Actor Ivan Dixon was a favorite of Rod Serling's, who cast him in The Twilight Zone twice. Dixon was black, and Serling fought to get minorities on TV in roles that weren't defined only by race. Dixon went on to become a prolific TV director himself, and made two features.
Trouble Man (1972) is a not-particularly-ambitious blacksploitation pic that does everything it sets out to do with efficiency. The following year's The Spook Who Sat by the Door aims much, much higher, telling an epic, politically-charged story spanning years and leaping from Langley to Chicago.
The set-up: a beleaguered politician decides to divert criticism by accusing the CIA of racism: they have no Black agents. So a recruitment drive is started, but many within the organization don't intend to allow any of the applicants to succeed. Most of those chosen expect to coast through on tokenism: the movie mocks them as "Toms." But the diligent, quiet Dan Freeman (Laurence Cook) keeps his head down, applies himself, and is the only one of his class to make it. The CIA puts him in the file room (shades of BlacKkKlansman.)
After five years, Freeman quits, having learned everything there is to know about running a guerrilla organization and overthrowing a government. He returns to Chicago to put his knowledge into practice for the Revolution.
Sadly, all this fascinating and risky material is hamstrung by an obvious lack of money and experience, making it a far less attractive or competent film than Dixon's previous effort, except that the intensity and scale of ambition more than compensates.
Cinematographer Michael Hugo had plenty of experience—Thom Andersen argues that Jacques Demy's Model Shop, which Hugo shot, captures the light of Los Angeles better than any other film. But here, everything is horribly over-lit, 70s TV-style. It's a relief when we get a night exterior and the lights aren't enough to wash everything out.
Leslie Thomas' art direction is cheap and hideous, suffering from bad seventies fashions but also offering up an array of windowless sets that create a boxed-in feeling. The one set of windows we do see opens onto a big brown photo blow-up of the Chicago skyline. There obviously wasn't a lot of money, and there were a lot of bad interior design trends to draw on, but I can't find an excuse for this:
In fairness, there are some less hideous scenes, with stark whiteness used as an effective visual metaphor in the CIA sequences.
Evidently pressed for time, Dixon doesn't try to do anything interesting with framing or movement, and you wish he'd jut throw the tripod away and let the movie at least have the spurious energy of an unanchored camera. He finally does, for a riot scene (the least interesting moment to do it) and the movie finally comes to scary life. But I suspect the director deserves credit for getting anything done under what has to have been an impossibly tight schedule.
Editor Michael Kahn is practically the only person associated with this film who went on to greater things—he was hacking his way through B-movie hell at the time, but would eventually hook up with Spielberg and has cut, I think, every one of his films since Close Encounters. He's obviously as talented as he is lucky, but his work here is pretty shocking. There are one or two attempts at creativity, which is more than can be found in any other department: the gunshots invade the soundtrack long seconds before we cut to a scene at a firing range. But there are also bizarre mistakes, like letting a car scene run on after the ADR runs out, so the actors are left enunciating soundlessly at each other for long, dead seconds. It looks like the cutting copy was snatched from Kahn before he was half finished, which it probably was.
The other co-conspirator with a future ahead of him (which is the right place to have it) is composer Herbie Hancock, whose harsh, cold score does manage get the movie on its feet whenever it plays. Most straightforward blaxploitation movies are elevated by their soul tunes, romanticizing tales of crime and violence, but Hancock's sinister, reverberant crime jazz (he'd go on to score Death Wish) shoves this movie down in the gutter where it belongs.
It's a shame the cast didn't go on to fame and fortune because they're very good. Lawrence Cook looks an unlikely fit for the suggested role of "Black James Bond," but his unconventional looks are quite refreshing and he can get really intense. And because the film's strong suit is its uncompromising political stance and the fervor with which it expresses it, I have to respect Dixon for making sure the casting and performances were solid. If the movie couldn't afford a single blaxploitation name, money must have been tight, but fortunately there was a wealth of obscure talent to be mined.
The story, from a novel by Sam Greenlee published first in the U.K., in some minor ways seeks to have its cake and eat it: Cook's character is contrasted with a former gang member turned cop, played by J.A. Preston, who's trying to change the system from within. The movie equalizes these characters at its climax. Also, it's never clear if Cook's revolution will effect meaningful change or just create anarchy for the authorities to suppress.
But for the most part, the movie is bracingly, troublingly on the side of chaos. We observe Cook's developing plans, building an organization, and admire him for being ten steps ahead of the opposition. By making sure his men are all clean of drugs but all have needle-marks on their arms, he ensures that the authorities never consider any of them capable of organized action. He has a team of "high yellow" members rob a bank in convincing whiteface. He turns the prejudices of his enemies against them. The CIA never suspect him because he was so passive and apparently free of initiative when he worked for them. His Revolution is almost a satirical act, but it's also a very bloody conspiracy to smash the state.
Strange to look back on a period where commercial movies openly promoted the violent overthrow of the United States. Nostalgic?