From A Token To A Threat: Notes For A Revolution In African-American Filmmaking (Part One)
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From A Token To A Threat: Notes For A Revolution In African-American Filmmaking (Part One)

Tyler Perry

The occasion of screening Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s engrossing documentary, INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door (2010), revealed the United States government’s deliberate censorship campaign against an African-American film from its production through to its exhibition. THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) is a film adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s powerful and revolutionary book, published in 1969, that was directed by actor Ivan Dixon (1931-2008) from a screenplay by Sam Greenlee and Melvin Clay.

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a deceptively simple tale of tokenism at the C.I.A. where several African-American men are hired as trainees in a publicity effort to counteract charges of racial intolerance leveled at the organization for its lack of African-American agents. These African-American trainees are hired with no intention of them ever being allowed to become official C.I.A. agents.

One particular trainee Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) decides to deploy all of the counter insurgency tactics and conspiratorial procedures he has learned in the C.I.A. training program to organize a clandestine group of African-American resistance fighters in the urban ghetto. The actual film is stunning in its detail and execution of how a dominant model of political oppression can be learned and used by those who are oppressed against those in power. The documentary film, INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD, exposes how the U.S. government and its agencies, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., attempted to keep the film from being produced by deliberately obstructing director/producer Ivan Dixon’s ability to secure domestic or international financing for the film. When those efforts did not stop Dixon from independently financing the work, the U.S. government “pressured” all the domestic exhibitors to stop showing the film after it had played for only 2 weeks in 1973 to brisk box office returns. The film was pulled from the theatres and not shown again until its release some 30 years later on DVD in 2004 from a master print that Ivan Dixon had hidden years before.

I should like to point out that Greenlee’s book and Dixon’s film were dangerous because both revealed a subversive idea concerning tokenism: that those who had been admitted as tokens into an unfair and oppressive political system could potentially use what they have learned against that system. We’re talking ‘double agency’ here, where one infiltrates the system to bring down that very system. But instead, in Greenlee’s paradigm of double agency through tokenism, his double agents work to protect the African-American community, its leaders and its members, by using the government’s tactics against the government itself. This idea was dangerous to the U.S. government only because it exposed the concerted efforts of its "real" agencies against the African-American community and its political leadership at the time of the film’s production and before. (i.e., the murder of Fred Hampton in 1969, F.B.I. surveillance of Dr. King, Malcolm X and its infiltration into the Nation of Islam, COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program), and the various disinformation campaigns against the Black Panther movement).

We learn several important lessons from Acham and Ward’s documentary, INFILITRATING HOLLYWOOD, and several even more important lessons from Sam Greenlee himself and his book as he speaks with the resigned wisdom of an undefeated warrior throughout the film. But the greatest lesson which we learn is that one of the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement is the fact that the right to represent ourselves on screen through films that we have produced, distributed, and exhibited was neglected as an essential component of the civil rights struggle. In my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film I have noted that there exists today a segregated and unequal relationship between how White films are funded, distributed and exhibited and how African-American films are funded, distributed and exhibited. The deliberate denial of international markets for African-American films has a deleterious effect on the development, production, distribution and exhibition of all African-American films because the international market provides important funding, box office receipts, aesthetic and technological crossovers that sustain the cultural preeminence of White American films. This advantage of foreign markets is denied to African-American films under the ruse that African-American films do not sell well overseas and it is an unfair and discriminatory practice that is upheld by Hollywood execs and studios. Thus, the struggle for civil rights for all African-Americans continues not just in the political, economic and social arenas, but also in the cultural arena through film and other media.

It has often been assumed that people go see what they want to see at the movies, yet this is an assumption that is not entirely true: people go see what they are offered to see at the movies and the industry has a variety of tools with which to shape, manipulate and guide (also read as: herd) its spectators. Tools such as screen ratios, movie ratings, advertising and marketing, awards and so-called "buzz" which itself is nothing more that paid hype or pre-advertising by allowing critics to see early previews of a particular film. Without the right to produce, distribute, and exhibit African-American films the power to represent ourselves is still in the hands of “white” power brokers who can control not only what gets made, but also what gets shown and who gets to see what gets made. But so far I haven’t said anything new here, because everyone knows that we are controlled by the industry and complaining about it doesn’t get us anywhere. But who said I’m complaining? What I am going to suggest in this two part essay is that we apply Greenlee’s paradigm of double agency through tokenism as detailed in his book and executed in Dixon’s film as one pillar to our approach in establishing an African-American film industry that is separate and far greater than the American Entertainment Complex. A Target of Fools or a Token of Justice.

The tool of power that Greenlee and Dixon were illuminating was "Tokenism." Indeed, tokenism is the very scepter of power wielded by those in control. The hiring of a few Blacks (Latinos, etc) in companies or organizations that are dominated by whites- even in high profile positions, the higher the better, diffuses racial tensions, assuages white guilt and gives hope to those who are oppressed that one day they might succeed within a system that is designed for them to fail. The seductive source of tokenism’s power is the hope it instills in both the token and the observer who are of the same race. That the token doesn’t recognize himself as a token is as important a detail as the observer who believes that the token can aid him or her to success. The token has money and celebrity but that same token only has an illusion of power and the moment that he or she tries to exercise any real power is the moment when the illusion is shattered and that token is removed and replaced. And this leads us directly to Tyler Perry, a successful African-American filmmaker who has been vilified and praised equally in blind measure to the extent that his use as a token by the American Entertainment Complex has been totally obscured.

Every token is used to blind others from those who are actually wielding power and control. Tyler Perry is but a token – non-threatening, rich and successful – but a token all the same. He gives hope to others who want to become successful African-American filmmakers. He provides a target for others who don’t like his films and consider his success undeserved. Yet Tyler Perry will never be a threat to the American Entertainment Complex, until the day should he decide to create his own film distribution company. The moment should he express that idea, would be the moment of his undoing, for in that gesture he would move from being a token to being a threat. But why would Tyler Perry do this when he’s so successful as a filmmaker and television producer under the aegis of Lionsgate? Again, this is why Greenlee’s paradigm for double agency through tokenism was so dangerous: it reveals that the power of tokenism can be folded back on itself and used to actually open doors with effort rather than close them with hope. As a token, the hope that Tyler Perry inspires actually closes more doors to African-American filmmakers than it opens. "Fewer African-American filmmakers, investors or Hollywood execs will be willing to take a risk on African-American films that differ or completely diverge from the expectations of the core market audience," targeted by Tyler Perry’s films (153, Slave Cinema).

As a threat, Tyler Perry could help to provide a platform for the development, production, distribution and exhibition of African-American films that differ from his own by secretly funding and organizing an African-American Entertainment Complex.

What this means is that perhaps we shouldn’t be attacking Tyler Perry, for even though I called him a token, I am not attacking him, I am only revealing his circumstance in the web of power. A token is only a negative in our struggle if that token refuses to participate in the sharing of their knowledge, wealth and influence against the powers that made them into a token in the first place. Having said this, we don’t also have to blindly praise his films either. Just as Lion’s Gate doesn’t worry or care about the quality or content of his films, we shouldn’t either because as a token Tyler Perry’s greatest untapped power is his ability to use his success to provide other African-American filmmakers the opportunity to make the films that they want to make, but to actually wield this power he would have to apply Greenlee’s paradigm as detailed and executed in THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR. As I stated in SLAVE CINEMA, "Tyler Perry’s success stifles more African-American voices in the cinema by literally forcing other African-American filmmakers to imitate his work if they want to be noticed by Hollywood and the African-American audience. One way to circumvent this negative aspect of his success would be if Tyler Perry himself helped to develop, finance and produce the work of African-American filmmakers whose visions, themes, and styles differ dramatically from his own" (154).

Thus, the question is not whether or not you like Tyler Perry’s films, but instead how do we encourage Tyler Perry to recognize that he is a token and use his token status to help create and sustain an African-American Entertainment Complex? An African-American Entertainment Complex that would allow African-American filmmakers to develop, produce, distribute and exhibit their films domestically and across the globe without having to rely on "white" Hollywood’s green light.

The second part of this essay will discuss the structure of the American Entertainment Complex as a model for the African-American Entertainment Complex. The film, INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door is available from the

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via HERE.

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