Friday, February 24, 2012

Infiltrating Hollywood: Behind the Scenes of The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Don’t call Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door blaxploitation, it is revolutionary cinema. Of course, with its funky soundtrack and racially charged politics it still fits relatively easily within the general genre rubric, but the makers had something more ambitious in mind. Surviving cast-members and Sam Greenlee, the co-producer and author of the original source novel, discuss the production and legacy of the controversial film in Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat By the Door (trailer here), which airs on the Documentary Channel this coming Tuesday.

TSWSBTD and The Help are two films not often mentioned in the same breath, but that sort of happened when both Infiltrating Hollywood and the mass market Civil Rights era drama won honors earlier this month at the Black Reel Awards. Somehow, TSWSBTD had been overlooked at the Academy Awards after its limited 1973 release. Helmed by actor and TV director Ivan Dixon, best known to the square for his role on Hogan’s Heroes, TSWSBTD was based on the novel by Sam Greenlee, a former Foreign Service veteran decorated for his service during the 1958 revolution in Iraq.

Admittedly, Infiltrating follows the standard behind-the-scenes feature format, but the stories of TSWSBTD are pretty fascinating, regardless of where reviewers are coming from. Though Dixon passed away in 2008, both Greenlee and his widow discuss their collaboration in depth. Despite the passage of years, Greenlee has apparently lost none of his radical fervor. Be that as it may, the production remains a triumph of independent filmmaking. Of course, they had some advantages other indie crews cannot count on, like having the Gary, Indiana Police Department at their service.

Undeniably extreme and arguably racist in its advocacy of political violence, TSWSBTD is nonetheless a hugely entertaining film. In large measure, this is due to the late Lawrence Cook’s stone cold performance as Dan Freeman, the first African American CIA officer, who uses his agency training to organize the Chicago gangs into urban guerrillas. J.A. Preston, recognizable as the presiding officer in the A Few Good Men court martial, adds all kinds of cool cred to TSWSBTD and appears in Infiltrating, helping to put the film in context. Inexplicably though, Herbie Hancock’s legendary soundtrack is never addressed in the documentary, despite the fact it continues to attract scores of fans to Dixon’s film.

However, Infiltrating continues to advance the story that the FBI sought to suppress TSWSBTD, but never really offers any evidence beyond the highly circumstantial. It is hard to blame them for printing the legend though, considering it has become an article of faith for many. Indeed, it was not the only not-blaxploitation film to feature revolutionary characters, but unlike Oscar Williams’ The Final Comedown, in which the paramilitaries are stabbed in the back by rich white New Left activists, Freeman and his guerillas really do start a violent insurrection.

Infiltrating presumes a certain audience, yet even those who are not the intended political-demographic type should still find it a fascinating time-capsule look back at an impossible to replicate film. Recommended for cult film connoisseurs, it makes its cable broadcast debut this Tuesday, February 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on Documentary Channel. For more information on finding DOC, check their website here.