The Spook Who Sat by the Door tells the story of the first African-American to be recruited by the CIA. After becoming disillusioned with the Agency he quits and sets up a black power guerilla army that wages urban war across the United States. According to its writer Sam Greenlee the film was banned from theaters as a result of pressure from the FBI. In this episode I explore Greenlee’s life and the book and film of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, in light of newly-acquired FBI documents.
This is a story that comprises many of the topics that pique my interest – cinema, political radicalism, the intelligence agencies. I was first told about the story of The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Simon Willmetts, an academic who wrote a very good book In Secrecy’s Shadow, about the OSS and the CIA in Hollywood. He covered this in his book and he’s mentioned the film to me numerous times, so I filed several freedom of information requests, watched some interviews with Sam Greenlee and watched the film.
I have to say, I wish I had seen this film years ago because I love it. But before we get to that – who was Sam Greenlee? He was born in Chicago in 1930 and grew up in the city. He won a scholarship to university and earned a degree in political science in 1952. The same year he joined the US Army, becoming a first lieutenant before returning to university to do graduate studies in international relations.
In 1957 he joined the US Information Agency – a foreign propaganda arm of the US government. He worked in Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Greece, staying on in Greece to continue his studies. During this period he wrote his most famous work – The Spook Who Sat by the Door – and tried to get it published. After being rejected by every American publisher and quite a few others, he eventually managed to get the book published by an independent publisher in London in 1969. He then adapted the story into a screenplay, helped raise funds for production mostly from small investors from the black community, and the film came out in 1973.
Greenlee continued to write books, poems and another screenplay, travelled widely, taught screenwriting for a while at a college in Chicago, and in 2011 was the centrepiece of a documentary called Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Greenlee told the same story he’d been telling for years – how he heard from Chicago theater owners that the FBI had been in touch, urging them to pull the movie from distribution. He also talked about how Aubrey Lewis – one of the first black FBI agents recruited in the early 60s – said that the book was required reading at the FBI academy.
For a little more on the background to the production of the film we’re going to turn to an interview, one of the last Sam Greenlee ever gave, on the Project Brotherhood radio show.
Banned by the FBI?
So this is an extremely unusual situation – a radical story that was rejected by the studio system (no surprises there), opposed by the FBI but also apparently used for training purposes, and also opposed by Jesse Jackson. What did it do so wrong? Why did this particular story induce such a reaction?
To try to find out more, and to see if I could get paper confirmation of Greenlee’s anecdotal evidence of FBI suppression, I filed a bunch of FOIA requests. I asked the FBI for files on the novel, on Greenlee himself, on Ivan Dixon who directed and co-produced the film, and on the film. These were all separate requests and what came back was very curious.
The FBI claim they have no records on Dixon, nothing whatsoever. For my request about Greenlee they said:
A search of the Central Records System reflected there were records potentially responsive to your FOIA. We have attempted to obtain this material so it could be reviewed to determine whether it was responsive to your request.
We were advised that the potentially responsive records were not in their expected location and could not be located after a reasonable search. Following a reasonable waiting period, another attempt was made to obtain this material.
They directed me to the National Archives, providing a file reference number. This is the exact same response they gave to MuckRock user Katie Zavadski, so I wondered whether they actually did search for the file and couldn’t find it. Meanwhile MuckRock editor JPat Brown filed an identical request, and didn’t get anything about a search for records and them not being where they were supposed to be, they simply directed him to the National Archives.
So I wrote this up and filed my request with the National Archives, who responded with a handful of documents on Greenlee, including an internal FBI review of the book. Shortly after this the FBI responded to my request about the book, which included some of these same documents. It also included documents referencing Greenlee (obviously, since he wrote the book) that should have come up in a cross-reference search in response to my request on the man himself. So clearly the FBI do not conduct proper searches in response to FOIA requests.
Amusingly, if you compare the FBI file released by the National Archives to the same documents the FBI released regarding the book, the FBI releases are much more heavily redacted. For example, one memo on Greenlee mentions he was in the Army and then worked for the US Information Agency. This is redacted in the FBI version but is visible in the National Archives version. Likewise, all references to the book being rejected by US publishers as ‘too hot to handle’ are redacted in the FBI documents, but not in the National Archives version.
Then there’s an interview given by the makers of the documentary about The Spook Who Sat by the Door, with Indiewire in 2011.
Without giving away anything from the film, how much information were you actually able to piece together from FBI or CIA files about the movie and/or Sam Greenlee?
Christine Acham: We never got any CIA documents. WE requested them on two separate occasions and they never responded. The FBI documents showed that they followed Sam since he wrote the book, then their perspective on what they thought it was all about.
Cliff Ward: Most of the material, ten documents, five of which we were given, were redacted. “Sam flew to Europe, blank, flew to Jamaica…” And the rest is redacted.
Curiously, there’s no mention of Sam Greenlee flying anywhere in the documents released by the National Archives, so the version of the file the FBI sent to the Archives was obviously incomplete. There is information about Greenlee’s activities during his time in London, when the book was being published, that must have come from MI5 or Special Branch, and it is clear Greenlee was a person of interest to the FBI.
References to the book of The Spook Who Sat by the Door come up in several other documents, particularly with reference to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the gang who kidnapped Patty Hearst. One memo suggests they got their name from Greenlee’s book, which is nonsense but interesting nonetheless. Another document relating to the HearNap (Hearst Kidnapping) investigation refers to a source saying that people whose names are redacted were urging people to read The Spook Who Sat by the Door because it is ‘concerned with a revolutionary group which kidnaps and brainwashes the children of wealthy and important executives. The children, in turn, aid their kidnappers in extorting money from the parents.’
The FBI’s own internal review of the book is somewhat different, saying:
Captioned book is a novel about a Negro Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Agent who resigns to organise a group of black revolutionaries from the members of a Negro youth gang. The former CIA agent is successful, in the story, to the extent that at the book’s conclusion urban guerilla warfare is widespread in the United States.
Similarly, there are several documents in the CIA’s CREST database about The Spook Who Sat by the Door, all newspaper articles from their open source center. So clearly US intelligence were interested in Greenlee, interested in the book and the film. Whether this adds up to a compelling argument that Greenlee is right, that US intelligence suppressed the film, I leave to you to consider for yourselves.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door
I will strongly recommend that you go and watch the movie before continuing but essentially the FBI’s summary is accurate. The Spook Who Sat by the Door revolves around Dan Freeman, played by Lawrence Cook. A senator finds out that he’s polling poorly among black voters so he makes a big fuss about how the CIA doesn’t have any black agents. The CIA respond by putting a group of dozens of black guys through basic training, before settling on Freeman, who is then recruited.
Freeman is entirely a token black guy, and there are a lot of jokes about the CIA is now ‘integrated’ because it has a single black employee. Freeman is given the job of ‘Top Secret Reproduction Center Section Chief’ which means he’s in charge of the photocopier. There’s one scene where he’s also told to give a group of senators a tour of Langley, and the CIA chiefs talk about putting him in the outer office where everyone can see him. The title of the film comes from the practice in the early days of affirmative action, whereby black employees would be put out front, to show how progressive and integrated the company was. And of course ‘spook’ is a double entendre, both a name for a spy and a derogatory term for black people.
Freeman becomes bored and disillusioned, so he quits the Agency to become a social worker in Chicago. Secretly, he also sets up a national black power guerilla army, with cells all over the US. As the film progresses we see the army rise up, and fight both the police and the military, urban guerilla style. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s quite profound and provocative.
The movie is difficult to nail down in terms of genre and style, because there are so few films we can compare it to. While I was watching it I jotted down the idea that it is 10% Blaxploitation, 30% spy thriller, 30% revenge fantasy, 30% revolutionary manifesto. Even that doesn’t do it justice, because the first act of the film – where Freeman is recruited by the CIA – is a clever political satire on racism. To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a clip of a scene where the director of the CIA is talking to Freeman after he’s been at the CIA for a few years.
A lot of this humour is rather obvious to us today, but at the time would have been a bit more sly and subtle. The CIA are portrayed as being very racist, but in a really stupid way. For an intelligence agency, their staff aren’t very intelligent. So Greenlee was not simply using them as an example of an establishment with pretty deep-set prejudices against black people, he was also sending up their claims to authority.
The rest of the film plays out in this fashion – Freeman quits the CIA and uses his training in weapons, explosives and guerilla organisations to set up a network of militant black radicals. We see training scenes that directly parallel Freeman’s training by the CIA, right down the command structure of ad hoc militant networks. So this is an example of blowback, where one of the CIA’s own turns against them, the ultimate embarrassment for the Agency.
The second act of the film is a little shaky, mainly because the protagonist’s motives aren’t clear. When he first joins the CIA he’s the best Uncle Tom you could ask for, and I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be Freeman fooling his bosses or whether he is meant to actually be undergoing a shift in character and beliefs. Nonetheless there is one very funny and well-observed scene where the gang start a robbery campaign against the Ritz crackers.
Again, this shows up the stupidity of racism, and how an intelligent person can use that racism to their advantage. This is followed by a scene where a white guy who is part of the black radical gang insists he’s as black as Freeman, then a scene where some lighter-skinned black gang members hold up a bank to raise funds, and it is blamed on white people. There’s a lot of clever, funny stuff going on in this film, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Where it gets problematic is in the third act, which mostly consists of an open insurrection by the black power gang. First the police and then the National Guard are overwhelmed by the guerillas, including one scene where the commander of the National Guard is kidnapped, painted in blackface, force fed LSD and then sent back to the base riding a bicycle in his underwear. He is then shot by a sniper.
There are riots, the gang break into a military depot and steal weapons, they even bomb the mayor’s office. But as the film shifts in tone and gets more serious it never loses its sense of fun. While the gang are planting the bomb in the mayor’s office they simultaneously take over a local radio station and announce what they’re about to do.
As I say, this is partly revenge fantasy, partly an expression of rage, partly a commentary on the Civil Rights movement, partly a satire of the American establishment. But it is also a revolutionary manifesto in the (broadly speaking) Marxist tradition. As the fighting goes on, we see a meeting of a pair of high-level officials to discuss options for quelling the uprising.
Ironically, it is a white guy who expresses one of the most profound messages in the movie – that black people, and indeed people in general, cannot simply be removed from the equation because the system depends on them. The power that gives them is enormous, be it via militant activity like fighting the police or by more peaceful means like strikes. The system depends on us just as much as we depend on the system.
All of which adds up to a very radical film, produced via what we would now call crowdfunding, that takes shots – figurative and literal – at the American security state. Which of course begs the question: why wouldn’t they try to suppress a film like this? And while Greenlee blames the FBI for suppressing his film, it could well have been other people saying they were FBI who did that. So, on balance, I believe him. I believe that the film was suppressed by government agents, because this is the exact sort of thing they don’t want cinema to be used for. Going back through decades of censorship, both at the hands of the government and by the MPAA, all the themes in this film are things they find problematic.
We should note: Greenlee once said that he didn’t want the America he depicted in The Spook Who Sat by the Door to become a reality. He wasn’t trying to inspire people to behave like the characters in the film, as such. It was more about trying to express a mood prevalent in black ghettos, and satirising the racial problems in the US. By stereotyping all the white characters, and killing quite a few of them, the film-makers reversed the prevalent cinematic tropes of that time, which are still fairly prevalent now. Meanwhile the protagonist is very radical, but also intelligent, competent and a good leader. Whereas Blaxploitation films tended towards big, bright caricatures the Freeman character is much more sophisticated and complex than almost any other black character in any film I’ve seen.
As to violent revolution – I think it’s an inevitability given how widespread brutalising hierarchies are. One could see the insurgency in Iraq as a revolutionary force, fighting against an occupation of their land and the imposition of a new political system. Indeed, I’m sure to the people inside it, that’s how it felt. I am not defending people car-bombing a marketplace, I am simply acknowledging that this will keep happening as long as there is systemic repression of people.
In sum, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a one-of-a-kind piece of cinema, a genuine piece of history for people interested in politics and in film. I think this is a fascinating story, so I hope you do too.