie in terms of black radicalism."

Certainly it was one of America's most notorious urban conflagrations that created the impetus for "Spook." Greenlee, who worked overseas for the U.S. Information Agency for several years as a cultural and information officer, resigned in the mid-'60s, around the time Watts blew up. "I knew that was the first in a series of rebellions," says Greenlee, 73, who lives in Chicago, "so I decided to write about what I thought was going to happen."

But Greenlee couldn't find an American publisher for his novel. So "Spook" came out in England in 1966, and after it became a hit, was picked up by Bantam and released in this country three years later. With a screenplay already written, Greenlee spent the next few years trying to set up a film version, but it wasn't until he met Dixon on the set of "The Mod Squad" TV series that the project came to fruition. Dixon, possibly best known as Sgt. "Kinch" Kinchloe in the "Hogan's Heroes" TV series, was directing an episode of the show; Greenlee was hoping "Mod Squad" star Clarence Williams III would play the lead in "Spook." The offer to Williams didn't pan out, but Dixon and Greenlee formed a partnership and raised most of the film's $1.1-million budget from independent black investors.

Released in a handful of cities by United Artists, "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" was ignored by most mainstream critics, although, says Greenlee, Variety "suggested it should be rated X for political content." Then the film dropped from sight because, Dixon and Greenlee claim, pressure was put on UA to withdraw "Spook" from circulation.

Here's where the story becomes pure political paranoia, or one of those strange-but-true episodes that could only have happened during the political turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s. Dixon says the robbery of an armory in Compton, which mirrored an episode in the film, was so disturbing to UA the company quickly dropped "Spook."

"The movie was pulled," says Reid. "It was out for a few days, was pulled, and stayed in a vault for 30 years. They didn't pull 'Truck Turner.' They didn't pull 'Three the Hard Way.' Why pull this film? There was pressure on them, because it went against the grain, it was politically incorrect."

Maybe, maybe not. What is certain is that after buying the film back from UA, neither Dixon nor Greenlee could find another distributor. Nor could they cut a video deal, although Dixon says a stolen print of "Spook" was released on VHS about 10 years ago. So it is now up to Reid, known for producing and starring in the groundbreaking African American TV series "Linc's" and "Frank's Place," to reintroduce "Spook" to the American public.

By the way, "Spook's" creators say it's too political to be called a blaxploitation film. "Pretty much all those blaxploitation films were junk," says Dixon, now 72 and living in the Los Angeles area. "There were too many pimps and drug dealers. Those pictures were dealing with the crud of society, instead of dealing with ordinary people."

"The only positive aspect about those films was that some fine actors got some work for a change," adds Greenlee. "These people had been living hand to mouth, and they got a chance to show their chops."

In a sense, they're right. Although "Spook," like the whole blaxploitation movement, has its "get Whitey" aspects, it more than anything harks back to a bygone era of black radicalism that now seems as distant as Mars — of Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael, cries of "black power," and that notorious picture of Black Panther leader Huey Newton holding a rifle while seated in a rattan chair.

"Even in today's context, it's a radical movie," says Reid. "It gives you an insight into the psychology of a young black man at that time. What do we think about that era? We can now look at it with a more open mind."

copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

#2 of 2 Mark Cappelletty

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Posted February 28 2004 - 10:01 AM

I've heard this movie is great and have only seen it available in a clamshell VHS case that was at least 20 years old. Any specs? Release date? I hope that since Ivan Dixon is involved, we at least get a good transfer and some extras.