A person who would write a screenplay about how to pull off an armed black revolution in the United States is a person some folks might write off as an enthusiastic masochist, the type who welcomes isolation, pain and suffering the way parched earth welcomes the rain.
But then there are those who would simply nod their heads in solemn understanding and recognize someone so committed to a cause as to be beyond most folks’ understanding. Most ordinary people aren’t willing to put their lives on the line and risk being labeled “crazy,” “dangerous” or worse by their own friends, family members and government for the sake of some radical belief — or for any other belief.
To Sam Greenlee, author of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a novel and movie that scared — and angered — the hell out of even some of the most vocal 1960s black activists and leaders, the considerable price has been worth it. The story is about a black CIA agent named Freeman who takes what he learns from the agency to develop a grassroots black army to begin a revolution in key cities throughout the country. Greenlee knows that writing this kind of story automatically causes some folks to consider him crazy — and that’s fine. He doesn’t own a car, gets around mostly by bicycle and says he survives on food stamps, a bit of hustling and an income that doesn’t even reach five digits. But that’s fine too. Greenlee, who’s now a senior citizen, is at that stage where you’re either at peace with life or you’re pounding on the door of madness demanding a refund that never comes. Greenlee chose peace.
“I’m having a good time,” despite rather impoverished circumstances, he said. “I can afford to tell the white man to kiss my ass.” He contrasts himself with “white appointed, white anointed” black leaders. “Farrakhan is the only one out there saying anything. … Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton couldn’t lead me to a plate of ribs,” Greenlee adds.
Greenlee, who now lives in Chicago, has an impressive résumé that you would never expect just by looking at the slightly built, soft-spoken man wearing jeans and a dashiki, sitting with one leg easily crossed over the other at the front of a living-room-sized space. He served as a first lieutenant in the infantry in the early ’50s followed by nearly a decade as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Information Agency. Along the way, he got a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin, studied international relations and history at the University of Chicago and, later, ancient Greek literature at the University of Thessaloníki in Greece.
Greenlee isn’t the type to put that part of his life up in lights. Instead, he prefers to pound the growing underground circuit of hip-hop youth who are just being introduced to his work and ideas. He is happy to witness a third generation of readers and moviegoers as they have their eyes snapped open by one of the most controversial, unflinching pieces of American literature ever written for the page and screen. Three decades after his work was first introduced to an unsuspecting public, it still packs the same concrete punch. The novel was published in 1969; the movie followed four years later.
You will never see The Spook Who Sat by the Door at the Star Southfield or at any other mainstream venue. You probably won’t see it advertised in the paper and you won’t hear it advertised on the radio. But The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a classic film. No, it’s not just a classic black film, it’s a classic film, period. It’s been more than 20 years since I read the book — which really is, as Greenlee himself says, a manual for black revolution — but I never knew about the film until about a week ago.
This past Sunday I attended a press screening on the second floor of a nondescript building at 3000 E. Grand Boulevard near Woodward, which is where you will get to see the film Aug. 10 and 11 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., thanks to the sponsorship of Urban Organic, ’Bout Time Publishing, New Rising Sun Entertainment and Redd Films. Greenlee was on hand, and what he has to say is not for the easily offended.
I don’t agree with everything Greenlee has to say, and I definitely agree with the young lady sitting next to me who described the movie as “disturbing”; considering the scene where Freeman’s black army guns down National Guard troops as they invade a black neighborhood during a riot, that’s an understatement. But I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to allow folks like Greenlee to be heard and to let audiences form their own opinions. When I read Greenlee’s account of how his movie was repeatedly pulled from theaters after threats were made to owners (that was after having to battle black leadership heavyweights such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who supposedly tried to shut the project down), then I figured this was a movie I needed to see.
I don’t want to repeat everything Greenlee said, nor do I want to give away too much about the movie; if you’re really that interested, then you need to check the man out for yourself. I will say this much: Greenlee has little love or respect for most current black leaders, despises the government, and believes integration may be the worst thing that ever happened to the black community. “We need to do for self,” he said. “We don’t need white folks to love us.” And while he isn’t calling for armed revolt today, he says it may come to that — though he hopes it doesn’t.
I can guarantee that just that little bit I said right there has already caused some readers to shake their heads, vowing to never patronize anybody like Greenlee. That’s fine. I’ve met Greenlee, and I can also guarantee that he doesn’t care. But for the rest of you who might be a little tired of watching “black” movies like Soul Food, The Brothers, The Wood, and all those other cookie-cutter flicks that Greenlee describes as “Hollywood in blackface,” then just maybe you might want to free up some time to patronize the kind of art that is swiftly becoming an endangered species: Art that makes you think.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org