In the 1973 film “A Spook Who Sat by the Door” directed by Ivan Dixon, Dixon captures Black American consciousness during the seventies era. Throughout the film, the story of how Dan Freeman becomes the first African-American CIA officer is followed and how he comes to the realization that the CIA is still inherently racist (as a matter of fact the government as a whole is racist) and he was merely being used by the predominantly white agency as their “token” (agency needed to recruit more African-American agents to gain more Black votes in political campaigns) and develops the idea to overthrow this “white” establishment. He resigns from the CIA and uses the skills he was taught during training to teach the youth (specifically the black youth who become known as the “Freedom Fighters” or “Cobras” which gained a great deal of momentum in the African-American community) as a form of revenge against the CIA for their corrupt, racist ways and as way for the African-American community to stand up for themselves after being belittled by the white community for so many years.
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There are several instances in the film that correlate with events that occurred during the Civil Rights Era in the seventies. The Civil Rights era encouraged the advancement of the black community against a white dominated society which was the main goal of Freeman’s movement with the black youth. When Freeman came to the realization that the CIA only used him for their benefit (the society he lived in was only looking for what was in the best interest of the white community and merely used the black community as their pawns), he knew that he needed to put an end to this type of treatment. Shortly after resigning from the CIA, Freeman goes to Chicago and there he begins to manifest his idea of creating his “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobra” movement within the black youth. He focuses this movement in impoverished, underdeveloped neighborhoods in Chicago (the majority of the inhabitants of these neighborhoods are African-American). The black poverty conditions only seemed to be getting worse and after witnessing the conditions these people lived in Freeman becomes infuriated because the white people that are running the government are doing no such thing to improve these conditions and place what seems to be no type of attention/spotlight on these issues. This gives Freeman all the more incentive to move forward with his “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” movement. Similarly, this was how the Civil Rights Movement came to be in the seventies. The African-American community was struggling immensely after World War II after black industrial workers could not find jobs and as a result were subjected to poverty and needed help from the public in order to get by (Goulden, Magnusson, and Modell, 1989). Most government officials that were in office (the majority of them being white of course) overlooked these issues and never made any type of effort to improve upon these issues (Goulden, Magnusson, and Modell, 1989). These conditions just continued to get worse as the years went on and it reached a point where the black community had had enough and as a result the Civil Rights Movement was born.
Freeman realizes that most of the inhabitants of these “ghettos” (as these poor neighborhoods were referred to) such as Ms. Duncan (the Mother of Shorty who is a member of the “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras”) for instance have a very disillusioned vision of the current society they live in and believe there is really nothing out there in the world for them (Dixon, 1973). Instead of standing up for themselves, the black community has conformed to the oppression of the white dominated society and continued to live their life day by day without breaking these chains of living for other people. This gives Freeman the idea to create a separate nation where the African- American community will no longer have to live under such oppression and progress could made in the advancement of the community. This is known as the nationalist/separatist ideology which became very prevalent during the Civil Rights Era through the public figure Malcom X. Malcom X (a Muslim minister) preached that violence (against the white community) was necessary along with the help of a well-regulated militia (which, according to Freeman would be his “Freedom Fighters”/“Cobra” group after he trained them) in order for the black community to regain their national identity and move forward as independents (Pinkney, 1976). Freeman intends train his “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” with the hope of instilling in them that in order to be “free” they will do whatever it takes to achieve no matter the circumstances whether that be fighting, killing, or even dying to do so.
Once Freeman believed his prospects had satisfied all the parts of their training they began to put their skills to the test. The movement began to spread the word about their warfare tactics across the nation with their slogan “What we got is a colony, what we want is a nation” (Dixon, 1973) which allowed them to gain a great deal of momentum in the African-American community. The movement began to revolt in the city in hopes of gaining their freedom which resulted in the white community seeking help from the National Guard and police force to stop the advancement of this group in fear of their lives (or even worse, the success of said group). The National Guard and police force used violent tactics against the “Freedom Fighters/ “Cobras” in an attempt to inflict pain upon them as well as instill fear in hopes that they would put a stop to the movement once and for all. However, the police and National Guard were unaware that a part of the “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” training included overcoming any kind of fear and fighting for their freedom no matter the circumstances they had to face and they fought back against the authorities.
During the Civil Rights Era a similar instance occurred during the Birmingham protests. Martin Luther King along with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) united with the people of Birmingham to engage in peaceful protests (such as boycotting and walks) to pressure businesses into opening more employment opportunities to the African-American community and to end segregation once and for all (Eskew, 1997). However, these peaceful protests proved to be unhelpful in any towards of progress for the African-American community and only resulted in their ridicule as they were constantly beaten by the authorities. This created unrest in the black youth and as a result they reciprocated the use of force on the police when they attempted to beat and release their dogs on the protestors during one of their peaceful protests.
The youth used objects such as glass bottles, rocks etc. anything they could get their hands on to harm the police and give them a taste of their own medicine. Some of the youth were even bold enough to bring guns and knives to the protest ready to use them at any given moment. The youth believed that at this point and time the use of violence was the only way to resist the oppression they have endured for so long by the white community (Cothran, 1965).
This Birmingham youth group had the same ideologies as the “Freedom Fighters/ “Cobras” in terms of willing to fight at the expense of being put in harm’s way and potentially getting killed or seriously injured in the process in order to achieve freedom. Both the Birmingham youth group and the “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” demonstrated this fearlessness (no longer viewed the authorities as a threat) and drive to escape the shackles the white community had placed them in no matter what obstacles stood in their way (they would overcome them).
One of the goals of both of these groups was to place an emphasis on white violence against the black community (with all the beatings and hostility they received on their part) which would in hopes gain more empathy or serve as a call to action for their cause (which was more equality as well as more recognition/respect for the black community) (Woods, 1979).
The film concludes with the continued battle between the “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” and the white community, however, not one group prevails over the other.
Although the “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” succeeded in raising awareness and gaining more support based on how poorly the black community was treated by the white community, there was still a good amount of work that still needed to be completed in terms of racism in the world. It was still going to exist no matter the circumstances. However, with hard and dedication it can be reduced (much like what the “Freedom Fighters”/ “Cobras” did and several black protesters during the Civil Rights Era), but it can never be completely destroyed; much more work still needed to be done. This was only the beginning.
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Ivan Dixon provided his audience with reenactments of issues that the black community has struggled with in the past (and has even continued to struggle with in society currently) that the audience can easily connect to from history (maybe from what they have learned in school etc.). He gives the audience an inside view on how conscious the Black community has been especially during the seventies and leaves the audience with the overall takeaway that how in order for society to improve it is in your own hands to make that change happen.
- Cothran, Tilman C. “The Negro Protest Against Segregation in the South - Tilman C. Cothran, 1965.” SAGE Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000271626535700107.
- Dixon, Ivan, director. The Spook Who Sat By The Door . 1973.
- Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: the Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
- Modell, John, et al. “World War II in the Lives of Black Americans: Some Findings and Interpretation.” The Journal of American History, vol. 76, no. 3, 1989, p. 838., doi:10.2307/2936424.
- Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green Black Nationalism in the United States. Cambridge University Press, 1978.
- Woods, Robert. “Ethnic Segregation in Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, 1979, pp. 455–476., doi:10.1080/01419870.1979.9993279.
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