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Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872—1906)

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Spook Who Sat by the Door

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Sam Greenlee's satirical novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) criticizes the racist atmosphere of the United States by examining the life of a fictitious black CIA agent, Dan Freeman, who is recruited under the efforts of Senator Gilbert Hennington to integrate the Central Intelligence Agency. For five years Dan Freeman had been the best spook of all as he conned the entire CIA while “he sat by the door.” After absorbing a sufficient amount of knowledge, Freeman resigned to “make a greater contribution to his people by returning to Chicago and working among them.”

References to Freeman as a “spook” in both the title and the novel possess a sense of duality or double consciousness: spook is used as a racial insult directed toward Blacks, in addition to being a slang term for spies. Greenlee uses this duality to establish a connection between Freeman's character and the African American experience during the turbulent 1960s. With this multifaceted character, Greenlee begins to examine the mask that has been worn by Blacks for generations to hide their true feelings. The author notes, as does Paul Laurence Dunbar in “We Wear the Mask,” that historically Blacks have veiled their emotions to meet white America's archetypes and expectations.

Freeman's persona escapes the boundaries of typical character definition as he openly supplies viewpoints and rationales on a wide range of topics—the Black man's pain, anger, fear, and frustrations. Freeman's multiple personalities leave him lonely: “his cover, his plans had forced him into himself and his loneliness ate at him like a cancer.” He understands the paradoxical existence of the black middle class to be a collection of token Blacks who have been allowed to succeed to validate “whitey's integration movement.” Greenlee's character represents the “New Negro” mentality; his is assertive, self-respecting, and fed up with racism.

Freeman reaches great heights on the mountain of social analysis as he demarcates the life of a Black man. The novel, first published in Europe and later in the United States, is an explosive exposition that divulges the emotions of the Negro of the 1960s, and continues to demand reaction from the African American of the 1990s.

Freeman's underlying goal in The Spook Who Sat by the Door is to facilitate social criticism. Greenlee is masterful in his presentation of characters and community. His honest yet satirical examination of a system created on lies, perpetuated by lies, and often destroyed or brought to terms with the hyprocrisy it advocates is still relevant in the struggle of the African American male. It is often by examining literature such as The Spook Who Sat by the Door that readers have an opportunity to analyze life's frustrations and fears.

Catherine Starks, Black Portraiture in American Fiction, 1971.

—Wanda Macon

From:   Spook Who Sat by the Door, The   in  The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature »

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The Troubling Fate of a 1973 Film About the First Black Man in the C.I.A.

define spook by the door

By Richard Brody

Image may contain Furniture Indoors Room Human Person Table Gangubai Hangal Billiard Room and Pool Table

Ivan Dixon’s 1973 film, “ The Spook Who Sat by the Door ,” which is playing at Metrograph from Friday through Sunday (it’s also on DVD and streaming), is a political fiction, based on a novel by Sam Greenlee, about the first black man in the C.I.A. After leaving the agency, the agent, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) moves to Chicago, and puts his training in guerrilla warfare to use: he organizes a group of black gang members and Vietnam War veterans into a fighting force and leads a violent uprising against the police, the National Guard, and the city government. The film’s radical premise was noticed outside of Hollywood: produced independently, the film was completed and released by United Artists, but it was pulled from theatres soon after its release. Its prints were destroyed; the negative was stored under another title; and Greenlee (who died in 2014) claimed that the F.B.I. was involved in its disappearance, citing visits from agents to theatre owners who were told to pull the movie from screens. ( No official documentation of these demands has emerged.)

On these grounds alone, a viewing of “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” would be a matter of urgent curiosity. But the movie is also a distinctive and accomplished work of art, no mere artifact of the times but an enduring experience. A supreme aspect of the art of movies is tone—the sensory climate of a movie, which depends on the style and mood of performance as much as the plot and the dialogue, the visual compositions as well as the locations, costumes, and décor, the editing and the music (often a sticking point), all of which are aligned with—and sharpen and focus—the ideas that the movie embodies. Dixon—who starred in one of the greatest of all independent films, Michael Roemer’s “ Nothing But a Man ,” from 1964 (and then spent five years on “Hogan’s Heroes”)—begins with a tone bordering on sketch-like satire that soon crystallizes into a sharp edge of restrained precision. A senator (a white man, played by Joseph Mascolo) campaigning for reëlection finds that he needs the black vote and decides to criticize the C.I.A. for having no black agents. Even in his office, the senator speaks in a pompous, stentorian voice seemingly inflated to a constant podium bluster.

Our staff and contributors share their cultural enthusiasms.

define spook by the door

Dixon devotes careful attention to the recruitment and training process (Greenlee had himself been an employee of the U.S. Information Agency) that Freeman and the other black recruits who are his competitors endure—and to the behind-the-scenes chicanery of white officials who treat the process as a sham and hope not to integrate the agency at all. Dixon’s direction of the white actors’ performances exposes the dual meaning of the term “bad actors”: the officials’ fat-cat presumptions and facile attitudinizing are mocked in the characters’ exaggerated B-movie cadences. (The title of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” plays on the racial slur as well as the slang for “spy,” and alludes to the conspicuous deployment of the agency’s one black officer to display its phony integration.)

By contrast, in the role of Dan Freeman, Cook is laser-focussed and controlled, keeping himself under high pressure to contain tremendous heat. When Dan leaves Washington, D.C., and returns to Chicago, he does so under the guise of joining a social-services group as a street-level teacher. But when he gets there, he returns to his earlier identity as Turk, a member of a gang called the Cobras, and he organizes and trains its members as part of his battalion—with lessons that he learned in C.I.A. training courses. The sequences of their training, their planning, and their launching of action—as well as of Dan’s relations with other black men and women there, including his former fiancée, Joy (Janet League); a prostitute whom he recruits as an infiltrator (Paula Kelly); and a police detective who’s his longtime friend (J.A. Preston)—deliver a frank yet delicate reckoning with the pain and the conflict of black American lives.

The power of what Dixon accomplishes is revealed as much in what’s not onscreen as in what is. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” isn’t about the ideological or organizational development of a political party; it’s not about a public-relations war or an advocacy campaign. Rather, it’s about a cold, clear truth that infuses the movie with an existential ferocity: Dixon’s film doesn’t offer a litany of disparate grievances; it displays the bedrock of racist attitudes and assumptions that renders racist policies both inescapable and irreparable. In effect, the question that the film poses regarding the revolutionary action of black Americans—and that renders it so daring—isn’t “Why?” but “Why not?”

The longest scene in the movie, nearly at the center of it, features Dan in conversation with a fighter named Willie (David Lemieux), a college student and writer whom he recruits as “propagandist” and appoints Minister of Information. When Willie expresses contempt for his college education, Dan unleashes a calmly impassioned monologue about his illiterate grandmother learning to read when he did and telling him, “Get an education, because that’s the only thing the white man can’t take away from you.” In another extraordinary scene, as four of the guerrillas sit around chatting, two of them improvise an elaborately antic parody of a Hollywood plantation movie, complete with a servile and grateful former slave, to which Dan responds, “You have just played out the American dream, and now we’re going to turn it into a nightmare.”

Dixon, working with the cinematographer Michel Hugo (who also shot Jacques Demy’s “ Model Shop ”), composes the film with a severe, wide-eyed stillness that has the sense of a hard stare at unbearable realities and phantasmagorical practicalities alike. His stylized blankness seems to stare beyond the specifics of the drama toward vast imaginary possibilities. The power of his work was noticed by the severest critics of the era, who forced it out of theatres and nearly into oblivion. It was the second and last feature that Dixon directed—and a glance at the filmographies of its cast shows that few had significant feature-film roles afterward. As with so many independent films—sadly and unsurprisingly, particularly ones directed by women and people of color—the disappearance of this one also contributed to the erasure of careers, mentorship, influence, and power of another sort, which, judging by the fate of “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” seems to have mattered desperately to law-enforcement officials: power in the world of movies itself.

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“Ouvrir la Voix”: A Radically Frank Documentary About the Experience of Black Women in France

The Spook Who Sat by the Door: The Q&A

Q&A with cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux and actor/poet David Lemieux , moderated by writer Sandra Jackson-Opoku , following The Spook Who Sat by the Door   at Chicago State University on September 29, 2018.

The event was presented by South Side Projections and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Library as part of South Side Projections’ film series Chicago’s Black Arts Movement on Film . Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film is part of Art Design Chicago , an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy, with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Learn more at artdesignchicago.org .

Sandra Jackson-Opoku (SJ): Welcome. I’m so glad to see you here, and so glad to be on this panel with David and Jamilah Lemieux. I want to start out the conversation just by sharing a little. I’m a storyteller, so I like to tell stories, and this one is about, interestingly enough, Idris Elba. [Laughter] Sometime ago it was rumored—I think this has actually been in conversation for maybe a decade—that Idris Elba was being considered as the new James Bond, Agent 007, when Daniel Craig, who’s the current 007, steps down. And the reactions to this rumor varied from white outrage, especially white Brits who have this investment in the whiteness of James Bond, and what they considered an attempt to appropriate one of their icons. In fact, one of them argued that Idris’s persona was too “street” for the urbane and sophisticated James Bond.

Some of the opposition even came from black people. A dear old friend who carries a British passport and has lived in London for the better part of his adult life insisted that James Bond was always meant to be an Englishman. This, despite the backstory of James Bond’s Swiss origins and the undeniable fact that Idris Elba is an Englishman of African descent. Then I saw this YouTube posting with the African American comedian Ryan Davis, who argued—in a funny way, but maybe convincingly—that black men’s hyper-visibility in places where they aren’t meant to be would mean that the minute a black James Bond showed up on a case, somebody would call the police on him.

So, that’s one side of the argument. The other is the indisputable existence of “spooks,” which is the intelligence community parlance for spies. In fact, Sam Greenlee himself, back in the 1950s and early ‘60s, was a spook. So there are blacks in the Secret Service and Foreign Service of various nations. The other side of this is the long contended invisibility of black people. This is something that Ralph Ellison argued in his novel, Invisible Man , where he talked about the places where black people are regularly seen, like domestic spaces. For example, the scene in the film where the janitor goes in and steals the pipes of the CEO. It’s the refusal of the larger society to see and acknowledge black people, especially black men. This is an idea that Dan Freeman uses to his advantage in The Spook Who Sat by the Door . In fact, the director of his CIA training program says, “I somehow forgot that the man existed. He has a way of fading into the background. You can’t remember his face, or what he looks like, or what he has said, even minutes after you spoke to him.”

Next year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original British publication, and subsequent U.S. reprint, of the novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door . And this year commemorates the 45th anniversary of the film adaptation. It was also announced in August that Lee Daniels Entertainment had secured an option on The Spook Who Sat by the Door to develop it as the basis of a series with Fox 21 Television Studios, so we’ll see how that goes.

I was in London back in August, and I had a chance to check with Margaret Busby, who was Sam Greenlee’s first publisher. She’s one of the first black British publishers. And he had shopped this book around for years and wasn’t able to find a U.S. publisher who was willing to take a chance on it, so Margaret Busby’s Allison and Busby firm published it back in 1969. And Margaret told me that this was the project that caused her publishing company to go full time. They quit their jobs and became full-time publishers. Actually, an interesting fact: The Spook Who Sat by the Door first appeared in serial form. There was a time when novels were serialized in newspapers. It was in The Guardian , which is one of the major British newspapers. So it appeared over a series of months, in pieces.

I want to start the question and answer with David. I just want you to share your memories of Sam Greenlee, and also what you remember about making the film.

David Lemieux (DL): I met Sam Greenlee when I was maybe sixteen years old, or a little bit older. I was working as a busboy in a restaurant in Hyde Park called Chances R. I guess some people here are old enough to remember that. The people that I was with, we all read The Spook Who Sat by the Door , because that was the stuff, that was the ultimate, you know. A revolutionary group that was actually bringing warfare, not conversation, but warfare.

He came into the restaurant. I kept looking at him, and his picture was on the back cover of one of the publications. I knew who he was, put it that way. So I went to his table and said, “Excuse me, brother, are you Sam Greenlee?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you know, I really like your book a lot. There’s a character in there I really, really relate to.” And he said, “Yeah, I know, Pretty Willie.” I said, “Yeah, because it’s nice to see a black character that’s my complexion that’s not a tragic mulatto. Like, ‘I’m trapped between two worlds.'” Like, I ain’t never been on that shit. [Laughter] I always tell people that I’m mixed, but I’m not mixed up. [Laughter] So, I just appreciate him, because most of the time when they would depict someone as light skinned as I am, they’d have some kind of psychosis going on that made them less than, or they were tricking on them, whatever. So he said, “Tell you what, if I ever make a movie I’ll look you up.” I’m thinking, “Yeah right, sure.” [Laughter]

So maybe three years later—two, three years later, ’cause I think I was nineteen when it was made—there was a brother that was actually in the Panther Party here in Chicago that knew Sam Greenlee, and he was involved in theater. He’s passed away, his name was Arrow Brown, we called him Cubby. Anyway, he somehow knew Sam, and Sam Greenlee described me, and he said, “I know exactly who you’re talking about.” He didn’t have any trouble locating me, and he came to me. He just pretty much took me off the street, and said, “Hey man, come with me. Sam Greenlee wants to meet you.”

So I went with him over to Sam Greenlee’s apartment up in Woodlawn. When I walked in, that little red, black and green hat I have on in the film—those are all my clothes—I had that on at the time. All 135 pounds of me. And I recognized the other brother there was Ivan Dixon, who, people say, “Oh, Ivan Dixon, Hogan’s Heroes .” But my Ivan Dixon, in my mind, was the Ivan Dixon from Nothing But a Man , a classic black film that was made with Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Foster. A superb film, that was probably made in the late ‘50s, very early ‘60s. But anyway, he gave me a script and asked me to start reading it. So I started reading, and he said, “You can stop.” Then he said, “Well go on, take it from the top.” I started reading again, and they started laughing. Dixon was laughing. And you know, I’m nineteen years old, full of fire, and I’m not into that Hollywood stuff at all, and I wasn’t an actor. So I put the script down. I said, “What’s so damn funny? What do you find funny?” He said, “Oh, brother, you had the part as soon as you walked in the door. I just want to make sure you can read.” [Laughter] That’s a true story. So, yeah, I can read.

Anyways, Sam was a good brother. He was very serious about what he was doing. Many of the people in the film, like the brothers that were Cobras, put it this way, most of the Chicago people were not involved in theater. Pemon [Rami] was, the brother who played Shorty. But we were just brothers that he picked out. I got the part ’cause I look like I do, and I talk like I do. I didn’t have to act. So there you go.

SJ: And you were pretty.

DL: That’s questionable. [Laughter]

SJ: Jamilah, I know your father’s role in The Spook Who Sat by the Door proceeded your birth, but what are your memories of the film? Did you see it as a child, and what did you think when you saw it?

Jamilah Lemieux (JL): I did. I was pretty little the first time I saw it, maybe six, seven, eight. So there was a lot that went over my head, but probably not too much, because my sister who’s here can tell you that the values that Daddy had at that point were the values with which we were raised. So none of this was surprising to me. But it has been a special little part of our family, I guess, for our entire lives. I’ve come across a lot of people in my work, when I studied theater, that were familiar with the movie. So it has always been nice to say, if somebody brings it up, “Oh yeah, my dad was in that.” So it’s something that I’m proud that he did, and I’m happy that he’s been able to talk to people about it, and that the story has stayed alive as long as it has, especially considering the efforts to keep the film away from audiences since it was made.

SJ: Actually, now that you mention it, I wanted to ask David—Sam would always complain, bitterly, that the subversive message in the film caused him to be punished, and to have to struggle economically, that he was white balled for the rest of his life. I know that he did struggle to make a living, that he was always in survival mode. In fact, towards the end of his life, he was proudly bootlegging his own movie. He would carry it around in a backpack and sell it for $10. But is it true—he always said that the FBI had ordered the movie theaters to not screen The Spook Who Sat by the Door when in was released in 1973. What are your thoughts on that?

DL: There’s an excellent film that if you all are interested you should watch, it’s called Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door , where they really detail some of those circumstances. There’s interviews with Sam, with me, with some of the people that were in the film. Ivan Dixon passed away before that film was made, so there’s an interview with his wife, Berlie Dixon.

Sam actually went all the way to Africa, he actually went all over to try to get funding for the film. He did not want any other people involved in the film. He didn’t want any studios involved in the film. He wanted it to be 100% independent, so he would have 100% control over not only the content, but the distribution, and everything else after the fact. He secured some promises from some Nigerian businessmen when he’d gone to Nigeria. He had different groups of investors. Nobody invested a ton of money in it, he just got a little bit here, a little bit there.

He was moving along with that process when he went to Nigeria. Apparently some representatives from the U.S. government went and visited the brothers who were gonna do business with him. Actually it was Ivan Dixon, specifically, ’cause Ivan Dixon was known as a—I don’t even like using words like radical, ’cause it just sounds so lame to me, “radical.” He was a genuine race man, for those of you all that understand what that meant. He was always doing things that were dignified. He had to make a living, so he would be in films, or TV shows, or whatever, but when he did his own projects, they were always very dignified, very strong, very pro-community. So when the film actually came out, there’s absolutely no doubt—remember this was, I want to say the height of COINTELPRO, but any of us know damn well it’s still going on now. But it was during the height of that point in the history of COINTELPRO. I guarantee you that that film was definitely suppressed.

A very quick anecdote: I remember a brother one time that told me he actually saw the film on a ship at sea. He was in the military. I said, “There’s no way they would show that.” He said what happened was, someone had picked it up, and they saw the title The Spook Who Sat by the Door , and they thought it was, like, a Halloween movie. [Laughter] And they did not watch it. And somehow, just some random person got it, and said, “Yeah, we’re gonna show this film.” And they started showing it, and all hell broke out on the ship. [Laughter] I mean, this is anecdotal, I don’t know if it happened or not, but it was such a good story, I don’t doubt it.

But did they try to suppress that? Absolutely. I have no doubt about that. And tried to destroy all the copies. The only reason that there is a copy is because Ivan Dixon had the wherewithal to put a master copy—’cause there’s not just one—into a container that was labeled some other way. So United Artists, who ended up being the distributor, and ended up having to finance the last several weeks of shooting, ’cause they kept running out of money during the process—United Artists completely panned I’m sure, under pressure. You know, you could go see Dolemite for ten months, but you couldn’t see The Spook .

SJ: So there’s this question that’s asked sometimes, more about the book than the film, but the film, too, and that is: What is it? I mean, there’s always this urge to categorize and to label. So the question is: Is it a political novel, a political film? Is it genre fiction, like a spy film, or a thriller? Some people suggest that it’s a satire of the Black Arts Movement, or the civil rights movement, even a proto-Blaxploitation film. So how do you categorize? And this is gonna be either one of you all.

JL: I mean, I’d say fantasy.

SJ: Why is it fantasy?

JL: Because I think that Mr. Greenlee and many other people who were involved with the film—this was a dream of theirs. You know, the idea that we could be organized, and take to the streets, and fight for our liberation, was a dream of sorts. I certainly wouldn’t call it a satire. There are obviously some strong political things there, but I always thought of it as a fantasy. You know, every time I watch it, I just think, “What if?” What might 2018 look like if something like that had actually happened?

DL: Yeah, I pretty much agree with that. I mean, for those of us that were involved in it—of course, I wasn’t involved in producing it, I didn’t write it, but I was not acting. I mean, man, it was just that. Like, man, this is great. Y’all give me an AR-15, I’m shooting at these people who historically try to kill me and mine. So yeah, I’d say fantasy. There was a philosophy to it, and he had a whole thing. You know, the whole little thing, this is not about hating people, this is about loving our own, and fighting for our liberation. I mean, that’s classic. That’s classic Malcolm X. It just is. So I would say definitely not a satire. There is, to me, very little levity in the film. Every now and then there will be something where, I guess this is supposed to be a little funny, you know, the war is over and I can’t pay you. But for the most part, yeah, it was on a lot of people’s minds back then.

SJ: About that scene that you just mentioned, David, that’s kind of a pivotal scene in the film, where Dan Freeman and your character, Pretty Willie, have this conversation. It starts out being about complexion and what the identity is of being a black man, but then it goes into things like the Great Migration and that sort of thing. If you compare the scene in the movie to the scene in the book, there’s some difference. And I understand you say you didn’t write the film, you didn’t produce it, but I understand you did have a role in sort of defining and giving Pretty Willie a certain type of dialogue. Can you talk about that?

DL: That scene, you know, “I was born back. I live black. I’ll probably die because I’m black. Because some cracker will put a bullet in my head,” that was me just talking. That scene took all day. It looked like it might have been simple but, you know, when we were shooting that specific scene, the brother that played Freeman, Lawrence Cook—he’s passed, he’s an ancestor now—he was a pretty funny brother. You should have seen, he’d make little faces sometimes. I had a hard time focusing because he kept making me smile, you know, I was nineteen years old.

But then Ivan Dixon told me to start thinking about some of my own experiences that I had dealing with this whole, you know, melanin deprivation shit I’ve been dealing with since I was born. [Laughter] And again, not being a tragic mulatto, but definitely angry, irritated at times, because I’ve never done or gone anywhere else. So sometimes you get a little tired of that shit, you know, and the assumptions that people make. I’m not talking about people thinking that you’re white, I’m talking about the ones that know you’re black but just have an idea of how you’re supposed to think, and how you’re supposed to roll, and what you’re supposed to be into. “Why are you not living in Chatham? Why you not doing this? Why you not doing that?” I had an elder tell me one time, “Boy, you just butter down the drain.” ‘Cause I wasn’t in that mix, you know.

So I mean, I had all that stuff going on. And Ivan Dixon, who’s a beautiful brother, he just said, “Look, David. Just let it out. Just go on a rant,” which I’m very capable of doing. [Laughter] And he said, “Just keep going.” And he told them just to start filming. He said, “Just go on.” Because I actually said a few more things than what you heard. [Laughter] You know, “Some cracker will put a bullet in my head,” or the last line wasn’t in there, “I’m gonna kill one of these motherfuckers, and I’m sick of them fucking with me,” that wasn’t in there. [Laughter] You know what I’m saying? So they stopped right at that part.

But yeah, people remember that. And some people thought it was funny because people say “oh this high yellow motherfucker and this and that and the other.” No, I know how I look. When I was nineteen I might have went [makes angry sound] about that, but now, “Okay man, whatever.” But that was kind of a big deal. He just let me loose. I also wrote the line, “They got some bad brothers in New Orleans.” [Laughter] ‘Cause that was after Mark Essex had gotten in that tower and did what he did. And it took a marine helicopter to completely obliterate the top floor of the Holiday Inn in downtown New Orleans in order to get that brother. And supposedly he may have had an accomplice that they never got, so I’m just saying. I’m sure y’all youngsters don’t know who Mark Essex is. Look him up.

SJ: The killing thing about those kind of identity politics is the assumption that there’s some essential way of being black. That being black is reduced to being of a certain complexion, or coming from a certain place, or speaking a certain way, or having a certain type of education, or a lack thereof. You know, this essentialism, which I think has probably been one of our biggest struggles.

I have a Jamilah question for you. The two most striking images of black women—really the only ones, there was a secretary at the beginning—but the two most striking images of black women who are main characters are the unnamed Dahomey Queen, who was a D.C. prostitute that Freeman has this long relationship with during the time that he’s with the CIA, and then his ex-fiancee Joy, with whom he continues to fool around. What do you make of those gender dynamics in The Spook Who Sat by the Door ? And I know that it’s always dangerous when we look back on the past through the lenses of the present, it’s called presentism, and judging the past through those lenses. But I think that it’s a discussion worth having, about whether those depictions of black women depict any masculinist tendencies in the Black Power Movement.

JL: The short answer is yes. I think that those women were honest characters in terms of how a lot of men—and this cuts across racial lines for certain experiences—view women. So it’s not that these were necessarily wholly negative depictions of women, but that they weren’t just simply there. And I think that perhaps the greatest shortcoming of our pre-2000s black radical movements, and the Civil Rights Movement, and freedom movements throughout history, has been a failure to recognize and center women as equals. And we can be equals with different or intersecting skill sets. It’s not about saying that the women had to be in the streets with guns. There were certainly women that were in the streets with guns. But that I’m not surprised, you know? It never offended or bothered me.

Again, this is a movie that I’ve been watching for thirty years. If something were to come out like that today, I would have a different reaction to that. I would look for the women to be more present. But I think that so often, for a lot of people, their vision of black power and black liberation was centered around liberating the male, so that he might be the one to decide what the lives of black women would look like. And I don’t think that they would articulate that, and say, “Well, when this happens, then we’re gonna decide what you all do.” But patriarchy is patriarchy is patriarchy. So I would hope that any sort of modern day story, or someone who wanted to tell the truth about not just the sort of radical actions that are going on today, but the sisters who fought side by side with my dad, you know, when he was in the Black Panther Party, would talk more about the role of the women. Not just in terms of being in the freedom movement, but I’d want to know more about their relationships.

The other woman, even though you didn’t see her, who was significant in the film was his grandmother, who couldn’t read, which I thought was interesting. There’s an affection for and love for women, which is very different than having a derisive, dismissive, “I don’t care about them” sort of attitude. But it’s this reverence that still in a way can erase your humanity and your capability, and just kind of render you into these roles of nurturer, lover, mother, etc.

DL: The only thing I can say is that, philosophically, I was a member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. I never looked at women as background people. There were sisters in the party that did the same thing that we did. So we really weren’t on that sexist stuff. Now were there individuals in the party that might have been on that? Yeah. But in general, we just didn’t play that. I mean, the icons of the party, you saw Huey, you saw Ericka Huggins. Angela Davis, by the way, was not in the Black Panther Party, but Angela Davis was one of the revolutionary icons of that time period. I don’t really feel like, personally, we had that going. And I agree with my daughter that women are not depicted in a negative manner in the film. Even the sister that, okay, she’s a sex worker, so what does she do? She ends up spying and giving information to the revolutionaries. So you use whatever you doing to make it work for the people. It is what it is. I don’t really think that that was a big issue in the film. Again, historically, it was what it was. Nowadays, things would be depicted differently.

SJ: What about the fact that she didn’t have a name? I found that interesting. She was only known by the title of Dahomey Queen.

DL: It’s an honorable title. Kind of threw her off a little bit, being referred to as a queen. So, is that bad?

JL: I argue yes. I think the lack of a name is significant. Again, she was a figure, she represented something. She was a means to an end, she was beautiful, but she was not, you know, Sara, or Malika. She wasn’t a full person.

DL: Her name was Paula, but anyway. [Laughter]

JL: Well, we didn’t know that.

Audience Member #1: Her name was what?

SJ: The actress’s name was Paula.

DL: We called her Paula, so. [Laughter] But I understand your point.

SJ: I’m gonna throw up two general questions and then open it up to the floor. One of them is: How did both the book and the film look at some of the pressing political issues of the time? You have the Cold War going on, and then the tail end of the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, Jim Crow, post-Jim Crow moment sort of thing. So that’s one question. And then, the Chicago Freedom Fighters was the name of the group that came out of the Cobras—well, in the film, they were the King Cobras, and in the book. But it seems to me like there really was a street gang called the Cobras, wasn’t there? On the West Side? Supreme Cobras? Okay. Anyway, the question was, these men are pulled from the ranks of this street gang, and through his intervention and his training they become freedom fighters. So, as a former police officer and detective with what we call the force—I guess now it’s the CPD—how realistic are those portrayals of street gangs, and their culture, that sort of thing?

DL: You know, his purpose was to elevate their consciousness to where they were no longer a threat to the community, but a service to the community. Remember, gangs for the most part are made of young people, just like in the military. They get seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-olds, ’cause they’re a little more easily influenced to do things. That energy can be turned in a positive way. I mean, I’m not gonna go through all the cliches of why some of our young men end up doing those sort of things, nor am I absolving people of abhorrent behavior, you know, things that are destructive to the community.

At the same time, these are groups of young men that are already organized, that already have a structure of organization, that oftentimes—not so much now as back then—have some sort of philosophy of behavior, you know, they have a chain of command. They have things to be able to influence them to turn that energy away from doing things that are destructive in the community, to become protectors of the community. It’s really not a far-fetched concept. It really isn’t. So I think that’s why Sam went with that.

And just for people that are not my age, I’m certainly one of the oldest people in the room, if not the oldest person in the room. I know there’s some other brothers in the room, we’re probably all around the same age. The gang situation back then was a completely different thing than what you see today. Again, there was structure, there was order. I’m not saying that was good, ’cause it’s never good when you have people extorting businesses, and taking kids’ lunch money. But the fact that there was some sort of rules of behavior that had already been accepted by these young men—you change the rules into things that are more conducive to the community, that could happen. Now, my assessment of that really don’t have anything to do with my time on the police department. It just is what it is. I was in the community, I spent a lot of my formative years in Parkway Gardens, 64th and King Drive. And walking down King Drive, I mean, you would go through more than one territory, but you could sort of stay out of the mix of their stuff if you wasn’t into that. It’s a little different with young people now.

SJ:  Did you have anything to add to that, Jamilah? All right, we’re gonna open it up to questions from the audience. I’m gonna ask you to please make your questions brief, and if you feel like making a statement, versus a question, please make that brief. And stand up so that we can hear you. Do we have a mic for the house? Okay, so just talk loud. Any questions? Yes, sir.

Audience Member #2: When you were talking about it being a fantasy of what 2018 would be like—I was thinking about, when watching the movie this time, because I had seen it when I was much younger, the shooting of Shorty by the cops, and then the resulting riot. We’re kind of not too far from that right now. And I was wondering what you might think of that.

SJ: So the question was that the shooting death of Shorty in the film was very reminiscent of some of the things that were going on. And I agree with you, there were a lot of things, when you re-read the book and look at the film. It’s sort of like things haven’t really changed that much.

DL: Well, repression breeds resistance. It’s just true. That’s not even just a human thing. All living creatures have a right to want to live and breathe and walk around the next day. If you go to step on an ant, they’ll try to get out of your way. If you try to step on red ants, if they can, they’ll crawl up your leg and bite you. When communities suffer certain behavior over and over and over and over again—see, the difference between now and back then, of course, is communication now, social media, things happen now in real time. You may not just hear about what maybe happened after it has been embellished a hundred times, you might actually see something. What is that little tagline? This is happening, or this happened. You see something actually play out.

So yeah, has there been any great, huge, cataclysmic change in the position that many of our people find themselves in in this society? No. What’s gonna be the consequences of that? It’s kind of hard to say. This is a different breed of youth, too. I’m not even gonna comment on that, ’cause I’m not qualified to judge, I can only make observations. We have a lot of hashtag revolutionaries. [Laughter] When I was in the Panther Party, we called them Rally Panthers. They show up at the rally, raise their hand, say, “All power to the people,” but they didn’t get up at four o’clock in the morning to go feed the little kids breakfast. They didn’t sit up in the headquarters hoping that the door wasn’t gonna get kicked down. Those were the real Panthers. But, anyway, they have the same equivalent now. We’ll see. Take good care of your health so you can be around a long time to see how this is gonna play out.

JL: I think that there’s certainly the potential. By the end of the film, in six cities there have been uprisings. I think that the political climate now, and the level of discomfort and awareness—I mean, the upside of social media and the internet is that you don’t have to wait til it’s int Jet to find out that Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. You’re watching this happen within hours, if not minutes, across the world. So, you know, I think that it’s possible that we’ll see—I don’t know if it would be something organized, as this was, but that at some point there will be—I mean, we are seeing uprisings, right? But people that are actually prepared to go into armed struggle is very different than saying, “I’m ready to go rally,” or “I’m gonna do a die-in,” or “I’m gonna fill the jails tonight, and we’re gonna do bail support, and people are gonna get locked up on purpose.”

But I do think that it’s going to get violent in ways that we haven’t seen, and that the pain is going to be redistributed, and I think we’re long overdue for that. I’m not saying that’s my desire, but how long can you create somebody, and train them to self-annihilate, and be the architect of their lives, and make decisions on their behalf, and tell them that they’re less than a person, and even when they’ve achieved class mobility or access into certain spaces, remind them that they are an interaction with a police officer or a nervous white woman away from death? How long can you treat a group of people like that without there being some sort of serious repercussions? So I will be interested to see what kind of conversation we’re having about this in ten years.

SJ: There are a lot of dated things about this film, but there are some very visionary things. One thing that Dan Freeman, which is, Sam Greenlee, said about the white power structure is, “A powerful and dangerous fool is not to be underestimated. Add the elements of hypocrisy and fear, and one had an extremely volatile combination. It was a combination that could easily blow the country, even the world, apart.” Say no more. Yes?

Audience Member #3: I think you have a point. ‘Cause, honestly, I’m organizing in the city, I’ve been doing it for a while, and the reality of the matter is that we do have some type of structure. The problem is that we have folks who are pacifists, we have folks who are at the helm of mayors, of governors, who are willing to put up those fights. Now, seeing as we are preparing for the Laquan McDonald verdict, as a debate coach I’m getting statements from my students saying, “Where do we go if the verdict does not go the way it’s supposed to be?” And I’m a debate coach on the West Side, but I live on the South Side. And I have kids who are saying, like, “Where do we go?” And one of the organizers who popped off the Laquan protest for the city. I have kids who are sitting up there afraid. Because they don’t know. Because I have kids who are set up in DCFS custody, who have opened their mouths and said they could have easily been Laquan.

So when we sit up here and have a city—honestly, the administration is preparing for ‘68, and most cases the city is telling them the CPD is not gonna get breaks. We’re gonna let them have all out whatever, but also be in there where Snoop [Haritha Augustus] was killed in South Shore this summer. Understanding how much force that the police came in on black folks in the community. With so much force. And seeing them swing on black elder women who I see up and down 71st Street every day. And having to carry them into cars. So this idea that we can re-envision this utopia of it breaking out—I’m just saying that we are going to have blood. And unfortunately, it may happen sooner than later. And I think as a people we have to get in a comfortable space saying this is going to happen, and where do we prepare ourselves for that aftermath? Because as quickly as we can have those folks who are willing to put out those fires, they can’t put out all of them. And we have to restructure in a way to benefit our children, and actually really politically engage with them. And I don’t mean registering to vote. I don’t mean sitting up there saying like, “Kumbaya, we shall overcome” to the poll box, either. I mean actually getting them to a space of saying we are willing to fight and die for our liberation. Just a statement.

Audience Member #4: I have a question. By the way, I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times. I wish I could have seen it today, but I was teaching late. But I’ve watched the movie with students before, with young people, and I’ve also watched it with members of the Communist Party, different communist groups, ’cause it’s a movie that gets shown when having certain conversations. It’s really great, actually, I think, as a point of conversation. I’ve also considered at what point I’ll show it to my son. I think it’s a movie that he should see, ’cause it’s a movie that influenced me as a young person.

One of the questions that comes up, that I often ask my son—he’s in love with Marvel superheroes. [Laughter] And we went to go see the Black Panther movie, and at the end of it, he and I had the same reaction, the same question. Basically, he was like, “Why do superheroes always have to use violence and fight people to solve problems?” And I don’t necessarily consider myself a pacifist, but I do ask that question. In a violent world, where is the place for creativity? And how much more powerful is creativity than violence as a solution to a violent world?

So I guess I pose that question in the space of this movie. This movie is essentially a Black Panther Party fantasy. At some point, I’ve heard that there were intended conversations between Fred Hampton Sr. and Jeff Fort, leader of the Blackstones, about that same question, about organizing a militia to directly go into combat with the Chicago police. And there are other people who have questioned that, the idea of an organizing strategy to go directly into combat. We don’t necessarily have any superheroes with superpowers on our side. So the question is: Where is the place for living as a strategy? With that same sort of creativity, if we could fantasize what a world would be like where we fought the police to the death of who knows, ’cause we’ve seen them bomb entire neighborhoods, what are the ultimate fantasies? [Laughter] I’m sorry, that’s a long question.

DL: I won’t give a really long David Lemieux answer. I’ll try not to. So this is the thing. One methodology doesn’t exclude another methodology. There will always be artists, there will always be musicians, there will always be dancers, there will always be people that make things that entertain, or make things that inspire you, there will be doctors. Everybody has their own part. That was one of the things that we dealt with in the Black Panther Party. I mean, we had a health clinic. We weren’t training people to use what we used to call “technical equipment.” That was our responsibility to learn how to deal with that.

As far as the thing with Jeff and Fred and the different gang people, I mean, one of the reasons that he was killed was not so much the whole concept of him organizing the gang structures to make war on police, it was organizing gang structures not to fight with each other. It’s amazing how autonomous a group of people can be if we are at peace with one another. Now, should your enemy attack you, that’s completely different. Because it’s your right as any living creature to protect yourself. And what you have to do to protect yourself can take different levels. But the biggest thing around organizing is that we are at peace with one another. That we don’t let our various isms and schisms make us want to—

—Malcolm, although he was assassinated in ’65, so keep in mind, we’re talking about me in seventh grade, eighth grade, into high school, right? But I was one of the people that were calling Dr. King a Tom, Uncle Tom, this and that and the other. “They’re not revolutionary, they’re not this and that and the other.” So I had the experience of being in Atlanta, I was down there for a graduation, and I went to the King museum down there, right? Peace Museum, I think it’s called? I don’t remember the exact name of it. But they have one of Dr. King’s suits, just one of his suits that he wore down there. And he was not a really big person in size, he was kind of short, you know. And I was looking at this suit, and I had taken the whole tour of where he was born, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and this and that and the other.

And for those of you that are older, you’ll get this: Dr. King had it made. He had his divinity degree from Morehouse College, he was going to inherit the Ebenezer Church. He was going to be the successful, safe Negro that was gonna get the pick of the choir, that was gonna get to drive a Cadillac, even in the southern town, because after all, he’s a colored preacher, and as long as he didn’t stir up no mess, he could have been fine. Even old Billy Bob White Sheriff wasn’t gonna bother him, because he’s a colored preacher, they go to church on Sunday, they don’t bother nobody. He would have been able to live his life out in, for that time period, bourgeois splendor, without any real economic worries or anything else.

But you had this little short stature person agree to philosophically embrace something that put him in front of a sea of hatred at a time when people that were peaceful—we mad at people walking around with their butt hanging out, looking thuggish, this and that and the other. Look at some of the pictures from the Civil Rights Movement, like they call it, and here’s these black men and women dressed like they’re going to church. Suits and ties and total conformity to the standards of this particular American culture. But yet they still killed them, and spit on them, and sicced dogs on them. Well, that’s not my methodology, I don’t agree with that methodology, but that didn’t make him a Tom, or a coward, or anything else. Because they did accomplish things with mass movements, mass civil disobedience, boycotts. It does mean something, it just isn’t the methodology that I necessarily share. But we spend a whole lot of time and energy ridiculing one another, when we should have just been, “You do what your camp is doing,” “You do what your camp is doing.” And when we come across each other, “Hey, I love you brother, I love you sister,” and keep it moving.

SJ: I think we should probably end on that note of a medium-sized David comment. And I’d like to thank you all for coming, for being a part of this event.

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

A black man plays 'uncle Tom' in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to plot a new American revolt. A black man plays 'uncle Tom' in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to plot a new American revolt. A black man plays 'uncle Tom' in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to plot a new American revolt.

  • Sam Greenlee
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  • Lawrence Cook
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  • Paula Kelly
  • 21 User reviews
  • 16 Critic reviews
  • 1 win & 2 nominations


  • Dan Freeman

Paula Kelly

  • Dahomey Queen

J.A. Preston

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Don Blakely

  • Pretty Willie

Byron Morrow

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Elaine Aiken

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  • Trivia The actor who played Pretty Willie ( David Lemieux ) was a member of the Black Panthers and later became a Chicago police detective.

[after being told he and the other light-skinned gang members are to rob a bank]

Pretty Willie : All the yellow nigga's, right?

[His anger coming to a slow boil]

Pretty Willie : Look, man, I am TIRED of that! I am not passing! I am BLACK! Do you hear me, man? Do you understand? I am BLACK! I am a NIGGA', you understand me? I was BORN Black, I -LIVE- Black, and I'm gonna die, prob'ly -BECAUSE- I'm Black, because some Cracker that -KNOWS- I'm Black, better than -YOU-, Nigga', is prob'ly gonna put a BULLET in the back of my head!

  • Connections Featured in Trailer Trauma Part 4: Television Trauma (2017)

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  • Dec 12, 2004
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  • December 23, 1981 (France)
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  • Runtime 1 hour 42 minutes

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Critic’s Notebook

The Spy Movie That Upset the American Dream

“The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” a 1973 parable about institutional racism, was pulled from theaters after only a few weeks. The New York Film Festival is giving new life to the cult film.

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By J. Hoberman

There are movies whose back stories and reception histories are as compelling as the movies themselves. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is one.

An added attraction at this year’s New York Film Festival (where the movie is available online through Wednesday), this much-mythologized bombshell was conceived in fury, born in flames and, on its 1973 release, advertised as America’s “nightmare.”

Directed by Ivan Dixon , “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was adapted from a best-selling novel by Sam Greenlee that, according to its author, was rejected by nearly 40 American publishers before it was brought out by a British house in 1969.

Both the novel and the film, which Greenlee produced with Dixon, concern an apparently docile Black C.I.A. employee with the allegorical name Dan Freeman. Recruited as a public relations gesture, Freeman plays the long game, using what he has learned at the agency to mastermind an guerrilla war in Chicago.

The novel was a thriller, but Greenlee — a veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service — used it as an exposé of institutional racism. “Spook” is both a racial slur and a slang term for spy; seated “by the door” suggests a person hired for show.

To direct, Greenlee enlisted Dixon, an actor (then a regular on “Hogan’s Heroes”) who had recently directed Robert Hooks in the slick studio-produced blaxploitation film “Trouble Man.” Made outside the movie industry, “Spook” was meant to mess with pop culture conventions. Greenlee originally wanted Clarence Williams III (“ The Mod Squad ”) as Freeman, the earthbound superhero who, disguised as a mild-mannered social worker, transforms a Chicago street gang into an underground fighting force. The part ultimately went to a 42-year-old member of the Negro Ensemble Company, Lawrence Cook.

Racial solidarity is the movie’s subject and the project’s DNA. Not only did Greenlee raise money from Black investors and get a fellow Chicagoan, Herbie Hancock, to write the score, he was able to use Gary, Ind., one of the first large American cities to elect a Black mayor , as a stand-in location for Chicago, thus enjoying the cooperation of the municipal authorities for powerful riot scenes.

The white characters (mainly male authority figures) are fools, brutes, knaves and patronizing liars. The Black ones are also stereotyped but given greater depth. The movie suggests a live-action animated cartoon in which the whites have two dimensions and the Blacks have three.

But, if “Spook” is a cartoon, it’s one animated by the ideas of the radical psychiatrist and champion of decolonization Frantz Fanon. The movie is an analog to anti-imperialist films like “ The Battle of Algiers ,” albeit in the guise of a blaxploitation cheapster, which is how it was presented to the distributor United Artists to secure completion money.

“Spook” opened in September 1973 in the midst of televised Watergate hearings, several years after the F.B.I.’s secret Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) disabled the Black Panthers. Paranoia was high. The year’s other independent features included the white vigilante tale “Walking Tall” and the John F. Kennedy conspiracy docudrama “Executive Action.” An anticipatory article in The Chicago Defender, the nation’s pre-eminent African-American weekly, wondered if “Greenlee’s masterpiece” might “touch off race warfare.”

Unsurprisingly, reviews were mixed. New York Magazine characterized “Spook” as “completely irresponsible.” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby gave a more cautious appraisal : The movie is “seldom convincing as melodrama,” but “the rage it projects is real.” Indeed, midway through, the police trigger a violent chain reaction — shooting an unarmed kid as he flees through a back alley — that is still unfolding when “Spook” ends.

Some weeks later, The Times ran a Sunday think piece with the headline “This ‘Spook’ Has No Respect for Human Life.” It concluded that “not just a film about Black people,” “Spook” was “a valuable lesson” in dramatizing “man’s response to oppression.” By then, the movie had pretty much disappeared. Greenlee said that after three weeks in release, during which F.B.I. agents hounded exhibitors to pull the film, UA withdrew it from circulation, citing poor box office grosses. (According to the Internet Movie Database , “Spook” brought in $270,000 during its abortive run.)

White America was spooked. The movie was blamed for serving as a Black Panthers textbook and for inspiring the Symbionese Liberation Army, the largely white revolutionary cell that would go on to kidnap Patty Hearst. Lawrence Cook’s big-screen career went nowhere and, despite becoming a prolific TV director, Dixon would never direct another theatrical movie. Still, “Spook” had a fugitive existence, circulating for years on bootleg VHS tapes in video stores.

In 2003, the actor Tim Reid found the only extant 35-millimeter print stored under a different title. In 2004, the movie was reissued on DVD. Seven years later, it was the subject of a documentary feature and a year later, it was named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. In 2018, the novel was optioned by Lee Daniels for a TV mini-series, and the movie occasioned an anthology of academic papers.

Like all cult films, “Spook” blazed a unique path to the canon. Historically, it can be bracketed with two earlier, highly successful independent productions — “Putney Swope,” a 1969 absurdist comedy by the white director Robert Downey in which an African-American takes charges of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Melvin Van Peebles’s groundbreaking celebration of a Black outlaw, released in 1971. But unlike “Swope,” “Spook” is something other than hip satire and, as opposed to “Sweetback,” it did not lend itself to recuperative commercialization.

“Sweetback” spawned blaxploitation (Van Peebles demanded that his movie’s X rating apply only to white patrons); “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” subverted it. Although the movie was deemed PG, one can only imagine the ruckus had it been released during the upheaval of 1970. Seen today (or juxtaposed with the 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” an investigation into the police killing of Chicago’s charismatic Panther leader), the title has a third meaning.

“Spook” may be a eulogy, but the most shocking thing about this unquiet movie is how relevant it remains.

The New York Film Festival runs through Oct. 11, largely online. For more details, go to filmlinc.org .

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‘The Spook Who Sat By The Door’: Lee Daniels-Produced Spy Drama Being Redeveloped At FX

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define spook by the door

FX , Lee Daniels and 20th Television are taking another stab at adapting Sam Greenlee’s spy novel The Spook Who Sat By The Door as a TV series after a pilot, written by Leigh Dana Jackson and directed by Gerard McMurray, did not go forward at the network.

“We are working on a redeveloping of it,” FX Entertainment President Eric Schrier told Deadline Thursday during an interview tied to the network’s TCA presentation. “Lee Daniels is still involved, and they are working on it. We are reworking on the development side of it, we are not going forward with the current pilot, which Leigh Dana Jackson tweeted about awhile ago.”

The Spook Who Sat By The Door has been a passion project for Daniels who optioned Greenlee’s book in 2018 through his Inclusion Fund. A year later, the project was set up at FX with Jackson as writer and showrunner. It was picked up to pilot in early 2021.

Search is underway for a new writer to pen the new incarnation for Lee Daniels Entertainment and 20th TV where the company is based.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door tells the fictional story of Dan Freeman, a patriot and Vietnam vet, who is recruited as the only Black operative in the CIA as part of an affirmative-action program in the late 1960s. After a very competitive selection process he trains in high-level combat and espionage. However, following this arduous training, this model recruit is rewarded with a post in the reprographics (aka photocopying) department, “left by the door” as a token of the CIA’s “racial equality.”

The FX pilot starred Y’lan Noel, Christina Jackson, Lucas Till, Nafessa Williams, Nathan Darrow and Tom Irwin.

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Beginning with its provocative title, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is perhaps the most powerfully political look at US race relations in the early 1970s to have received a theatrical release. Directed by Ivan Dixon, the film tells a credible tale of a Black CIA agent who rebels against his role as a racial token and uses his training in counterrevolutionary tactics to organize a guerrilla group in Chicago to fight racism. The story proved so controversial that United Artists was content to let The Spook Who Sat by the Door sink out of sight, although it did attract an avid following among scholars and fans of African-American cinema, as did the soundtrack by Herbie Hancock. Hancock’s use of funk and Afrofuturism provide a powerful voice for Black Pride in the film, which has lately been rediscovered to take its place alongside the canon of the 1970s American New Cinema. 

Audio transcription

For more interviews and talks, visit the Harvard Film Archive  Visiting Artists Audio Collection  page

The Spook Who Sat by the Door introduction and post-screening discussion with Haden Guest and Herbie Hancock. Monday February 24, 2014.

Announcer  0:00 

February 24, 2014. The Harvard Film Archive screened The Spook Who Sat by the Door . This is the recording of the introduction and Q&A that followed. Participating is Herbie Hancock, who composed the film score, and HFA Director Haden Guest.

Haden Guest  0:18 

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Haden Guest. I'm director of the Harvard Film Archive. I'd like to begin first by asking everybody to kindly please turn off any cell phones and electronic devices that you have on you, anything that makes noise or sheds light needs to be turned off. And if you'd also please kindly refrain from taking any photographs, I think that would be greatly appreciated.

Because tonight is a very, very special night. We have with us none other than the great Herbie Hancock. Into this space, we welcome many great filmmakers, but very few musicians, and very few of the stature of Herbie Hancock, who is, of course, one of the towering and pioneering figures of post-war jazz. At the same time, he's also, I'm very happy to say, a Charles Eliot Norton Professor in 2014. And so we are welcoming and celebrating Herbie Hancock's work and legacy, within the context of the Norton Lectures. The third Norton Lecture by Herbie Hancock, “Cultural Diplomacy and the Voice of Freedom,” will be this coming Thursday, at 4 pm. and everyone is welcome to attend. Herbie Hancock has been celebrated, and studied, and recognized as, again, one of the most influential voices in jazz, of the 60s and beyond. Remains extraordinarily active, and yet his work in cinema, I think, is underappreciated, and that's what we've been looking at. We began last night. We screened Blow-Up , the great Antonioni film, for which Herbie Hancock contributed a wonderful score. And tonight, we're going to be seeing a film from 1973, The Spook Who Sat by the Door . It's an important film, for many reasons, not least of which is Herbie Hancock's quite amazing soundtrack. The early 70s were a key period in Hancock's career, and found him experimenting, leading and going into new directions, and embracing and exploring funk. He's one of the first major jazz musicians to bravely embrace funk, and define what was called sort of “jazz-funk fusion,” and something which is showcased in this film.

But the film itself is also really fascinating and quite important. Those of you who saw Nothing Like a Man , the important film that we screened from 1965, earlier—it was last year—starring Ivan Dixon, the actor, who is also a director. He directed for television, principally, but he directed this one courageous and controversial film that we're about to see. It's a film that was suppressed. It was briefly released, and then it was pulled by the studio, United Artists, was considered too dangerous to be seen. The film was almost, in fact, lost, and it it resurfaced not that long ago, on a DVD release. We're going to be screening tonight a very rare original theatrical release print. I should just point out, technically, there’s a slight color fade, but this is an original 35-millimeter film print in excellent condition. It's very rare, and very important that we're able to screen this film in its original format. We're going to have a conversation afterwards with Mr. Hancock, who is now here to offer us a few words. So please join me in welcoming Herbie Hancock.

Herbie Hancock  4:33

Thank you very much for being here. Yesterday, they showed Blow-Up , which was the first film score that I did. Actually, there wasn't very much of what we call scoring in that film. All of the music was called "source music." So source music is when you either put on a record, or maybe you're in a mall, and there's music playing in the background, or you're in a bar, so there's a particular source for it. Scoring is when the music is to enhance a scene, or to actually pull back some of the emotion, if maybe what’s visually happening is stronger than what the director wants. So this film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door— I think it was 1973 when we did this? —in this film, I was using synthesizers for the first time. The band that I was touring with, was—now we call it a “Mwandishi” band. That name “Mwandishi” was actually given to me, and each of the guys in the band had a Swahili name that was associated with them in some way. Mwandishi in Swahili means a “writer,” or a “scribe”. Because this was during the civil rights days, and so we wanted something to kind of associate ourselves with our African roots at that time. Anyway, I did my first—and there isn't very much of it anyway—orchestrating, in this film. And I was very green at that, and you'll hear—there's very little, some things work okay, some things sound a little thin. I had a lot to learn, because I was very new in that area. But after these two films, we done eight more that I did. And, each time, I learn a lot more. But I'm glad you're here. And I haven't seen this film in a long time. So I'm kind of looking forward to my own reaction, because I'm a lot older now than I was when I did this film. And thank you for being here, and we'll talk later! Alright. Thank you.

Announcer  7:25 

And now the discussion and Q&A, with Herbie Hancock and Haden Guest.

Haden Guest  7:30 

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming back Herbie Hancock!

Haden Guest  7:46 

So Herbie, thanks so much for sharing this, being with us tonight, and sharing this film.

Herbie Hancock  7:52 

Well some people have things to do, let them...

Haden Guest  7:57 

Yeah, well, let’s...

Herbie Hancock  7:58

Give them a few minutes to...

Haden Guest  8:00

Okay, we’ll let people… Let’s have a glass of water, then.

Herbie Hancock  8:03

Yeah, let’s have a glass of water. Thanks.


Haden Guest  8:27 

Great. As I was saying, I mean, this is a, quite a powerful film. I mean it, yes, can be critiqued for, at times, there’s a kind of crudeness to the film. And yet, I think this film has the anger, and the sort of energy of the film is incredibly intense. And I think one of the things that that adds this power is your music. I mean, this score that really builds, especially in those climactic action sequences. And I was wondering if you could speak, tell us a little bit about how you came to work on this film, and, and the experience of working with Ivan Dixon, and this team.

Herbie Hancock  9:06

Well first of all, I absolutely was not an expert in writing music for films at that time. So I was still kind of green, and as I was watching it, and listening to the music, I was thinking, I wouldn’t have done that later on, you know? [LAUGHS] But what I did notice is that—and then I’ll answer your question—I used a lot of thematic material from the title tune, which later on I recorded as a song called “Actual Proof,” you know, for some of you who may know my records. But I got a call from Ivan Dixon, who happened to be a big jazz fan,  and he was the director of that film. I only knew him as the black actor on Hogan's Heroes . That's all I knew about him. And anyway, he called and he said he was doing a film, and he wanted me to do the music for it. The budget was small. I don't know what the budget was for the film. I know that for the music, it was very small.

You know, so we didn't use a very large orchestra. I think we had two cellos, maybe eight strings. Very, very few instruments. And the other thing I remember  is that when it came time– Oh! They didn't give us an advance for  recording the music for the film. And so it was primarily my manager then— who was David Rubinson—that kind of put up the money, and I guess I put up some money too. Between the two of us, we put up the money. They never paid us,  right? I got paid for doing the score, but we didn't get the money from the film company for doing the recording of the music. And now Warner Brothers has rights to the music for the film. They want to do a compilation record—because I used to be on Warner Brothers record label—and so they have material from about three records that I did with them. And they have The Spook Who Sat by the Door , they have the rights for it. And, uh, I wonder if I'll get paid this time? I don’t know.

Haden Guest  12:12 

Well, I don't think anybody made a lot of money from this film, I'm afraid.

Herbie Hancock  12:16 

Right, exactly. Nobody made any money from the film. [LAUGHS] It got, well, you said correctly that at that time, there was this kind of heat going on in the Black community. Not with everybody. But I mean, you saw different attitudes. And that was absolutely happening at that time. For those of us who are old enough to remember. And, the world is very different today, in many ways,  but in some ways, it's reminiscent, it stems from, what was happening back then. We still have a ways to go before the freedom. It’s not just freedom of Black people, it’s freedom of human beings, you know, for us to have the kind of free world that we actually want to live in, and that we want our children to live in, we have to create that kind of free world. This is one way of doing it. It's not my way of doing it, warfare, you know. I think we really have to do it with our hearts.

Haden Guest  13:28 

Now Herbie, I was wondering if you could speak a bit about the sort of musical concepts of that we heard. You know, 1973 is a really interesting time in your career, where you're starting to explore, you know, reach into funk, and really looking for a new direction. You're working with a number of new instruments, and different sounds. And so, I don't know, maybe you could speak a bit about...

Herbie Hancock 13:56 

Yeah, at that time—this was before I did a record called Headhunters —and there's synthesizer work in there, but I didn't do any of it, because I didn't know how to play synthesizer. And it was Dr. Patrick Gleason, that I had recently hired, who did an overdub on my last Warner Brothers record. And so I took the same, basically the same group, with Buster Williams on bass, and Bennie Maupin is on saxophone; you hear him in some scenes in the bar. I had a clavinet, because I heard the clavinet in there, with a wah-wah pedal. That I heard. I heard it a lot. [LAUGHS]

Too much, as far as I'm concerned! [LAUGHING] But that was a new instrument. And so, I guess I was wearing it out. I mean, it happens sometimes, you know, you get this “Wow, this is new! I like this new sound! We got to use it.” Right? Everywhere.

But right after the music to this film…. Oh, the drummer that was in my band was Billy Hart, but he's not the drummer in the film. It’s Harvey Mason. And the reason that I chose Harvey Mason is because Harvey Mason was a studio musician in Los Angeles. And he had played many kinds of music. He had that kind of broad-based experience, and he had played drums for movie scores. He was used to that. And I thought that he could be a big help, because I wasn't really used to that. I'd only done one film before, and it was completely different circumstances. This does have scoring, where there's music for different emotions. And so, Harvey was really a big, big help, as he has been. I recently played with Harvey just a few weeks ago. It had been many years since I played with him. At Disney Hall. This was just a couple of weeks ago, as a matter of fact.

Haden Guest  16:13 

Now, you, of course, continued to score films, and, you know, Death Wish, another amazing, amazing score. And I was wondering if you could just reflect a little bit about what is, what are the challenges, and, I don't know, possibilities, of scoring, of writing for film, as opposed to, I mean, for other mediums. Your're also, you know, equally known as a composer, as well as a performer, so...

Herbie Hancock 16:47 

Well, as I said, I've only done about ten movie scores. I haven't done a lot of them. And so I’m by no means an expert in doing movie scores. But, one of the first things I learned early on, is that it's the director's film. It's the director's dream. And as the person who's hired to do the film score, it's your responsibility to help the director to realize his dream. And through that process, you will realize your own dream for the music. Sometimes there are conflicts between what the director may want, and what you may have in mind, but what I've always tried to do is to try to figure out, how can I give the director what he really wants, even if he doesn't express it well? How can I give him what he really wants, or what's underneath what he thinks he wants, and still give him what I feel the film needs? Of course, if I'm working with a really experienced director, I will, of course, bend my opinion toward his, because he knows what he's doing. You know, he's got the experience and I have a tendency to bend toward experience, unless I think the experienced person is being hampered by his experience, because that can happen. You can get caught up in being accustomed to doing things a certain way. An example of that is the director that gets attached to what we call the “temp score.” When a director is actually cutting a film, in order to have some kind of flow—by the way, you should know, watching a film without music, unless it was particularly intended to be without music, the film's unwatchable!

How many people have seen a film without the music? Okay, it was about about three or four. Am I right? Is it almost unwatchable? Totally. Right. Right. I mean, there are some films that really are intended not to have music. But that's a rare director that's able to do that. Antonioni could do that. Yeah.

Haden Guest  19:28 

Well can, I’d actually love, I’d love to hear about–

Herbie Hancock  19:31

But I want– Oh, ‘scuse me a second, I just wanted to explain. The reason I brought that up is because the directors use a temporary score. They'll take records or something they’ve heard from some other film, and they will temporarily use it in segments of the film, just to get it to have some kind of flow, and a direction, that they want to achieve. But that's only temporary music. “Temp music” means temporary music. And, of course, the score has to be not that. But sometimes directors get so married to the temp score, that they want that! You know? If they want that, they should just pay the people that made that [LAUGHS] and use that! But they also know better than that, that doesn't really work too well. But sometimes you have to use a bit of diplomacy, to slowly wean the director off of the temp track. I'll be talking about cultural diplomacy on Thursday, but it's not about this particular instance. [LAUGHS]

Haden Guest  20:52 

Well, so working with Antonioni, I mean, so you entered cinema with a really extraordinary direction, extraordinary film, which we were able to see yesterday. And I was wondering if you could speak about working with Antonioni, how that began, because this is such an unusual film—I mean, Blow-Up —in so many ways. It's enigmatic, it's... I mean, here we have a film that's got this clear sort of thrust and message. You know, Blow-U p is very, very different...

Herbie Hancock  21:22

Haden Guest  21:23

...in that sense. So I'd love to know, how–

Herbie Hancock  21:26 

Well, Antonioni also was a huge jazz fan. His favorite jazz musician was Albert Ayler. There are not too many of you that have heard of him. He died very young, I think he was in his 30s, and he was an avant-garde jazz musician. Very far out guy that played shapes. That's what he said, “I play shapes.” And, anyway, I don't know how he picked me. I was a sideman with Miles Davis at the time. I had maybe two records out? My first one, which had the song “Watermelon Man” on it. And I think I had one more, possibly two more records. But anyway, they got a hold of me, I flew to London. And Antonioni had complete artistic control over the film. And so he showed no one. None of the executives had seen the film until the day I saw it, actually. As I said, I flew to London, and for the screening, I met some of the executives from 20th Century Fox, and all the suits, right? Then Michelangelo Antonioni was there. I met him. I have to say that maybe two weeks before that, I'd never heard of him. So I did some research and found out that I was pretty ignorant not to know who he was. But he was very well known in Europe, particularly in England, but not that many people knew him in the United States, you know. Anyway, seeing the screening, the first one where anybody from the public—in a sense, anybody outside the people who made the film—was seeing the film for the first time, you know, the studio executives and me and, as I'm watching the film, I remember feeling, I have no idea what this film is about!

I’m in deep trouble. [LAUGHS] What am I going to do? And I started to look, you know, feel the vibe in the room. And I knew, the 20th Century Fox executives, they didn't know what it was about either!

So I figured I would just watch them, and however they acted, I would act the same way, you know? And so somehow I pulled it off, and Antonioni never knew that I didn't know about the film. And, I figured, I thought, well, I’ll figure it out later, if I just, you know, keep going with the flow, I'll figure out what it is that I have to do. But one of the most important experiences I had was—and I think I mentioned that in question and answer at one of my lectures—he invited me to his suite for dinner one night. And he had an interpreter there. His English was very, very good. But for details, he wanted to have someone that knew English a lot better than he. And after dinner—between dinner and dessert—he asked me a question. He says, “Herbie, what is Art?” And I'm thinking, Antonioni is asking me what Art is?

[LAUGHING] Talking about a trick question, you know? Anyway, I have no idea what I said. I don't remember, and it's not even important what I said. But I remember what he said. He said, “There's no such thing as Art. There’s only this work, this painting, this piece of music, that sculpture, this other sculpture.” And I knew exactly what he was talking about. Soon as I heard that, it had made so much sense! It's basically, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We've heard that before. It makes so much sense. And it helped me understand the answer that he gave to another question that I asked him. Because with the crew, we were all trying to figure out what the film was about. And, I had about, maybe three or four different versions of explanations of the film, from a lot of different people. So I said, “Michelangelo! You know, there are a lot of people that have different ideas about what your film was about. And, everybody's curious about what you really had in mind for the film. And, I was wondering if any of them might be correct?” And I explained about three or four of these versions. And I said, “Are any of them correct?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Oh, wow! Which one? He said, “All of them.” Like, what? [LAUGHS] And he said, “I just put some events together. And how you interpret what these events mean, is entirely up to you. So they're all correct.” That's why he's a brilliant director. It's amazing, you know? He allows the viewer to be creative. I think there's nothing more exemplary than that.

Haden Guest  28:25 

And working together with Antonioni on the music, then, what kind of conversations did you have about, you know, this, this theme? I mean, the music, it’s strategically–

Herbie Hancock  28:34

Well, it’s source music.

Haden Guest 28: 35

Yeah, exactly. But it's so, it again, was there any...

Herbie Hancock  28:40 

There weren't a whole lot of conversations, but there were some. But much of it was obvious. And so, it was mainly me suggesting how I might treat the different scenes.  There’s a scene with the model Veruschka, who's, you know, writhing on the floor. And David Hemmings, the photographer, he's taking her picture, and it's like a sex scene. A cameraman and his camera, and her. And we both agreed that maybe it should be a kind of sexy blues, you know, something really earthy. And so, I had this instrument called a melodica, which sounds like a harmonica. And it was kind of new at that time. Of course, it's been around for years now. And, so, I use that and just play the blues, basically. And did a few takes, and we decided on the one that would be the best.

Haden Guest  30:09 

Let's take some questions, comments from the audience, if you’ll raise your hands. Questions? We have a question in front, a microphone will be brought to you so everybody can hear your question.

Herbie Hancock  30:20 

There it is, it’s coming! There it is.

Audience  30:24 

Well, I should preface this by saying that back in the day, I was friends with Sam Greenlee. And I wondered... I know a lot of the backstory.

Haden Guest  30:38 

The author of the book, the novel that this, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, was based on, and the screenwriter of this film.

Herbie Hancock 30:44

Audience  30:44 

And he's in his mid to late 90s, in Chicago.

Herbie Hancock  30:49

He's still alive!

Audience  30:50

Yeah, he's on Facebook.

Herbie Hancock 30:52

Wow, no kidding! Wow.

Audience  30:56

He's not in very good health right now, but up until fairly recently, still performs, reads poetry, and so on, and so forth.

Herbie Hancock  31:05

Audience  31:07

But as you said, nobody made any money from this film. And the way it was seized, all the effort that went into [INAUDIBLE]. But that's another story. My question, really, is he was listed as co-producer. And, I know there was friction between him and Ivan Dixon.

Herbie Hancock  31:33

Yeah, I heard. Heard there was.

Audience  31:34

I wondered if you had a working relationship at all, in terms of input into your musical ideas from Dixon, and if you did have any contact with him, sort of working relationship.

Herbie Hancock  31:51 

I haven't heard from Ivan in some time now. Haven't had much of a relationship with him since the film. You know, ‘cause he got busy, and I certainly got busy. And again, this was 1973, and I don't remember all the details about what went into the decision-making process. I did talk to Ivan, each step of the way, about what I had in mind. And I would ask him, you know, what do you think of the idea of using– Well, a synthesizer was a new thing back then, and he liked the idea of not only using orchestral instruments, but using what were new instruments, with new sounds, for this film. Sounds that people had not heard before, certainly in a film, and it was, everything before was with acoustic instruments, primarily. Nothing quite like this that I can remember. I don't remember anybody doing a film where they actually mix synthesizers with orchestral instruments. They weren't exactly mixed together in this film. The next film I did, Death Wish , I did have some scenes where orchestral instruments were mixed with synthesizers, and it was kind of a fresh thing at the time. But Ivan was very open about how the music might be approached. A lot of what I did was simple. It was too busy, at times. I know now I would have thinned things out a lot more. A lot was done with just a chord structure, and improvisation on top, which can make things pretty busy, if you're going to do that. But it's because at that time, I was very much into improvisation without a lot of structure. That was kind of what the Mwandishi band was. It was kind of a space band that was kind of tethered. But this can be untethered. So we had grooves on the bottom. But sometimes the grooves were just one simple baseline, over and over again, and I got tired of hearing the same baseline, you know? [LAUGHS] Or this time I did, you know. Anyway, that's about all I can remember. Not too many specifics about the conversations. I do know that there were some issues with Sam, but I don't remember, really, what they were. What's uppermost in my mind is the film company. You know, I remember the first screening that they saw. They hated this. They didn't want this thing to be shown. They thought this could have been really dangerous, at that time, you know? And maybe it could have been, you know? I mean, you could do this film now. And...

Audience 1  35:55 

[INAUDIBLE] blueprint for the Black Panthers [INAUDIBLE]

Herbie Hancock  31:58

Right. Yeah, that’s how they took it. Ivan didn't feel that the film would have that kind of effect. I mean, those things were going on. I don't mean those specific things were going on, but insurrection was already going on in America at that time, if you want to use that word.

Haden Guest  36:27 

Other questions, comments. That way, up, right here in the back.

Herbie Hancock  36:38 

First row and then the last row, right. Somebody in the first row have the next question, keep this guy running.

Audience  36:46 

I actually have a multi-part question. My first question is, do you feel like you now know what the movie is about?

Haden Guest  36:55

Herbie Hancock  36:56

Oh, Blow-Up . You mean Blow-Up ? Or you mean Spook Who Sat by the Door ?

Audience 37:01

Spook Who Sat by the Door .

Herbie Hancock  37:02

Spook Who Sat by the Door ? I would say that I have a better handle on it now than I did in the past. But, I mean, I'm not the kind of know-it-all person. That's not the kind of person that I am. I would never profess that I'm going to know exactly what the movie is about. The director, that's his job.

Audience  37:29

Herbie Hancock  37:30

You know, to really know what it's about. But, I think I have a better understanding of the film than I did before. And I have more of a respect for it right now than I did. Actually, I thought the other thing was going to happen—I haven't seen it in many years—and I thought that I was gonna feel like, well, that’s not a very good film, you know, it's…. Granted, the acting is, you know, some of it, like, well, the guy that played Freeman, he was really, really great. I think Paula Kelly, who was the prostitute. I think she was really, really, really cool. I mean, the principals, I think, really kind of pulled it off. But I think I have a better understanding of the film than I did before.

Audience  38:31 

And I guess my follow-up to that is, as a Buddhist, I was wondering if you could help me with something.

Herbie Hancock  38:37 

Audience 38:39

Herbie Hancock  38:40

Oh, I see. I see.

Audience  38:41 

When I was watching the film, I felt like in the beginning scenes, there was a lot of laughter for a movie that wasn't intended to be a comedy. And what I noticed is, it got to the point where it was distracting for me. And I realized that the most laughter came in scenes when it was white people speaking amongst themselves, and it almost felt like people were interpreting that as, oh, this is a caricature . This doesn't really happen. People don't really say that. And so I was wondering if you, as a practicing Buddhist, could just speak to that perceived mentality.

Herbie Hancock  39:19 

Okay. By the way, I wish you had spoken a little louder,

Audience  39:23

I’m sorry!

Herbie Hancock  39:24

...because I couldn’t hear everything that you said, but, I mean, I can't answer for everybody.

Audience  39: 34

Right. Of course.

Herbie Hancock  39:35

But I know some of the things that I laughed at, were…. I was thinking about my response to certain things that I’d laugh at, seeing the film now, that I didn't have the same impression back then, because this is now, and that was then, you know? Times have changed.

Audience  39:59

Oh, absolutely!

Herbie Hancock  40:00

And how we perceive changes. How we perceive ourselves, how we perceive the world that we live in. As I said before, I don't believe that taking up arms to fight an external force, as being the cause for my unhappiness, is the key. The key is to build yourself up, and build up your life condition, so that no matter what the circumstances are, that you're subjected to, that they will not destroy you, and not take away the freedom that you already possess within the core of your being. That building up your life condition so that that is indestructible, I think is the goal of every human being whether they realize it or not.

Haden Guest  41:13 

Is there a question here in front? Didn’t you have a question? Actually, if you could wait for the... Here comes the microphone.

Audience  41:26 

A few questions back, I was going to ask, you saw the Antonioni screening, and then the next movie you did, you saw the screening for the Spook That Sat by the Door . I was wondering, did you see that screening and say, "Will I ever be able to score a nice little love story that people are going to come to and enjoy?"

Herbie Hancock  41:48 

[LAUGHS] I was happy that I was being asked to write music for a film–

Audience  41:50

[INAUDIBLE] You have to take what you can get!

Herbie Hancock  41:52 

–score. You kidding? I was playing in clubs at the time.

Audience 41:55

Yeah, yeah.

Herbie Hancock  41:56

You know, later on, actually, by the time this film came on, I was, I was playing concerts. But, I mean, I never dreamed I'd ever do music for a film! You know, and this was the second one, and this is a film by a Black director?

Audience  42:18

Herbie Hancock  42:19

I mean, that was so rare! And primarily black actors, you know, for a major film company? I mean, I was shocked that they would get the money to do that! You know, as I said, things are changing.

Haden Guest  42:34 

Other questions? We've got another one, here in the front.

Audience  42:41 

Hi. Just kind of building a little bit on the comment you just made, about your perceptions of watching the movie then versus now. One of the things that struck me the most, well, lots of things, but one of the things was, for a movie about freedom fighting, that the only role for a woman was as sort of sexual release, or sexual objects. And I'm just curious if you had a different perception in 1973, versus 40 years later, about that fact.

Herbie Hancock  43:07 

In ‘73, I wouldn't have noticed it. I wouldn’t have noticed it. I would have been just like they were, you know. But, I have a totally different perception. And I realize exactly what you're talking about. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm married, and I have a daughter that's 44 years old, either. You know, I'm still in the process of evolving, but in that particular regard, I've definitely evolved beyond that kind of thinking. But I'm sure that if Ivan Dixon did even the same film today, it would probably have a very different tone.

Haden Guest  43:58 

Other question here, yes. Let's take a couple more, then.

Audience  44:06 

Thank you for coming. It sounds like you really appreciated the opportunity to work in film. But can you talk about your emotions from before you actually knew, maybe some of the details about the movie, versus when–

Herbie Hancock  44:16 

Can you put your mouth into the microphone?

Audience  44:18

Sure, yeah. I said,

Herbie Hancock  44:20

Thank you. See, I have these things I wear. They’re called hearing aids.

Haden Guest  44:23 

I couldn't hear him either, so.

Herbie Hancock  44:25

And they work. But I think you were under the scope of the microphone.

Audience  44:31 

Sure, I’ll start over. It sounded like you were extremely happy to be working in film, doing musical score. But I wanted to ask, can you talk about your emotions before you worked on this film specifically, versus what you felt going through the movie, and how it maybe affected the music that you were actually writing and maybe rewriting, thinking about?

Herbie Hancock  44:50 

Well, in a way I kind of touched upon it—because I said that the band I had was actually a more avant-garde kind of band, but the band also was involved with different kinds of beats. And some of them were African beats. I mean, the last record that I did for Warner Brothers with the Mwandishi band was called Crossings , and the cover looks like an island, or the coast of somewhere, and they're African sailors in these boats. I mean, this period of time was– In ’73, for me, and for many African-Americans my age, coming from, you know, a city background, and not being born in the South. Not having experienced the kind of racism that my folks did. Adopting the position of support for the civil rights movement, actually it varied quite a bit. There was no stereotypical Black attitude or experience, at that time. I mean, even though we may be talking about one race, these are human beings, and we're all different, right? And so, some were very militant, and very angry. And some suppressed anger. Some were not angry in that  same sense. And I've always been a positive person. It’s my nature to look for the brighter side of things, and not dwell on suffering. And I think it's good not to dwell on suffering, because you can be your own worst enemy, and be responsible, in a sense, for bringing yourself down. That can be an additional weight on your shoulders. But I never think about weight on my shoulders, you know. I mean, we have weight because, I mean, I weigh 189, 190 pounds. I mean, that's weight! We all have a different weight, anyway. Right? And so, to add the weight of something that comes from external influences, I don't need that, you know? But I need the strength to build up my core, so that I'm not pulled down by that either. And that's why I practice Buddhism.

Audience  48:34

Haden Guest  48:36 

Let's take one final question, from this gentleman right here, Dan.

Audience  48:43 

Thanks. It could be a yes or no question. But I'd be happy to hear you expound, expand on it either way.

Herbie Hancock  48:51

Expand on what?

Audience  48:52

It's kind of a yes or no question. But if you want to expand on it, I'd be happy to hear that. I’m thinking specifically about The Spook Who Sat by the Door , and if not, then your film work in general: were you involved in the sound design of the film at all? Because I found that, there's certain things about the sound design of that film, very, very powerful, the way that the voice would be used sometimes, an offscreen voice that would be turned around and shown to be a taped voice. And I really liked the way your music fit into the sound design, and the way it would come out. Sometimes it would be absent for a while, and then suddenly would come out in a way that I felt was very effective to the scene, more than just being a support. So I was wondering if you were involved in sound design.

Herbie Hancock  49:38 

Well, somewhat. There were scenes where the track was backwards. The rhythm track was backwards. And this was before digital, you know? Today, you just push a button, and you know, whatever audio clip you have plays backwards. You couldn’t do that then. Then, you had to cut the tape from one place to another, and turn the tape physically around, send it through the playback head of the playback machine. And, well you have to splice the other end of it, if you're going to have what's called a loop. We actually made a physical loop. That's how it was done. I remember the first time I did that. Maybe this was the first. But this was around the first time that I did this. We had a tape that went around the room from say, here, here, [INAUDIBLE] and over there and there [INAUDIBLE] You know. You'd have, you know, a bottle with water in it, with a tape going behind.

Stapler, a metal stapler, you know? And the engineers, they thought it was, like, really weird, and really cool. [LAUGHS] Because people weren't doing that. So that was one of the effects that I used in that film. And you don't know exactly what you're gonna get. So I used some kind of logic to figure what would actually sound like a repeated rhythm, hearing it forward, and then play it backwards. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't! You know, but I would make adjustments to make it work to my satisfaction.

Haden Guest  51:47 

Please join me in thanking Herbie Hancock!

Haden Guest  51:52

Thanks so much!

Herbie Hancock  51:53

That was fun! That was really good.

Herbie Hancock  51:56

©Harvard Film Archive

Part of film series

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Soundtrack by Herbie Hancock

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The classic 1973 film “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” based on the novel by writer Sam Greenlee, tells the fictional story of Dan Freeman, the first Black CIA officer. The film, directed by the actor and filmmaker Ivan Dixon, follows Freeman through his training in the Central Intelligence Agency, his subsequent assignment as a field officer, and his eventual role as the leader of a paramilitary group engaged in armed resistance against institutionalized racism. 

define spook by the door

Shot in the wake of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s and the gains achieved by the civil rights movement, the film serves as a conceptual pivot around which the philosophy of nonviolent direct action shifted towards the more militant polemics of Black separatist groups. 

The thematic elements of the film reflected the growing frustration and seething resentment within Black and brown communities for the slow pace of progress towards racial justice. The lead character, Freeman, employs the subversive guerilla tactics he learned as a CIA operative to fight the very power structure he once served — tactics grounded in deception, evasion, and invisibility. In a telling scene, Freeman, speaking to a gathering of new recruits, excavates the racist trope of the “passive Black servant” to convey a powerful lesson about the benefits of an “active invisibility” that is keenly perceptive and searingly insightful. 

“Remember, a Black man with a mop, tray or broom can go anywhere in this country, and a smiling Black man is invisible,” he says.

Freeman goes on to reveal how this invisibility —this erasure —can become an effective mechanism for resistance and liberation. In a few short lines the writer, Sam Greenlee, brilliantly recasts the “deceptive” image of the “docile, impassive and compliant” Black domestic worker into one who is empowered by a cultivated sense of heightened observation that serves as a basis for developing methodologies for survival historically linked to how well you know the ways of those who are invested in systems of white supremacy and how little they know of you. 

This power of perception sharpened necessarily by the merciless stones of racism, becomes a conceptual model for the Baha’i-inspired concept which links people of African descent with the physical and spiritual vision of the pupil of the eye. 

The following statement, originally articulated in 1921 by Abdul-Baha , the son of Baha’u’llah , the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith , after seeing a photograph of Robert Turner , the first African American Baha’i, decouples the concept of “Blackness” from the negative associations meant to divest it of its brilliance. Instead, Abdu’l-Baha hinges Blackness to the scintillating power of spiritual light and insight: 

O thou who art pure in heart, sanctified in spirit, peerless in character, beauteous in face! Thy photograph hath been received revealing thy physical frame in the utmost grace and the best appearance. Thou art dark in countenance and bright in character. Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye which is dark in colour, yet it is the fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.

Abdul-Baha’s penetrating words conveyed during the early years of the 20th century predate the Black power movement and Greenlee’s controversial text by more than half a century and the civil rights movement by four decades. When viewed within the historical period in which these revolutionary sentiments were expressed, and the divine nature of their origin, they constitute the blunt force of a hammer strike rousing a slumbering society, ignorant of the inherent nobility and dignity of its Black citizens —  a blow that sends echoes through eternity. 

The term “spook” has a number of associative meanings that provide additional context, which helps to frame a deeper understanding of the concept of “the pupil of the eye”. Among these are a ghost, or spectre; a spy or undercover agent; a derogatory way to refer to Black people by conflating their skin color, particularly at night, with the haunting, dark visage of a ghost. Inherent within all of these descriptions is the condition of invisibility that facilitates the practice of ‘active’ observation. The “spook” in the film is a ghost, a spy, and in the case of the lead protagonist Dan Freeman, an institutional “house negro” viewed as compliant and non-threatening. 

The irony, of course, is that the “spook” is always watching and learning about the environment they occupy, studying its contradictions, its fault lines and fissures, compiling the information necessary to accurately perceive the nature of their surroundings. The blindness of racism renders such individuals as irrelevant, unworthy of thoughtful consideration. Thus, the larger society has, historically, remained ignorant of the inner life of people of African descent while the Black community, facing the daily onslaught of a series of existential threats to their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, has cultivated the penetrating vision essential to understanding the structural ills that blight our society. 

This keen sense of perception —both physical and spiritual —associated with the faculties of the pupil, the mechanism through which light enters the eye, is an indispensable element of the restorative medicine necessary to cure humanity of the disease of racism. 

From the Baha’i perspective, the violent insurgency that eventually erupts during the course of the film is incompatible with the teachings of Baha’u’llah. He wrote : 

Let none contend with another, and let no soul slay another … What! Would ye kill him whom God hath quickened, whom He hath endowed with spirit through a breath from Him? Grievous then would be your trespass before His throne! Fear God, and lift not the hand of injustice and oppression to destroy what He hath Himself raised up…

But, the power of perception, at the heart of the protagonist’s astute analysis of the conditions that frame his existence, echoes the fundamental Baha’i teaching that “ truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues .” 

When the spiritual capacity of vision is informed by the transcendent teachings of God’s revelation, the all-compelling power of His creative love supplants bullets and Molotov cocktails, batons, and tear gas. Such a force, descending from the divine empyrean, has no equal in any weapon ever conceived by man. It can humble nations, subdue vengeful hearts, and move an objectified and dehumanized people to the front lines of spiritual transformation all without raising a finger to harm another soul. As the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Baha’is of the world, so beautifully stated in a recent letter : 

Ultimately, the power to transform the world is effected by love, love originating from the relationship with the divine, love ablaze among members of a community, love extended without restriction to every human being. This divine love, ignited by the word of God, is disseminated by enkindled souls through intimate conversations that create new susceptibilities in human hearts, open minds to moral persuasion, and loosen the hold of biased norms and societal systems… You are channels of this divine love; let it flow through you to all who cross your path. 

Tags: Books , Film , Race

define spook by the door

Masud Olufani

Masud Olufani is an Atlanta based multidisciplinary artist, actor and writer. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and the Savannah College of Art and Design where he received an M.F.A. in sculpture in 2013. His work has been featured in group and solo exhibitions...

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

The spook who sat by the door ★½ 1973 (pg).

A black CIA agent organizes an army of inner-city youths and launches a revolution. Based on the novel by Sam Greenlee. 95m/C VHS, DVD . Lawrence Cook, Paula Kelly, J.A. Preston; D: Ivan Dixon; M: Herbie Hancock .

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

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The spook who sat by the door.

1973 Directed by Ivan Dixon

Their first mistake was letting him in. Their biggest mistake was letting him out!

A black man plays Uncle Tom in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to plot a new American Revolution.

Lawrence Cook Janet League Paula Kelly J.A. Preston Paul Butler Don Blakely David Lemieux Anthony Ray Colostine Boatwright

Director Director

Producers producers.

Ivan Dixon Sam Greenlee Thomas G. Neusom

Writers Writers

Sam Greenlee Melvin Clay

Original Writer Original Writer

Sam Greenlee

Editors Editors

Michael Kahn Thomas Penick

Cinematography Cinematography

Michel Hugo

Art Direction Art Direction

A. Leslie Thomas

Set Decoration Set Decoration

Cheryal Kearney

Stunts Stunts

Charlie Picerni

Composer Composer

Herbie Hancock

Bokari United Artists

Alternative Titles

Notre agent de Harlem, Freeman l'agente di Harlem, 坐在门口的幽灵

War Drama Crime Action

Releases by Date

21 sep 1973, 23 dec 1981, releases by country.

  • Theatrical PG

102 mins   More at IMDb TMDb Report this page

Popular reviews


Review by Liz ★★★★½ 4

As irresistible (and endlessly exploitable) as Dixon and Greelee’s genre hook is, what makes this so powerful is its dedication to the politics behind its revolution, weaving scene after scene of discourse on the sorts of issues that all activist groups face — assimilation vs separatism, respectability vs direct action, ‘what happens when we’re our own enemy?’ — between the expected wish fulfillment action. Ironically, the most thrilling of those action scenes is the one that feels the most verité — a Chicago riot that drops Herbie Hancock’s (great) paranoia-funk score in favor of the sounds of the people. Not too many films that still feel dangerous 45+ years on.

Rafael "Parker!!" Jovine

Review by Rafael "Parker!!" Jovine ★★★★ 13

There are some movies that grab you the moment you read the plot summary, and this is one of them. Just the implication of its title and meaning, where basically for a while, these institutions used to hire a token Black man or woman who would be seated close to the office entrance so that people who came and went could see that the company was racially mixed, something that is immediately addressed on the film.

The film's technical accomplishments, more than the story, were what initially drew me to the movie. Director Ivan Dixon made an excellent job of capturing the camera work and aesthetics that would come to define films in the spy thrillers and thrillers of the…


Review by {Todd} ★★★★½

"Well, like it or not, looks like we're integrated." - CIA Chief, AND "He's one of those quiet sorts of cats people don't fool with" - Dahomey, AND "Remember that a smiling black man is invisible" - Dan Freeman.

- Complex Top 50 Blaxploitation: boxd.it/1w5pa

Everyone listen up. We need to make sure that Donald Trump never sees or hears about this film from 1973.

As a group of 10 black men compete to be the first African-American CIA agent in history one man named Dan Freeman stands out, in part because of his "Uncle Tom qualities" (the film's words) that endear him to the white CIA agents. Secretly though, this dude Dan is planning a revolution with a target…

Jerry McGlothlin

Review by Jerry McGlothlin ★★★★ 8

Radical  comes from the Latin radicula  or “little root.” Given the often negative connotation of the word, many have been led to believe that a social or political radical is a bad or immoral person. This is, of course, not often the case.

When a system is purposefully corrupt, rancid down to its foundation, it’s not only necessary but urgent to become, in thought, words, and actions: radical. And what’s the best way to do this? Get in below the ground floor, the lowest rhizomal substratum, which is exactly what our protagonist Dan Freeman does here.

He, by way of an ingenious infiltration of the CIA—America’s strongest arm of oppression and violence—takes what he’s learned in five years working there (undercover and…

Sally Jane Black

Review by Sally Jane Black

The dialogue between violent and non-violent protest that seems to have been a focus on the late 60s/early 70s has been argued, in hindsight, to have been something of a false dichotomy by some. The basic idea is that both forms are necessary to spur change in our systems. I find that idea at least somewhat convincing, if a little (a lot) uncomfortable due to reasonably finding violence terrifying and disheartening on certain levels. (On another level, I understand the satisfaction in watching something burn.) Because it seems a reasonable enough stance, the arguments for and against on each side have become a little less interesting to me--it feels over and done with. All the same, this film's incredibly strong…

Joshua Dysart

Review by Joshua Dysart ★★★★½ 6

Fantastically engaging black liberation cinema. Praxis, philosophy, rhetoric, wish-fulfillment and the complexities of radicalism all seem to get equal treatment as the film revels in themes like CIA blowback, tokenism turned into a tool of subversion, and the final inevitable outcome of American white supremacy.

The movie manages a revolutionary fantasy narrative - its white people are stock racists with no attempt at humanizing them, as if in response to the near universally simple depiction of black Americans in the seventy years of movie history that preceded this. And yet, though very often a melodrama and a cartoon depiction of organizing movements, it still sets out to complicate its central character who, as he becomes a stand-in for the very…

Eliecer Gaspar

Review by Eliecer Gaspar ★★★★★ 1

Sold to United Artists as "the usual" blaxploitation fare. Pulled from theaters by the FBI because of radical politics.

Lencho of the Apes

Review by Lencho of the Apes ★★★★ 7

An open invitation to armed rebellion, ideas that seem to have gone out of style. Blaxploitation-era precursor of Born In Flames. I'm so glad this movie didn't disappear when 'they' wanted it to.

Guerrilla war struggle is the new entertainment.


Review by sakana1 ★★★★½ 4

→ In a survey several months after the Detroit "riot" in 1967, 56% of the black respondents in Detroit characterized the incident as a "rebellion" or "revolution;" only 19% characterized it as a "riot." → After the Newark "riot" of the same year, the Black Panther newspaper wrote this: "Racists call it 'rioting', but actually it’s a political consequence on the part of black people who have been denied freedom, justice and equality." → The report of the social science team to the Kerner Commission (convened to study the causes of the Summer(s) of Rage) asserted that the 'riots' "could not be understood without a conception of Black struggle against white domination, and that the causes could not be found…

Elisha Luckett

Review by Elisha Luckett ★★½ 4

I’m remembering Angela Davis asking herself whether or not the Black Power movement had more to do with the total liberation of Black people or the sole liberation of the Black man. The Spook Who Sat by the Door most definitely falls into the latter camp, and as a film that stands solely on its political legs, falls rather flat for it.

Dixon attempts to liberate his characters from the weighted stereotypes of Blaxploitation while also operating within its framework to illustrate Black anger. It’s an attempt at subversion that doesn’t really work because it fails to address the dull hyper-masculinity that smothers the humanity in Blaxploitation—which, in turn, smothers the heart of the anger it seeks to invoke and…

Filipe Furtado

Review by Filipe Furtado ★★★★

Turning the emperialistic weapons on themselves. It starts funny grows angry and ends in a bittersweet but strong note. It gets a lot mileage out oof the long setup and the idea of Freeman's revolution just doing in US soil what CIA already did for foreign places. Shocking this got produced under the guise of conventional blaxploitation and that Dixon and his crew commit to the premise as far as they do.

Some longer thoughts at my blog: English   Portuguese

Carlos Valladares

Review by Carlos Valladares

Hoo-eee, this is pure guerilla cinema. As someone else pointed out, it's rare that a film with such a wild plot summary lives up to it 100%: "A black man plays Uncle Tom in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to plot a new American Revolution." Moves better than most action and political films today—and a damn sight more revolutionary and committed. I bristled at the lack of sisters in the campaign. For a film that pulls off the insanely difficult task of harmonizing/dialoguing the philosophies of King, Malcolm X, Carmichael, and Newton, it's clear that the key missing ingredient is Angela Davis. In every other aspect, the sweeping landscape it suggests is still vital and valid, and the provocation is still potent. A masterpiece of Black and 70s filmmaking I'll be visiting over and over again. As The Fury was to Pauline Kael, this is to me.

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2 major airlines find loose bolts, other problems on grounded Boeing jets

Joel Rose

This photo shows the gaping hole where the panel used to plug an area reserved for an exit door on a Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner blew out Jan. 5, shortly after the flight took off from Portland, Ore., forcing the plane to return to Portland International Airport. National Transportation Safety Board via AP hide caption

This photo shows the gaping hole where the panel used to plug an area reserved for an exit door on a Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner blew out Jan. 5, shortly after the flight took off from Portland, Ore., forcing the plane to return to Portland International Airport.

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines said on Monday that they have found loose parts on their 737 Max 9 aircraft since they started inspecting some of their grounded Boeing jets, bringing additional scrutiny to the component called a door plug that blew off a Max 9 aircraft last week.

About 170 planes were removed from service after the incident involving an Alaska Airlines jet that had just taken off from Portland, Ore., on Friday night. United and Alaska are the two major U.S. carriers that fly Boeing jets with this particular configuration of door plugs.

Alaska Airlines said Monday evening it is waiting for the formal inspection process on the jets to begin. But as maintenance crews began preparing the plans for inspection, they found "some loose hardware was visible on some aircraft."

United Airlines said Monday, "Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug – for example, bolts that needed additional tightening. These findings will be remedied by our Tech Ops team to safely return the aircraft to service."

Earlier in the day, the Federal Aviation Administration said airlines can now begin official inspections of their grounded Boeing planes to get them back in the air.

"As operators conduct the required inspections, we are staying in close contact with them and will help address any and all findings," Boeing said in a statement. "We are committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards. We regret the impact this has had on our customers and their passengers."

Before a door plug flew off a Boeing plane, an advisory light came on 3 times

Before a door plug flew off a Boeing plane, an advisory light came on 3 times

Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board say they have recovered the door plug that blew off the 737 Max 9 on Friday night in a backyard near Portland — and they hope it will yield important clues about why this section of fuselage detached from the rest of the plane at 16,000 feet.

"We're very fortunate they have found the plug itself," said John Cox, a former pilot and safety consultant, in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition .

Investigators "will want to look at everything" involving the door plug, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said during a briefing Sunday night .

Alaska Airlines grounds 737 Max 9 fleet after window blows out on flight from Oregon

Alaska Airlines grounds 737 Max 9 fleet after window blows out on flight from Oregon

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 quickly returned to Portland after the blowout. No one was seriously injured. But the incident has raised concerns about the Boeing 737 Max 9, a larger cousin of the two 737 Max 8 jets that crashed in 2018 and 2019 , killing a total of 346 people. It's also prompting new questions about the door plug system itself and whether it's still safe to fly.

What is a door plug?

Diagram of a Boeing 737-9 mid-cabin door plug and components (Source: Boeing) pic.twitter.com/7qPF5MGAOX — NTSB Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) January 8, 2024

The door plug is not really a door at all. It's a component that's designed to fill a hole in the plane's fuselage where an optional emergency exit would also fit.

Planes that carry more than about 200 passengers require more emergency exits to comply with safety regulations, while airplanes that carry fewer passengers can be fitted with the door plug instead.

Under ordinary circumstances, most passengers wouldn't notice the door plug at all because it looks similar to a regular window.

Boeing has been using the design for more than a decade without any major incidents, said Cox, who is now a consultant with the company Safety Operating Systems.

"This design has been in use for a number of years, and it's not proven to be problematic at all," Cox said. Door plugs are used on the Boeing 737-900ER, a predecessor of the Max planes, he said, as well as the Max series.

Boeing urges airlines to check its 737 Max jets for loose bolts

Boeing urges airlines to check its 737 Max jets for loose bolts

The Alaska Airlines plane had just been delivered on Oct. 31, according to the NTSB. An auto-pressurization failure light had illuminated in the plane's cockpit three times in prior weeks, Homendy said. Alaska Airlines put a restriction in place that prevented the plane from flying over water to Hawaii so that it could return more easily to an airport in case of emergency.

What are investigators looking for?

"We know what happened. We don't know fully why," Cox said. "And then the follow-up question of course is, what do we need to do to prevent it from happening again?"

The door plug is held in place by four bolts . And investigators say the condition of those bolts may be telling.

"Are the four bolts there? Are the nuts there? Was there deformation or bending of the bolts, of the holes?" Cox said. "All of those things they're going to look at to try to understand the forces that resulted in this plug leaving the airplane."

Investigators at the NTSB will want to examine both the door and the components of the plane where it was attached.

"We have a lot of ability in our lab with our microscopes to really look at some of the components more in depth," Homendy said on Sunday night, "to look at witness marks, to look at any paint transfer, what shape the door was in when found. That can tell them a lot about what occurred."

The door plug, like the rest of the Max 9 fuselage, is manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems, a Boeing supplier based in Wichita, Kansas.

"We are grateful the Alaska Airlines crew performed the appropriate procedures to land the airplane with all passengers and crew safe," the company said in a statement .

"At Spirit AeroSystems, our primary focus is the quality and product integrity of the aircraft structures we deliver. Spirit is a committed partner with Boeing on the 737 program, and we continue to work together with them on this matter," the statement said.

The company's previous CEO stepped down in October amid problems with production and was replaced by a former Boeing executive.

How will this affect air travel?

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday that carriers can begin inspections of about 170 Boeing Max 9 planes that have been grounded after the incident on Friday night.

"The FAA's priority is always keeping Americans safe," the agency said in a statement . "Boeing 737-9 aircraft will remain grounded until operators complete enhanced inspections which include both left and right cabin door exit plugs, door components, and fasteners."

Operators must also complete any corrective actions based on the findings from those inspections, the agency said. The FAA previously said that inspections would take about four to eight hours per aircraft.

"We agree with and fully support the FAA's decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 MAX airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane," said Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Stan Deal and safety officer Mike Delaney in an email to the company's employees.

"The assembly to be inspected is not found on other members of the 737 MAX family," they noted.

The FAA ordered the grounding of 737 Max 9 planes in certain configurations that have the door plug. But other planes that have door plugs are still flying, including the 737-900ER as well as other 737 Max 8 planes that also have the door plug.

Regulators in Europe say the order will have no immediate impact on airlines there.

"The 737-9 aircraft operating in Europe do not have this configuration and are therefore not grounded," the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said in a statement , "and can continue to operate normally."

European airlines including Ryanair fly the Boeing 737 Max 9, but they are fitted with emergency exits instead of door plugs.

"Right now, this still looks like it's a one-off," Cox said. "It's just something that happened to this airplane." But the ongoing problems with the Max series are yet another blow to Boeing's reputation, he said. "An operator around the world is going to look at this and say, 'OK, if we buy the Max, are we buying a problem?'"

NPR's Ayana Archie contributed reporting.

  • Boeing 737 Max
  • National Transportation Safety Board
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Federal Aviation Administration


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  18. Uncovering the Spiritual Meaning of 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door

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