Last week, on May 19, Malcolm X’s 89th birthday, activist, revolutionary poet, novelist and screenplay writer Sam Greenlee, 83, joined the ancestors while in Chicago, where he was born on July 13, 1930.
The man who penned and co-produced the underground cult-classic book and movie “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” revisited Harlem back in 2011 and explained the purpose of his progressive art.
“I didn’t make this film to make money … I made it to make people think!” he declared during an exclusive interview at Harlem’s Morales/Shakur Center at the City College of New York. “At that time, rebellions were happening all over the country … the Panthers and the Deacons for Defense were at work … the government understood that.”
Greenlee outlined how he got his book printed overseas in 1969 after no U.S. publisher would touch it, and how he filmed his own movie.
“The Spook” is a fable partially drawn from Greenlee’s personal experiences as a teen in Chicago and later as a soldier in the military. The plot revolves around the first Black CIA agent, Dan Freeman, who humbly learns many military tactics. Then, instead of following their protocol upon graduation from training, he recruits other young, truculent Black militants from across the nation to organize and train. They subsequently violently overthrow the government.
Despite the movie’s initial popularity upon its September 1973 release, it was quickly shelved—at the government’s insistence—in a matter of days. “They thought it was just another Blaxplotation flick,” Greenlee said about United Artists, the movie’s distributors, which circulated “The Spook” in theaters nationwide.
The book was required reading for many revolutionaries, while the movie became a story of folklore until it resurfaced on underground VHS tapes during the late ’80s and resurged after being digitized and released on DVD in 2003.
“Greenlee’s powerful book and film regarding the building of urban street gangs into a Black revolutionary guerilla army brings to light the fact that armed struggle is nothing unique, but a continuation of the struggle for Black liberation in America,” determined organizer Brother Shep.
Brother B.J. of the Black Panther Party added: “One thing about ‘The Spook’ is that it tells us … ‘Yeah, we will win! An organized group of Black men can win!’ The oppressor is not going to teach us our true history. It’s our job to do that!”
Greenlee compared today’s generation with his. “The idea that street gangs are now dope-dealing thugs [that] would start a revolution is a historical absurdity,” he said. “Now when I wrote ‘Spook,’ the gangs had political consciousness.”
He was one of the first Black Foreign Service officers in the secretive United States Information Agency, serving from 1957-1965 in Greece, Indonesia, Iraq and Pakistan. “Essentially, I was an overseas public relations representative for the U.S. Our job was to sell the best image of the U.S. overseas. Basically, I lied a lot,” Greenlee confessed.
He also mentioned his follow-up effort, “Baghdad Blues,” and the impact Black Mecca had on him. “Of course, I was vicariously influenced by Harlem, but my major influence in militant revolution comes from the South Side of Chicago. Harlem is my second home,” Greenlee confided.
He went on to explain about some other contributing factors: “Our traditional and immediate ancestors attributed to aligning Bumpy Johnson’s nephew [director Ivan Dixon] and Carlos Cooks’ nephew [lead actor Lawrence Cooks] to make this movie,” Greenlee said of the two Harlem legends. “And my great-grandfather was a Buffalo Soldier … so we all had a tradition of revolution, independence and militancy.”
Greenlee concluded, “We are not taught our history of resistance to racist attacks … it’s all about what they have done to us, which gives the impression that we were docile, hapless victims … and that ain’t even half of history!”
Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, a premier Black history location that was one of Greenlee’s favorite places, will hold a memorial ceremony for him on June 6.