Long time readers of S&A will already be familiar with the below video clip of a very frank Sam Greenlee (author of The Spook Who Sat By The Door) dishing on the state of what we call “black cinema.”
As some of you know by now, I post this once a year, usually right around Oscar time; and I’m posting it again today, for those who haven’t seen it, as well as a reminder for those who already have; but also because Greenlee has sadly passed away.
Ebony magazine is reporting that the author and activist died in his home in Chicago, earlier today, according to Pemon Remi, longtime mentee of Greenlee’s and Director of Educational Services and Public Programs at Chicago’s DuSable Museum.
The political firebrand and elder statesman was 83 years old at the time of his death. Specifics on cause of death are currently unknown, although Ebony adds that Greenlee had been in and out of the hospital over the last couple of years.
I’d say Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is often the cinematic reference point for radical, subversive black cinema during one of the more contentious periods in American history. But I think the seemingly under-seen 1973 adaptation of The Spook Who Sat By The Door (which was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012), directed by Ivan Dixon, was potentially even more lethal in its crafting and message, and really had the ability to inspire a revolution at a time when black people in this country were maybe most susceptible, as well as capable.
And I’m not sure if the story of the making of film (specifically, how it was funded) is one that’s widely-known, and which I think is important to note. In short, the film was financed mostly with funds raised from individual black investors (almost the equivalent of Spike Lee taking to Kickstarter in 2013 to raise funds for his upcoming mystery project, soliciting the financial support of the “haves” within the black community, with the financial means, like NBA athletes, etc, as well as even folks like you and I). It’s an idea that was itself revolutionary (and I’ll say still is), and one that I’d like to see repeated much more often, especially today, where black cinema is concerned.
The film was suppressed for about 30 years for obvious reasons, until its release on DVD in 2004.
So not only was the content of the film revolution-inspiring, the making and distribution of the film was also quite a revolutionary effort.
Christine Acham’s recent documentary (covered quite extensively on this blog over the last 2 to 3 years), Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who sat by the Door, documents the film’s production and distribution trials. You’re encouraged to pick up a copy of it on DVD today, via the a website the filmmakers previously set up HERE.
In reaction to Greenlee’s death today, Acham posted the following on the film’s Facebook page a couple of hours ago:
Sam Greenlee June 13th 1930- May 19th 2014. I met Sam 10 years ago when I interviewed him for a paper I was going to deliver on the Spook Who Sat by the Door. Thus began a wonderful and crazy journey of making our documentary. Sam gave me everything he had and I am so grateful for his wise words and thoughts, his jokes and his flirting. Rest in Peace Sam you will be missed-Christine
In honor of his death, if you still haven’t seen The Spook Who Sat By The Door, you must rent or buy it ASAP (I challenge any filmmakers reading this to make that film today, but obviously updated to reflect contemporary times).
And then purchase Acham’s feature documentary on its making for further context.
For a sample of the wisdom and humor she references in her above comment, watch Greenlee dish out his brand of advice to black filmmakers, in the video below.
It fits nicely into the myriad of conversations we’ve had on S&A, and continue to have, everyday, every week, every month about (broadly-speaking) the progress (or lack of progress) that black people have made in the film industry, that’s a century old.
RIP Mr Greenlee:
And here’s a trailer for The Spook Who Sat By The Door: