"The Spook Who Sat by the Door" Blaxploitation Propaganda

The Spook Who Sat by the Door is, in my opinion, a Blaxploitation propaganda film, written and produced by an admitted propagandist. I believe that the purpose of the film was to implant in to the culture an example and explanation for why there are Intelligence Agents involved in seemingly revolutionary groups.

Samuel Eldred Greenlee, Jr. (July 13, 1930 – May 19, 2014)[1] was an African-American writer, best known for his controversial novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which was first published in London by Allison & Busby[2] in March 1969 (having been rejected by dozens of mainstream publishers),[3] and went on to be chosen as The Sunday Times Book of the Year.[4] The novel was subsequently made into the 1973 movie of the same name, directed by Ivan Dixon and co-produced and written by Greenlee,[5] that is now considered a "cult classic".[3]

Born in Chicago, Greenlee attended the University of Wisconsin (BS, political science, 1952) and the University of Chicago (1954-7). He was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (Beta Omicron 1950). 


"I served for two years (1952-1954) as an Infantry Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, in the 31st Infantry ‘Dixie’ Division. I was a professional propagandist in the foreign service of the United States Information Service."[*]

Sam Greenlee was a United States Information Agency   Cultural Officer [*] from 1957 to 1965, propaganzing from embassies in Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan and Greece — all places teetering on the edge of political disorder — dispensing information to the local news media. The material was usually favorable to the American-backed autocracy in power and critical of its opponents, who, in those "cold war years", were often viewed by American officials as Communist backed or inspired. Greenlee was, as a U.S.I.A agent, working in the wartime propaganda machine under the leadership of Edward R. Murrow, promoting American interests abroad. While working for U.S.I.A. in Iraq in 1958 Greenlee was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for bravery during the Baghdad revolution. 

"I was a propagandist. I sold the United States like toothpaste. [We] used all forms of media—journalistic releases, pamphlets, magazines…poets, playwrights, orchestras, jazz musicians…to put a good face on American culture. In both Iran and Iraq, the USIA [produced] propaganda for the Iraqis and the Iranians to support the king in Iraq and the shah in Iran." [*]

Greenlee is said to have left the United States foreign service after eight years but he remained in Greece. He undertook further study (1963-4) at the University of Thessaloniki, and lived for three years on the island of Mykonos, where he began to write his first novel. 

Greenlee said he was “determined to write the story of a Third World colonial revolution as it might happen in the United States.” [*]

That book was eventually published in 1969 as The Spook Who Sat by the Door, the story of a black man who is recruited as a CIA agent who after having mastered the skills of a spy then uses his knowledge to lead a militant black guerrilla revolution in the US against the United States government.

"Spook"  is loosely autobiographical and based on Greenlee's personal experience. Mr. Greenlee told the Washington Post in 1973,

 "The book is based on my experiences as a token nigger in the USIA. My experiences were identical to those of Freeman in the CIA. Everything in that book is an actual quote. If it wasn't said to me, I overheard it."[*]

The title of the book turned  blaxploitation movie, The Spook Who Sat By The Door was intentionally a double entendres.  The multiple meanings of "spook" are played out in Spook's narrative as well. In the book and film, Korean-War veteran Dan Freeman gains admittance into the CIA by playing "the spook" (the racial slur for a subservient black person). Now an official "spook" (a spy), Freeman turns double agent and uses his training from the CIA to launch a paramilitary revolution against the United States government.

The CIA needs a Negro: there have been accusations of racial discrimination. So black Dan Freeman begins his lone career in an all-white world. Dan Freeman — tame, conspicuous, harmless. But behind this mask he coolly develops his subversive expertise in judo, guns, women, strategy.  Moving as easily among Washington’s power-hungry politicians as among the threatening street gangs of Chicago’s ghetto, Freeman plays the heroes of one world against the victims of the other. The top men in the CIA, hypocritical social workers, brainwashed policemen, a middle-class girlfriend, a beautiful whore, tough young junkies all have their place in Freeman’s lethally calculated program. He uses and manipulates all the opportunities and people around him. He is a man with a foot in both camps and a finger squeezing slowly on the trigger. There is no time for sentimentality. THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a book that had to be written. It describes an America that has gone beyond the stage of civil rights demonstrations and spontaneous riots: an America where the only hope for the black man is in deadly efficient guerrilla warfare. Sam Greenlee has written a novel about a revolution that may happen tomorrow. [*]

The original publisher after allegedly being rejected by countless others for its "subversive" qualities was Margaret Busby OBE, Hon. FRSL. She has regularly worked for radio and television since the late 1960s, when she presented the magazine programme London Line for the Central Office of Information, as well as Break For Women on the BBC African Service. Busby is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded the Benson Medal., and she is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to Literature and to Publishing.

Greenlee co-wrote (with Mel Clay) the screenplay for the 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which he also co-produced with director Ivan Dixon and featured a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock. The film is considered a cult classic Blaxploitation Film.

Legend surrounding the movie states that theater managers were approached by FBI COINTEL-PRO agents who advised against holding further screenings. All the prints were seized and destroyed, but little did "the Man" know, director Ivan Dixon of Hogan's Heroes fame, had the foresight to archive the negative under a different title, and it’s for this reason alone that the film survives today.

"We got reports indicating that the FBI visited exhibitors to try to convince them this film was subversive. Some theaters showed it for three weeks, then that was it." [*]

The London Evening Standard of 8 February 1974 published claims that the heiress Patty Hearst's kidnappers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, "modelled themselves on a fictional black anti-establishment guerrilla group called the Cobras in the popular novel and film The Spook Who Sat By the Door". [*|

In a meeting with Aubrey Lewis, one of the first Black FBI agents to have been recruited in 1962 by the FBI,Greenlee was told that The Spook Who Sat by the Door was required reading at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. [*]

“The Spook Who Sat by the Door" was selected in 2012 for inclusion in the National Film Registry, a catalog of American movies of “enduring cultural or historical significance.” In a citation accompanying the announcement, the Library said that the film reflected a dimension of “who we are as a nation.”

The Spook Who Sat By The Door (Full Film)

I do not believe that the film was in fact repressed or destroyed. I think that this was a legend given to bolster the idea of it being a subversive film.