While putting together my piece on Melvin Van Peebles and the 40th Anniversary of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, I thought about some of the other great Black films from the so-called ‘blaxpliotation’ era that had a bit more on the ball politically on top of the usual action-adventure fare that was the norm for the genre.
The first movie that came to mind was Up Tight! which starred Ruby Dee, Raymond St. Jacques, Frank Silvera, Roscoe Lee Browne and Max Julien. Booker T & The MGs did the soundtrack and ‘Time Is Tight’ was a Top 10 hit. Set (and shot) in Cleveland immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, the film tells the story of two men: Johnny,the leader of a Black militant group and and his long time friend Tank. When an attempt to rob an ammunition warehouse ends with Johnny killing a guard, Tank decides to give up Johnny to the cops so he get the $1000 reward and provide for his family. It’s a decision that puts Tank on the run from the militants and the cops. Directed by Jules Dassin, Uptight! was the truly the prototype of what become the model of most blaxpliotation films minus the overtly politically statements that it was making at the time.
The other film that came to mind was The Spook Who Sat By The Door starring Lawrence Cook, directed by Ivan Dixon (who also directed Trouble Man, starred in the groundbreaking Nothing But A Man, and played Kinch on Hogan’s Heroes) and was scored by Herbie Hancock. It tells the story of Dan Freeman, who uses the training and expertise that he learned as the token member of the C.I.A to build up a group of young Black freedom fighters to engage in guerrilla warfare within the United States.
As you may expect, the powers that be within the U.S. government and at United Artists were none too pleased that the film’s anti-government, pro-Black message made it to the screen (In retrospect, the book seems more prophecy than parody considering how C.I.A. backed regimes have used the training we provided them against U.S. interests). Not only was it quickly pulled from theaters, but prints of the film raipidly and quietly disappeared. For many years, Sam Greenlee’s novel, in which the movie was based (Greenlee produced and co-wrote the screenplay as well), was also very difficult to obtain.
I posted on Twitter how much I enjoyed the film, and before the day was over, I received a response from Clifford Ward, a filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. He and Christine Acham are making the rounds on the festival circuit with Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise And Fall Of The Spook Who Sat By The Door, a one hour documentary about the making of this 1973 cult classic and the fallout that occurred after its release. The doc features interviews with writer-producer Sam Greenlee, surviving cast members and noted film historians. Its a riveting look at one of the more controversial films to ever be released.
You can find more information about Infiltrating Hollywood by checking out their Facebook page or view the trailer:
Also, you should make it a point to pick up Sam Greenlee’s novel or rent/buy the film, which is now available on DVD. You won’t be disappointed.