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The Spook No More – Remembering Sam Greenlee

sam Of the several recent losses of giants in the Black liberation movement, one in particular has caused me particular disquiet, the life of Sam Greenlee. Greenlee’s written work, which was later turned into an underground film classic (for which he wrote the screenplay) “The Spook That Sat by the Door” exploded open many possibilities for young minds concerned with justice. Unquestionably revolutionary in its day for showing the ultimate possibility of black resistance to racial and economic oppression, the film remains relevant despite modern analytical assessments that highlight the patriarchal machismo that pervades the story. It remains singular and unique in its overt political message advocating revolutionary action compared to films we see today. More than that it argues that tactics, unity, planning and resources matter in any battle, which makes it a defining moment in the catalog of movement movies.


The battle that must have been waged by Greenlee to survive the “white”-listing that followed his artistic attempt to show black revolutionary fervor took its toll on him for the rest of his days. Any artist who dares to show Africans in America waging war in present-day circumstances is not going to have a long profitable existence in mainstream artist circles that are dependent upon corporate support to make their material widely available. Even if today there are openings for slick, adventurist revenge tales against individual slave owners, Hollywood, (for obvious reasons) is still not comfortable with films that delve into post-slavery consciousness of both whites and blacks in American culture. Nor does Hollywood—Django notwithstanding—seek to highlight films where Africans in America are seeking revolution akin to the colonies against the British for centuries of brutal and racist treatment.
Although it is never really discussed in polite society, controlling the black body and mind to prevent the imagined unleashing of a torrent of Black rage on the physical and psychological beings of whiteness is a latent fear that is still part of the calculus of mainstream political action. From post-emancipation lynchings, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, post-civil rights southern strategy, FBI’s COINTELPRO, mass incarceration policies, voter disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, and right wing gerrymandering, to the gun buying, stand-your-ground laws and 2nd amendment intoxication post the election of Barak Obama, are all in some ways connected threads to deal with the fear of unleashed black revenge. Greenlee was a visionary who knew his writing and the subsequent film, was a watershed moment of black resistance. It stirred deep passions on both sides of the looking glass.
Greenlee work was handled in the way applicable for artist bold enough to project such images. He was made a pariah whose film was yanked out of theaters. He was consequently denied the right to explore his talent. Given that Greenlee was not actually an organizer mounting a campaign for radical change, he did not have to be killed or jailed like his movement contemporaries. Silencing his art was all that was needed. Some believe this was purely Greenlee’s own invention of why his “career” did not take off, but during that time period it would seem remarkable if the government was not directly or indirectly involved in minimizing the potential audience of such a film.
Greenlee still attempted to show his film and develop a distribution channel much like earlier black directors, and later to hip-hop artists who tried to sell their music from the trunk of their cars. Although Greenlee never became a well-known mass-produced artist, he still holds a particular place among politicized people of various generations and backgrounds. His message of using institutions of power and the “master’s” tools back to the community was and is salient. It is relevant, even when mangled by those claiming that when they work for Wall Street, they are going to bring the money back to the hood (the hood knows better). The film and book have still provided inspiration to fight the power, even for those who don’t believe in violent overthrow. In remembering Greenlee, not many can say that they don’t perceive a certain “justice” in winning power by using the tools of the “enemy”. Greenlee will certainly join a pantheon of red, black and green heroes, even if his name won’t be as remembered, his work will be, if for no other reason than it kept pulse-pumping-revolutionary-payback-dreams alive for some.

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About Kamau Franklin (80 Articles)
Kamau has been a dedicated community activist and organizer for over twenty years, first in New York City and now based in the south. He has been a leading member of several grassroots organizations dedicated to the ideas of Malcolm X on self-determination. He has organized on various issues including youth organizing and development, police misconduct, and creating sustainable urban communities. Kamau has led and developed community cop-watch programs, freedom school programs for youth, large scale community gardens and alternatives to incarceration. He can be followed on twitter @kamaufranklin.

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