29th 04 - 2015 | no comment »

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Director: Ivan Dixon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

For the past few months, the United States has been convulsing through an historic moment, and I mean that statement with what is for me unaccustomed irony. The sometimes violent clashes between the black communities in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and, most recently, in Baltimore are historic, as in déjà vu all over again. Despite mind-boggling advances in technology that have reshaped our world in many ways, the needle toward racial harmony has hardly moved at all. If you don’t believe me, I hold The Spook Who Sat by the Door up as Exhibit A that we haven’t come a long way, baby. This 1973 film, cowritten and coproduced by Sam Greenlee from his 1969 novel of the same name, includes scenes that could have been footage from dozens of news reports made within the past week.

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The film chronicles the activities of the portentously named Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black civil rights activist in school who has decided to go the mainstream route to success. He is one of a cohort of black applicants to a CIA affirmative action program foisted upon the agency by the U.S. Senate—hardly a scenario we could imagine today, but also not a sincere effort by the movie senators, who are more worried about approval ratings than equality. The all-male cohort of black hopefuls don’t realize that their white trainers will use every opportunity to eliminate them from contention; they don’t even seem to suspect that the trainers are observing them via a closed-circuit camera while they enjoy cocktails and plot how to land these cushy jobs—not a terribly good recommendation for their fitness to become agents.

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By the end of the comprehensive training and testing, Freeman is the only one to have made the grade. He is appointed section chief of reproduction services, aka photocopying, and remains with the agency for five years before returning to his native Chicago to take a higher-paying job as a social worker. There, the real purpose of his CIA stint becomes clear—to use the skills he acquired to recruit and train guerrilla freedom fighters in all the major urban centers in the country to battle Whitey to a standstill and force the Establishment to grant black Americans freedom in exchange for safe and peaceful streets.

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Greenlee, a native Chicagoan who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a firebrand and committed Marxist to the end. His book and screenplay provide a graphic depiction of the lumpenproletariat rising up in a people’s revolution against their bourgeois oppressors. After first establishing Freeman as a charismatic leader who can win respect with his muscles as well as his brains, the film shows him recruiting his former gang, the Cobras, to be his first platoon of revolutionaries. Director Dixon shoots parallel scenes and dialogue of Freeman training his men as he was trained at The Farm, a still-relevant example of American forces opportunistically training people who just as opportunistically will turn on them some day. Relying on the invisibility subservient blacks have in white America, Dixon shoots a humorous scene of one of Freeman’s men, dressed like a window washer, going into the mayor’s office and stealing his carousel of pipes right off his desk while the mayor talks on the phone. Conversely, Freeman uses the “high yellow” members of the gang to stage a bank robbery; dressed in business suits, with slicked-down hair, they are assumed to be white not only because of their appearance, but also because blacks are assumed not to have the cunning to pull off such a daring, daylight raid.

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The bourgeoisie and their protectors are represented by Freeman’s lover Joy (Janet League), who leaves him to marry a successful doctor, and his best friend Dawson (J.A. Preston), a Chicago cop. Showing the bourgeoisie selling out their proletarian brothers and sisters to maintain a respectable, comfortable place in society, both Joy and Dawson are quick to turn on Freeman when they realize he is the mysterious “Uncle Tom” who is broadcasting revolutionary messages and organizing the insurrection, beginning with bombing the mayor’s office. The film has no real place for women as active fighters, but Dahomey Queen (Paula Kelly), a black prostitute Freeman hooks up with during his CIA training, becomes an invaluable informer when she overhears the General (Byron Morrow), her white steady “date,” lay plans to go after Freeman—cutting off the head of the snake, as military types put it.

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The most harrowing and resonant part of the film occurs after Shorty (Anthony Ray), a young penny-ante drug dealer Freeman tries to help, is shot in the back by police. The ensuing standoff between riot police and angry members of the community is an all-too-familiar sight these days, one that looks like it will end peacefully until some cops bring German shepherds to the scene. This potent symbol of violence from the 1963 Birmingham civil rights demonstrations inflames the crowd, who tear into the police and torch a car and an apartment building. The handheld camera work gets into the chaos, offering some truly frightening, heart-stopping moments that linger long after the final fade. Faced with the violence that we know is absolutely real from recent events, Freeman’s desperate actions “to be free,” as he puts it, are likely to be met with a good deal of sympathy from a larger portion of today’s audiences.

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Spook has been lumped into the category of blaxplotation films inaugurated by Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and it does share some common aspects of the genre. There are extended shots of a belly dancer undulating for the camera at a nightclub, thrilling action sequences and explosions, and a judo match that roughly correlates to martial arts sequences in these films. The film was also made independent of studio backing; after cobbling together just under $1 million, the producers had to shut down production after they ran out of money, which may account for some sketchy sequences, particularly at the beginning of the film. In a 2013 radio interview of Greenlee, the writer said the production stole some shots in Chicago when the city refused to issue permits for the production, but that Gary, Ind., welcomed them with open arms, even to the extent of lending them a helicopter free of charge to get overhead shots and one impressive shot moving down the middle of a street.

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What Spook does is extend the struggle begun in Sweet Sweetback. Sweetback is a put-upon, ignorant man who struggles to survive. Van Peebles suggests that when next we see Sweetback, he will be coming back to revenge himself on white America. Freeman represents the next step in the struggle for freedom and equality. He’s not scared. He’s both streetwise and worldwise, and he has a philosophy to guide him. The character speaks poignantly about discovering that his grandmother couldn’t read but admonished him to get his education, and how he taught her while pretending that she was teaching him. To Freeman, seeing the light come on in his grandmother’s mind also flipped a switch in him.

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The film has no real resolution, with Freeman wearing his African colors but facing a doubtful, possibly short future. In his day, so-called gangs like the Black Panthers were benevolent forces in their communities; recruiting gangs to be revolutionaries was a plausible plotline in 1969 and even 1973, so hope might have lived in its contemporary audiences. Today, gangs are as ruthlessly self-serving as the many other sectors of American society, and the current assault on the credibility of teachers and public education are undermining the hope and possibilities of those in the underclass. In 2012, “Spook” was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American film—nonetheless, its relative obscurity and the currency of its vision would have made Freeman very disappointed.

The film is viewable in its entirety on YouTube.


26th 06 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Shoot the Messenger (TV, 2006)

Director: Ngozi Onwurah

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Shoot the Messenger is a humorous and profoundly uncomfortable film for any serious-minded, well-intentioned liberal to watch. As a white liberal, I found it particularly hard to react to. The film opens with a black man saying in an angry and anguished tone, “Everything bad that has happened in my life has happened because of black people.” It is tempting to think of the man as a successor to the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a black man made profoundly self-loathing by racism. But in the spirit of the unintentionally ironic “feminist” ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo), an angry young black man in good, updated British tradition, isn’t shown to be the victim of racism. He’s actually a buppie who wants to do something to help troubled black boys become proud and productive men. He attends a meeting at which the problem is being discussed, or rather, pinned on anyone and everyone, and finally hears something he can do. He can become a teacher and role model. He quits his good job in information technology and lands a teaching job at a local high school. He’s so proud as he stands in front of the school, with two boys washing some obscene graffiti from the front of it. He’s going to clean up, too, and uses a tough-love approach that Sidney Poitier’s character Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love would have approved of heartily.

Unfortunately, the black boys in his school have developed something the eventually grateful students Poitier taught didn’t have—pride. Three friends led by Germal (Charles Mnene) sit in the back of Joe’s class and lob jeers. One morning when the three are slow to enter Joe’s classroom, Joe grabs Germal’s shoulder and pushes him toward the door. Germal protests that teachers are not supposed to touch students. After Joe gives Germal and his friends numerous detention classes (in which Joe takes great pride for forcing the students to learn), Joe learns that Germal has filed an assault complaint against him. The principal tries to drop it, but Germal’s mother goes to authorities, and criminal charges are brought against Joe.

The media start calling. Joe initially resists making a statement, but as the heat becomes more intense, he goes on a radio show to tell his side of the story. Of course, the shock jock hosts broil him and condemn “the system” that does nothing to protect black children. Eventually, Joe is brought to trial and convicted, though he receives a suspended sentence. As he walks out of the courtroom, he is heckled by community protesters carrying signs that say “House Nigger.” Of course, he loses his job. After he cleans out his locker at school, the wall he took so much pride in keeping clean of graffiti gets tagged with Joe’s personal mantra: “Fuck Black People.”

Joe goes mad, and after a stint in an asylum, ends up on the streets. Sitting on a bench in the pouring rain, he sees an older woman, Sarah (Medina Aijikawo), struggling with her groceries. She’s black, and he’s reluctant to help, but does. After that, he becomes a crusade for her. A church lady, she brings parishioners and her preacher to his spot in the alley and encourages him to come to Jesus—which he does. He moves into her home, wears her son’s clothes, and attends her church. He notices that all the people in church are women. Where are all the men? Cut to prison, where Sarah visits her son Roy (Richard Pepple). Joe thought he was dead, but of course, he should have known: Most black men are incarcerated.

Eventually, Joe tries to get a job, but his assault conviction (being appealed) hinders him. He and his job counselor Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird) become romantically involved. She is a New Ager/self-helper who wears a hair weave and won’t let Joe touch her hair. When she is having a new weave put in, Joe takes some of the hair and burns it, forcing her to comb out her real hair into an afro. He is trying to work on her self-esteem. Instead, she breaks up with him because she doesn’t feel good about herself when she’s with him. Nobody does. His odyssey ends in the mental hospital to which he was admitted, where he encounters Germal for a final time and finally sees the fatal error that led him astray. The last shot challenges the audience, however, when Joe defies expectations and says he doesn’t take back a lot of what he said.

And what he says throughout this film in his direct-to-the-audience asides is dynamite in the cultural war within the black community. Joe would be a Joe Lieberman Republican in this country, a bit of a contradiction. He wants to help the beleaguered black community, but he does it from a condescending position. He is extremely hurt at how the community turns on him with their “House Nigger” signs, but in a way, he is. He is a classic boot-strapper who believes in individual responsibility and initiative, and refuses to accept arguments about slavery as excuses for the underachieving black community. Even Sarah says that blacks can’t be trusted because they pull each other down. They are the cursed people of Canaan to her.

The beauty of this film, though, is that it is more than a political satire. Joe’s pain at the rejection of his good intentions is extreme. He tells Heather that a heckler threw a rotten vegetable at him and holds his chest, over his heart, to indicate where the object struck. “After that, I went cold,” he says. Heather responds, “They broke your heart.” His later indictments include welfare mothers exemplified by Sarah’s daughter, who comes to Christmas dinner with her four children from four different fathers and abandons them, and a hoochie-looking girl with decaled fingernails and a made-up name (L’Braia). Like all stereotypes, these are funny, have a grain of truth, and are extremely unsettling. Joe’s refusal to disown his disdain for that bad behavior of members of his race shows that the filmmakers thought th black experience could finally handle criticism. (Not everyone saw it that way, however, calling the film “the most racist programme” in BBC history.)

Sharon Foster won the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award for Shoot the Messenger, and it is a worthy honor for a television writer—this film was originally aired on BBC2—working solidly in Potter’s no-holds-barred tradition and borrowing styles from a wide range of works, from Alfie to Homer’s The Odyssey. Director Ngozi Onwurah maintains a sharp, comic pace, while skillfully building the force of the more serious, dramatic elements of the film. Shoot the Messenger is a gleefully thoughtful tour de force.


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