This film, originally a book by Sam Greenlee, was effectively banned for thirty years. It was released in 1973, but until its DVD release in 2004 was extremely hard to get a hold of. United Artists originally bought the film thinking it was another straw-man blaxploitation movie, where the black people rise up against the white devil but only in a farcical sense. Soon after the release of The Spook Who Sat By the Door it was removed from theaters voluntarily by United Artists because of the revolutionary message.
This is one of my favorite scenes:
“This movie scared the hell out of white folks,”
is what a critic from USA Today, DeWayne Wickman, said about the film in this interview (also below).
While the critic’s remarks are fine in the beginning, the analysis of the decade in which the book was released is only perambulatory. What I mean is – even though he praises the film, he talks down the message.
He starts talking down ‘the message’ by saying the film is a purely “fictional” account.
Most Hollywood films are fiction. Everybody knows this film was fiction. Why go so out of the way to talk about how fictional this film really is…?
It’s because the film exposed the reality that this revolt is real, possible, and alive at nearly every corner.
The critic says it’s fiction because he does not want it to be reality, or even become mistaken for reality. The critic says Sam Greenlee, the author of the book, understood fighting back like this is not a “real option.” Here the critic is putting words in the author’s mouth. According to the critic, Greenlee did not really want to see black people revolting against the system. According to Wickman, Greenlee thought this idea was pure fiction, pure fantasy.
People like this critic step in wherever the rhetoric of non-violence can be applied. This is one of those applications. Sam Greenlee’s book is a depiction of the violent situation black folk find themselves in, and he entertains (sometimes comically, sometimes seriously) the idea of an organized black guerrilla response to the white establishment. It is a very well-defended depiction of a revolutionary perspective. Though the ideology of the guerrilla fighters remains somewhat vague (who knows whether their tendencies are Maoist, purely anarchist, Trotskyist, or more proto-Zapatista styled.) Realistically the backdrop might have been closer to Malcolm X’s black nationalist ideology — minus Malcolm’s idea of a black Islamic nation. I see them as general insurrectionists.
The point is – the film does not discredit the “Black Freedom Fighters of Chicago” — the name the guerrilla group goes by in the film. Instead the film makes the freedom fighters out as heroes, stars, and comic relief.
Wickman the critic says this is a “fictional” threat. He continuously hammers that point onward. Notice the appeal to the author as a final arbiter in the case for or against the implications of the book. That is an appeal to the author. The problem with that relates to the Death of the Author thesis, from in an essay by Roland Barthes. To summarize, Barthes points out it is meaningless to appeal to the author of the original work and put words in their mouth, claiming the author would have felt this way or that way about their own work. All that really shows is what you yourself would like to see come out of the original work.
The appeal to the author’s sanity (that the author did not actually believe black people should revolt against the system) is now the critic’s affirmation that the author really did not believe in black freedom fighting bullshit, and that it’s Okay for white people to live their lives… White people can sleep because that threat has been dismissed. But why add that Greenlee did or did not believe in anything, as if that should persuade us one way or another about the ideas presented to us in the story? – as if anyone would forfeit “the revolution” because Sam Greenlee, author of The Spook Who Sat By the Door, said his book was meant to be fictional.
Or, if Rage Against the Machine says their songs are non-violent? Or if Ice Cube and Tupac say they aren’t inspiring you to go shoot a cop… they’re just expressing the mentality of the street life. It is what it is. It’s what you say it is.
This is one of my favorite films I’ve seen in the past few years. It’s great to watch. There some very good one-liners as well, and these I’ve started sampling in my music. Check out my music page! – Staarfox.
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For entire YouTube playlist for The Spook Who Sat By the Door, click here.
Download the torrent, click here.
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