Dystopia in the Civil Rights Era, Conclusion
Black Nationalism Goes to Hollywood
Previous articles on Black dystopian fiction:
While other authors were spinning their own takes on the Black nationalist revolution, some original, some derivative, Sam Greenlee was working with director Ivan Dixon to adapt The Spook Who Sat by the Door for film.
Paula Kelly, one of the movie’s two female leads, had appeared in two previous movies with dystopian cred—The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Real-life Black Panther David Lemieux gives an extremely memorable speech as a light-skinned gang member whose ability to pass as White is exploited in Freeman’s plans.
Many cast members had cut their teeth on television (Dixon himself was best known for a role in the ensemble of Hogan’s Heroes.) Lawrence Cook, as Dan Freeman, would be best known for his starring role in the movie. Both Cook and Joseph Mascolo, one of the few White characters, would go on to act in Days of Our Lives, the latter achieving daytime fame for his role as iconic arch-villain Stefano DiMera. Several other actors appeared on soaps, either before or after the film.
The production took several years to come to fruition. Dixon tried and failed to win studio funding, so Greenlee raised the first round of money from private investors, mostly but not entirely African-American. The first round of fund-raising was very successful, but it came to an end (according to Greenlee) when Jesse Jackson caught wind of the project and warned off big donors, telling them “that (Martin Luther King Dr.) would disapprove of a film of this nature because it’s against his take on nonviolence; that it was a dangerous film.”[i]
As the private money dried up, Dixon again tried the studios, shopping around some of the film’s completed action sequences and pitching it as a blaxploitation flick. Not fully realizing what it had signed up for, Hollywood giant United Artists provided the funds to finish the film.
When studio executives saw the final cut “they were outraged,” Greenlee said. “[They] put it out on a cursory basis, but it jumped off so strong that a few venues realized they had something hot.” Encouraged by the box office, the studio put a promotional push behind the movie. But as 1973 turned into 1974, the movie abruptly vanished from theaters. Greenlee believed the FBI had engaged in a whisper campaign with theater managers, warning them off the movie due to its controversial message.[ii]
The film’s reception by audiences and critics could certainly have played a role. While most reviews were positive, some missed the point, and others perseverated on White viewers’ (correct) perceptions that the movie contained an implied threat. The San Francisco Examiner called the movie a “comedy” while noting that “every week (brings) a new White-financed get-Whitey film. The buck is, I guess, a rationale for suicide.”[iii] The Philadelphia Daily News called it a “foul, evil film which encourages Black warfare against Whitey,”[iv] while the Wilmington News Journal’s review said “it panders to those who admire urban guerilla warfare and disgusts those who don’t.”[v] The Los Angeles Times review opens by calling the film “one of the most terrifying movies ever made.”[vi]
But the FBI may well have been paying attention. In addition to vague suspicions about the book’s role in inspiring militants, as previously noted, a number of incidents in 1973 and 1974 began to raise specific concerns that real-world groups were following Greenlee’s “training manual,” including massive thefts of arms and ammunition at military installations in California, including “enough weapons and ammunition to outfit a full Army company” from the Compton Armory.
A police spokesman at the time suggested the Compton robbery, which mirrored events in both the book and movie, could have been carried out by “an organization such as the Symbionese Liberation Army.”[vii] The incident was not isolated, and other missing weapons were soon identified in other locations after a series of inventory checks, while investigators turned fresh eyes to earlier heists.[viii] In 2004, director Ivan Dixon specifically blamed the Compton robbery, which was never solved, for the movie being pulled from theaters.[ix]
For years to come, reports would persist that the Symbionese Liberation Army itself—active during the time that the movie was in development—had been inspired by reading The Spook Who Sat by the Door. An American left-wing terrorist group best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, the SLA was not Black nationalist in orientation; it presented itself as a multiracial coalition of various left-wing causes.
The SLA’s name, according to some reports, was taken from a brief reference in the novel to “symbiology,” an “ethnic and racial cross-section” of the electorate, and the organization’s seven-headed cobra logo was said to be based on the Cobras—the name of the first gang recruited by Freeman in the book. These claims, like the earlier newspaper reporting on the book’s influence, seemed more inferential than definite, but files released to me by the FBI paint a clearer picture—an informant who had interacted with SLA members in 1973 reported that members were “urging everyone to read” the book (the informant himself clearly had not, based on his wildly inaccurate description of its contents).[x]
Even as the controversy over the film played out, a White supremacist in West Virginia was sitting at his typewriter, churning out a brand-new novel that would permanently seal the connection between the racial dystopia genre and terrorism. The FBI was worried about the potential radicalizing power of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, but they hadn’t seen anything yet.
The man was William Luther Pierce, the book was The Turner Diaries, and you can read more about that novel’s connection to historical race dystopias (including The Spook Who Sat by the Door) in a paper I wrote in 2016.
[i] Martin, Michael T., David C. Wall, and Marilyn Yaquinto, eds. Race and the Revolutionary Impulse in The Spook who Sat by the Door. Indiana University Press, 2018. pp. 46-47.
[ii] Ibid., 47-48.
[iii] The San Francisco Examiner · Wed, Oct 17, 1973 · Page 32
[iv] Philadelphia Daily News (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
19 Oct 1973, Fri
[v] The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware)
15 Nov 1973, Thu
[vi] The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California)
19 Dec 1973, Wed
[viii] Independent (Long Beach, California)
06 Sep 1974, Fri
Page 1 AP
[ix] The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California)
28 Feb 2004, Sat
[x] FOIA by author
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