The late Sam Greenlee (author of “The Spook Who Sat By The Door”), who died in May 2014, was never one to mince words, especially when it came to dishing on the state of what we call “black cinema,” and the film industry overall.
The author and activist was a fearless political firebrand, and elder statesman at 83 years old, at the time of his death at his home in Chicago. And his words still resonate.
I’d say Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is often the cinematic reference point for radical, subversive black cinema during one of the more contentious periods in American history. But I think the seemingly under-seen 1973 adaptation of “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” (which was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012), directed by Ivan Dixon, was potentially even more lethal in its crafting and message, and really had the ability to inspire a revolution at a time when black people in this country were maybe most susceptible, as well as capable.
And I’m not sure if the story of the making of the film (specifically, how it was funded) is one that’s widely-known, and which I think is important to note. In short, the film was financed mostly with funds raised from individual black investors (almost the equivalent of Spike Lee taking to Kickstarter in 2013 to raise funds for his “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” soliciting the financial support of the “haves” within the black community, with the financial means, like NBA athletes, etc, as well as even folks like you and I). It’s an idea that was itself revolutionary (and I’ll say still is) when Dixon and Greenlee did it 40+ years ago, and one that I’d like to see repeated more often, especially today, where black cinema is concerned.
The film was suppressed for about 30 years for obvious reasons, until its release on DVD in 2004.
So not only was the content of the film revolution-inspiring, the production and distribution of the film were also quite revolutionary efforts.
Christine Acham’s recent documentary (covered quite extensively on this blog), “Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who sat by the Door,” documents the film’s production and distribution trials and triumphs. You’re encouraged to pick up a copy of it on DVD today, via the a website the filmmakers previously set up here.
And if you still haven’t seen “The Spook Who Sat By The Door,” you must rent or buy it ASAP (I challenge any filmmakers reading this to make that film today, but obviously updated to reflect contemporary times). And then purchase Acham’s feature documentary on its making for further context.
For a sample, watch the below 4-part interview with Greenlee that I stumbled upon over the weekend. It’s about 45 minutes in total length, and in it, he shares details on the film’s journey from writing to financing, filming, distribution and exhibition. And he doesn’t hold back on how he feels/felt about certain intrusions into their process.
He also shares his thoughts on black cinema in the 21st century, and talks about obvious black creatives like Tyler Perry, John Singleton and others. Even Jesse Jackson isn’t exempt from his commentary.
It’s a useful conversation that took place in 2013, about a year before his death, courtesy of the Chicago-based “Project Brotherhood Power Hour” radio interview series. It all fits nicely into the myriad of conversations we’ve had on S&A, and continue to have, everyday, every week, every month about (broadly-speaking) the progress that black people have made in a film industry that’s a century old.
The people conducting the interview could’ve done a better job, but listening to Greenlee speak is always worth it. We could use more filmmakers with his revolutionary spirit today: