40 years before Django Unchained, The Spook Who Sat By The Door depicted a full-scale black revolution
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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, has us thinking about films by actors turned first-time directors.
The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973)
Django Unchained has roused some viewers and riled others with its depiction of a former slave’s bloody revenge, but in some ways it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The Spook Who Sat By The Door doesn’t have that problem. Released in 1973 and directed by Ivan Dixon, best known for his role on Hogan’s Heroes, the film depicts a full-scale black revolution led by a CIA defector. Lawrence Cook starts off as the Agency’s house negro; his compliant attitude allows him to graduate training, but only gets him as far as the post of “top-secret reproduction center section chief”—he makes copies. But five years later, he drops out of sight, re-emerging as a guerrilla leader named Uncle Tom with a cadre of urban soldiers at his disposal.
Spook provokes less with its vision of violence in the streets than with its cool-headed rationality: The film makes race war seem not only inevitable, but logical. Although his soldiers taunt a National Guard colonel by trussing him up and putting him in blackface, Cook has no room for fanatics. When an eager, tellingly light-skinned recruit proclaims his hatred of whites, Cook reprimands him, “This ain’t about hating white folks. It’s about loving freedom enough to kill or die for it.” A dying white soldier gasps, “Why?” and the response is simple, matter-of-fact: “Because it’s war.”
Although Dixon went on to a long career directing television, The Spook Who Sat By The Door is threadbare and crude, but its rough edges lend it power: No matter how you watch it (the 2004 DVD is long out of print), it feels like forbidden fruit. Unlike Django Unchained, whose white victims are invariably implicated in the slave trade, Spook allows that even justified revolutions claim innocent victims, presenting the fact without approval or apology. It’s terrifying and exhilarating to watch a country secured by slaughter and built by slave labor rip itself apart on screen, leaving the audience with question of how to keep it together.
Availability: The DVD may be long out of print, but the entire film can be watched online here.