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The Troubling Fate of a 1973 Film About the First Black Man in the C.I.A.

spook sat by the door

By Richard Brody

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Ivan Dixon’s 1973 film, “ The Spook Who Sat by the Door ,” which is playing at Metrograph from Friday through Sunday (it’s also on DVD and streaming), is a political fiction, based on a novel by Sam Greenlee, about the first black man in the C.I.A. After leaving the agency, the agent, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) moves to Chicago, and puts his training in guerrilla warfare to use: he organizes a group of black gang members and Vietnam War veterans into a fighting force and leads a violent uprising against the police, the National Guard, and the city government. The film’s radical premise was noticed outside of Hollywood: produced independently, the film was completed and released by United Artists, but it was pulled from theatres soon after its release. Its prints were destroyed; the negative was stored under another title; and Greenlee (who died in 2014) claimed that the F.B.I. was involved in its disappearance, citing visits from agents to theatre owners who were told to pull the movie from screens. ( No official documentation of these demands has emerged.)

On these grounds alone, a viewing of “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” would be a matter of urgent curiosity. But the movie is also a distinctive and accomplished work of art, no mere artifact of the times but an enduring experience. A supreme aspect of the art of movies is tone—the sensory climate of a movie, which depends on the style and mood of performance as much as the plot and the dialogue, the visual compositions as well as the locations, costumes, and décor, the editing and the music (often a sticking point), all of which are aligned with—and sharpen and focus—the ideas that the movie embodies. Dixon—who starred in one of the greatest of all independent films, Michael Roemer’s “ Nothing But a Man ,” from 1964 (and then spent five years on “Hogan’s Heroes”)—begins with a tone bordering on sketch-like satire that soon crystallizes into a sharp edge of restrained precision. A senator (a white man, played by Joseph Mascolo) campaigning for reëlection finds that he needs the black vote and decides to criticize the C.I.A. for having no black agents. Even in his office, the senator speaks in a pompous, stentorian voice seemingly inflated to a constant podium bluster.

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spook sat by the door

Dixon devotes careful attention to the recruitment and training process (Greenlee had himself been an employee of the U.S. Information Agency) that Freeman and the other black recruits who are his competitors endure—and to the behind-the-scenes chicanery of white officials who treat the process as a sham and hope not to integrate the agency at all. Dixon’s direction of the white actors’ performances exposes the dual meaning of the term “bad actors”: the officials’ fat-cat presumptions and facile attitudinizing are mocked in the characters’ exaggerated B-movie cadences. (The title of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” plays on the racial slur as well as the slang for “spy,” and alludes to the conspicuous deployment of the agency’s one black officer to display its phony integration.)

By contrast, in the role of Dan Freeman, Cook is laser-focussed and controlled, keeping himself under high pressure to contain tremendous heat. When Dan leaves Washington, D.C., and returns to Chicago, he does so under the guise of joining a social-services group as a street-level teacher. But when he gets there, he returns to his earlier identity as Turk, a member of a gang called the Cobras, and he organizes and trains its members as part of his battalion—with lessons that he learned in C.I.A. training courses. The sequences of their training, their planning, and their launching of action—as well as of Dan’s relations with other black men and women there, including his former fiancée, Joy (Janet League); a prostitute whom he recruits as an infiltrator (Paula Kelly); and a police detective who’s his longtime friend (J.A. Preston)—deliver a frank yet delicate reckoning with the pain and the conflict of black American lives.

The power of what Dixon accomplishes is revealed as much in what’s not onscreen as in what is. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” isn’t about the ideological or organizational development of a political party; it’s not about a public-relations war or an advocacy campaign. Rather, it’s about a cold, clear truth that infuses the movie with an existential ferocity: Dixon’s film doesn’t offer a litany of disparate grievances; it displays the bedrock of racist attitudes and assumptions that renders racist policies both inescapable and irreparable. In effect, the question that the film poses regarding the revolutionary action of black Americans—and that renders it so daring—isn’t “Why?” but “Why not?”

The longest scene in the movie, nearly at the center of it, features Dan in conversation with a fighter named Willie (David Lemieux), a college student and writer whom he recruits as “propagandist” and appoints Minister of Information. When Willie expresses contempt for his college education, Dan unleashes a calmly impassioned monologue about his illiterate grandmother learning to read when he did and telling him, “Get an education, because that’s the only thing the white man can’t take away from you.” In another extraordinary scene, as four of the guerrillas sit around chatting, two of them improvise an elaborately antic parody of a Hollywood plantation movie, complete with a servile and grateful former slave, to which Dan responds, “You have just played out the American dream, and now we’re going to turn it into a nightmare.”

Dixon, working with the cinematographer Michel Hugo (who also shot Jacques Demy’s “ Model Shop ”), composes the film with a severe, wide-eyed stillness that has the sense of a hard stare at unbearable realities and phantasmagorical practicalities alike. His stylized blankness seems to stare beyond the specifics of the drama toward vast imaginary possibilities. The power of his work was noticed by the severest critics of the era, who forced it out of theatres and nearly into oblivion. It was the second and last feature that Dixon directed—and a glance at the filmographies of its cast shows that few had significant feature-film roles afterward. As with so many independent films—sadly and unsurprisingly, particularly ones directed by women and people of color—the disappearance of this one also contributed to the erasure of careers, mentorship, influence, and power of another sort, which, judging by the fate of “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” seems to have mattered desperately to law-enforcement officials: power in the world of movies itself.

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DVD Review: 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door'

Karen Grigsby Bates

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports on the 30th-anniversary DVD release of The Spook Who Sat by the Door . The 1974 film is based on Sam Greenlee's controversial novel about a black federal agent who trains street gangs to overthrow the government.

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Rediscovering 'The Spook Who Sat By The Door'

Lawrence Cook plays Dan Freeman in Ivan Dixon's film of Sam Greenlee's controversial novel "The Spook Who Sat By The Door" (1973).

Writer David F. Walker talks about his favorite film in the context of today's BLM

spook sat by the door

David F. Walker's graphic novel on The Black Panthers comes out on Jan. 19. He reminds us that today's Black Lives Matter protests are a manifestation of anger and frustration that has been brewing for centuries and those feelings were brilliantly conveyed in both the film "The Spook Who Sat By The Door," which was based on Sam Greenlee's book and was only briefly released in 1973.

Greenlee's controversial book gave us the story of a man symbolically named Dan Freeman (played by Lawrence Cook in the film) who becomes the first Black CIA agent (his initial job is as head of Xeroxing in the basement of the building), takes advantage of all the training the organization offers and then leaves to create a revolutionary army that has echoes of what The Black Panther Party tried to do.

David F. Walker is author of the upcoming " The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel ," and has also written for the "Shaft" and "Luke Cage" comics. He calls "The Spook Who Sat By The Door" his favorite book and movie.

"The Spook Who Sat By The Door" (1973) served up a story that Black audiences could embrace but which scared those in power who wanted to maintain the status quo. It was pulled from distribution by United Artists only weeks into its theatrical run.

The film was directed by actor Ivan Dixon (best known to most for his role in the TV show "Hogan's Heroes") and it faced all sorts of obstacles. The story was set in Chicago, but Mayor Richard Daley refused to give them permission to shoot there. But Gary, Indiana had its first black mayor in Richard Hatcher, who welcomed Dixon and his production team. Dixon managed to pull off a few clandestine handheld and pick-up shots in Chicago.

The production faced financial problems as well. It ran out of money before shooting was complete but footage of the riot and a nightclub scene convinced United Artists that it could be financially successful if marketed as a Blaxploitation film (films targeted at Black audiences). Herbie Hancock gave the film a great score.

The film was a hit but then seemed to vanish and the careers of Dixon, Greenlee and Cook seemed to stall. Walker said that United Artists was pressured to pull the film from distribution and relinquished all rights to the film back to the creators (an almost unheard of thing) but they could never get the film back in cinemas.

"Part of the reason the FBI worked to suppress it was there was always this fear of the 'race war,'" Walker explained. "And it was always this fear that something would instigate Black people to finally rise up and take arms and declare war against the white man. And that's been this fear, this white fear in America since before America was America, when it was still part of the British colonies. And I think that that terrifies people so much, and especially when it's placed in a context of, oh, yeah, they're justified."

Here's are a pair of lines from the film's main character, Dan Freeman, that might resonate today with some edge: "You have just played out the American dream ... and now, we're gonna turn it into a nightmare” and the more compelling, "This is not about 'hate white folks.' This is about loving freedom enough to die or kill for it if need be."

When a riot breaks out in "The Spook Who Sat By The Door" Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) criticizes his friend Det. Dawson (J.A. Preston) because "You are here to protect property not lives."

"The Spook Who Sat By The Door" is one of the few films that presented a Black organization that looked something like The Black Panthers. Walker considered why a group as iconic as the Panthers has been so rarely depicted on screen.

"I think that it comes down to the fact that if you were to write a story, for lack of a better term, a traditional narratives of the Black Panther Party that cast them in the role of the good guys, well, then the bad guys are the United States government," Walker said.

"And we're talking about a level of corruption on a governmental level, both federal, state and municipal. That is kind of mind boggling when you really think about it. It's not as mind boggling now because we're seeing some of these things play out on the on the news on a daily basis, the acts of police brutality, the cover ups that are going on, the lack of transparency. All this was going on in the '60s and before that and since then. But, I think that in terms of popular entertainment, it's difficult for a lot of people to get down with. How do we show that? I think that part of the problem dealing with things like systemic racism is that it forces people to take a look at their own culpability. It's not just systemic racism. It's also sexism and homophobia and all the other forms of oppression. Once you acknowledge it, you have to look at your own culpability. And sometimes culpability is merely inaction or apathy. And nobody wants to face that," Walker said.

"The Spook Who Sat By The Door" is not officially streaming anywhere (and that is a true shame) but there are versions of it on YouTube. This one seemed to be the best quality. I urge you to check it out because some of what it addresses remains as bold and as remarkably relevant today as it was in 1973.

You can listen to my full interview with Walker, plus a bonus interview on The Black Panthers, on my Cinema Junkie Podcast .

spook sat by the door

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

1973, Drama, 1h 42m

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The spook who sat by the door   photos.

A former CIA agent (Lawrence Cook) organizes black teenagers into well-trained guerrilla bands bent on overthrowing the white establishment.

Genre: Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Ivan Dixon

Producer: Ivan Dixon , Sam Greenlee

Writer: Sam Greenlee , Melvin Clay

Release Date (Theaters): Sep 21, 1973  original

Release Date (DVD): Jan 27, 2004

Runtime: 1h 42m

Production Co: United Artists

Cast & Crew

Lawrence Cook

Dan Freeman

Paula Kelly

Dahomey Queen

Janet League

J.A. Preston

Paul Butler

Do-Daddy Dean

Don Blakley

David Lemieux

Pretty Willie

Byron Morrow

Joseph Mascolo

Senator Hennington

Sam Greenlee

Melvin Clay

Critic Reviews for The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Audience reviews for the spook who sat by the door.

I took the message of self determination and exploiting the exploitative system to take skills and knowledge back to ones own community. Inspiring. Using counter terrorism tactics to teach the street gangs guerrilla warfare is just an example of this but it's handled well in the movie. I like that they don't throw in a tacky ending but leave it out there. The scenes with Dan training in the CIA are confusing at first because you don't quite know where the movie is going and it did seem a little too easy for him to convince a street gang to follow him into urban revolution but that aside the sub plots like the friend who turns him in and the middle class black woman of his being scared by the revolutionary blacks make for a brilliant film.

spook sat by the door

A difficult film, both for someone to make in the 70's, and for a modern audience to swallow, but both Film and Novel take their subject matter seriously. This movie took guts. The militant uprising themes are portrayed through character development, and by the end you are forced to analyze how far the protagonist has progressed, or deluded himself, depending on your point of view. Thankfully, the movie leaves it up to the viewer. To pigeonhole this film as mere propaganda is a bit harsh, as it tells a story not with ideology or metaphor but a well-rounded protagonist, and you are left free to interpret how the film ends. Yet, the film itself is nothing but a one-trick pony, and cannot rely on gutsy thematic content alone, and the supporting cast is blatantly two-dimensional, the plot, while unique in its setting, is sub-par when you strip away its thematic overtones. The films greatness is dependent on the arguments and thoughts it provokes once it is over, and not on its cinematic merit alone. The film is trapped in Schroedinger's box, but is well worth the time to examine for yourself, and see what emerges.

One of the most radical blaxsplotation films I've ever seen.

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The spook who sat by the door audible audiobook – unabridged.

Continuously available in print since 1968, this novel has become embedded in progressive anti-racist culture with wide circulation of the book and hotly debated film. A literary classic, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a strong comment on entrenched racial inequities in the United States in the late 1960s. With its focus on the “militancy” that characterized the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, this is the story of one man’s reaction to ruling-class hypocrisy in ways that make the novel autobiographical and personal. As a tale of a reaction to the forces of oppression, this book is universal.

Dan Freeman, the “spook who sat by the door,” is enlisted in the CIA’s elitist espionage program. Upon mastering agency tactics, however, he drops out to train young Black Chicagoans to combat racism as “Freedom Fighters” in this explosive novel.

  • Listening Length 6 hours and 6 minutes
  • Author Sam Greenlee, see all
  • Narrator Dion Graham, see all
  • Audible release date May 19, 2020
  • Language English
  • Publisher Random House Audio
  • ASIN B085JNZ34H
  • Version Unabridged
  • Program Type Audiobook
  • See all details

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Sam McCrea in The Spook Who Sat by the Door

An African American is hired by the CIA in the late 1960s to train for a high-level mission. An African American is hired by the CIA in the late 1960s to train for a high-level mission. An African American is hired by the CIA in the late 1960s to train for a high-level mission.

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Lucas Till and Y'lan Noel in The Spook Who Sat by the Door

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Lindsey K Weller

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  • PM defends Houthi strikes in first statement to Commons
  • Nigel Farage tells Sky News he still backs Donald Trump
  • Tory party deputy chair to back Rwanda bill rebellion
  • Tories heading for 1997-scale defeat, new poll shows
  • Sam Coates: Why this mysterious poll is designed to cause trouble
  • Politics At Jack And Sam's : Tory rebels not expecting big changes on Rwanda
  • Poll tracker:  Who is on course to win the election?
  • Live reporting by  Faith Ridler and (earlier)  Ben Bloch

Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to NATO, now joins Sophy to discuss the situation in the Middle East.

Asked whether US and UK airstrikes were the right thing to do, Mr Volker says: "Absolutely. I don't see any question.

"The reason that those attacks by the Houthi on international shipping took place was because they believed that there would be no response.

"They had already sent so many missiles against US forces in the region, Iran has launched attacks through Iran, through Hezbollah... and there is almost no response.

"So they believed they could do this with impunity."

Mr Volker says it was "essential to hit back at the Houthis, and show that we are willing to do it again".

"We have to re-establish a sense of deterrence against this behaviour."

Sophy is now talking to our economics and data editor Ed Conway , who is giving an insight into the economic consequences of tensions in the Red Sea.

The waterway is one of the world's most significant shipping lanes, and so any blockage or strikes could cause a lasting impact on the world economy.

"We are at the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos, this event happens every year… and really you could hardly choose a more appropriate forum for lots of people - whether its politicians or various campaigners - to come together," Ed says.

"This is the kind of forum that is desperately interested in events like that we are seeing in the Red Sea, and in a concerned way." 

He says a clear issue has been raised: "You can't necessarily rely on those shipping lanes that you relied on before."

Ed wonders if this is a "potential sign" of what could become a "new Cold War - certainly a more fractured economic situation around the world".

However, he did point to a glimpse of good news.

"So far, oil prices haven't risen, so far gas prices have actually fallen," he says.

Ed adds there hasn't been a huge impact yet, but stresses it is "early days".

Sophy is now discussing news that a US-owned cargo ship was struck by a missile near Yemen on Monday, days after the UK and US hit Houthi-linked targets.

The US Central Command said a Houthi missile was fired at the MV Gibraltar Eagle as it was passaging outside the Gulf of Aden.

The Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier is continuing on its journey, the statement added.

In the last few moments, a Houthi spokesman has said the group's naval forces carried out the strike on a US-owned ship today.

The rebel group also said it considered all American and British vessels as hostile targets. 

We have been reporting today that the Gibraltar Eagle was struck by an "unidentified projectile" while sailing 100 miles off Yemen in the Gulf of Aden.

As a result of the impact, the vessel suffered "limited damage to a cargo hold".

Earlier, Rishi Sunak told the Commons that action against the Houthi targets in Yemen came after more than 25 attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

Additionally, on 9 January an attack was launched on the HMS Diamond destroyer and two American warships.

Mr Sunak refused to speculate about whether the UK would carry out further strikes should the Houthi attacks continue.

Today saw Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stand up in the Commons and provide a statement on strikes the UK carried out on Houthi targets in Yemen last week.

He took almost two hours of questions from MPs on the strikes, after explaining they only came after the Iran-backed group launched almost 30 "unacceptable" attacks on commercial ships.

Mr Sunak also said the UK's "initial assessment is that all 13 planned targets were destroyed". There is no evidence of civilian casualties, he said.

Here's a reminder of what the prime minister had to say…

Our weeknight politics show  Politics Hub With Sophy Ridge  is live now on Sky News.

The fast-paced, one-hour show dissects the inner workings of Westminster, with interviews, insights, and analysis - bringing the audience into the corridors of power.

Sophy will be speaking to  Kurt Volker , the former US ambassador to NATO, after the UK and US took action against Houthi targets in Yemen last week.

On her panel tonight are:

  • Tory MP  Dr Liam Fox
  • Labour MP  Sarah Champion

Watch live in the stream at the top of this page, and follow all the latest updates and key moments right here in the Politics Hub.

Watch Politics Hub With Sophy Ridge from 7pm Monday to Thursday on Sky channel 501, Virgin channel 602, Freeview channel 233, on the  Sky News website  and  app  or on  YouTube .

Welcome to the Politics Hub - tonight we're bringing you the show from our brand-new Westminster studio for the first time.

In contrast with our fresh look there are some more familiar stories we are going to be discussing tonight.

The official start of the US election campaign with the caucuses in Iowa - dominated by one very familiar face. I don't need to tell you who that is.

And the latest round of US-UK air strikes. We've also heard that story before - many times - in recent history.

Rishi Sunak has been in the House of Commons today outlining why the strikes against the Houthi militant group were the right thing to do, after their repeated attacks on international shipping.

And it feels like there is broad agreement in the diplomatic community and the Labour Party that the targeted strikes were proportionate.

So no wonder Mr Sunak is comfortable talking about the decision, ditto Defence Secretary Grant Shapps in an address this morning.

But when the government so clearly does want to talk about something, I can't help wondering what it is they don't want to talk about.

The increasingly difficult and depressing war in the Middle East, which has exposed the limits of Western diplomacy.

The UK's defence capability - and whether we really are the global player we like to imagine ourselves as being.

And the US election… and what that means for global security. 

If Donald Trump wins, will America still be the policeman of the world? 

And what happens if not?

We'll try and answer some of those questions on tonight's show.

Lee Anderson has said he will vote in favour of amendments to the PM's Rwanda bill that have been put forward by right-wing Tory rebels.

He posted on X: "The Rwanda Bill. I have signed the Cash & Jenrick amendments.

"I will vote for them."

It could put Mr Anderson, the deputy chair of the Tory party, on a collision course with the prime minister as the bill returns to parliament from tomorrow.

Rishi Sunak is facing growing pressure from the right of his party to toughen up the Rwanda bill, and today said he is talking to those who believe it still contains too many loopholes.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who is popular among the Tory grassroots, is understood to have called for asylum seekers to be prevented from lodging individual legal appeals against their removals to Kigali.

Mr Anderson has now joined a group of more than 50 Tory MPs who have publicly backed right-wing amendments to the Rwanda bill.

Two days of debate on the divisive bill will begin on Tuesday.

Our US correspondent Mark Stone has just spoken to former UKIP and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who is in Iowa as the state prepares to kick off the Republican presidential nomination balloting.

"America faces very real problems," Mr Farage told Sky News. "The idea that [Donald] Trump wants to destroy democracy I think is nonsense, I don't see any evidence of it."

Mark pushed back that Mr Trump tried to overturn an election that he lost in 2020.

"He didn't try to overturn it, did he?" Mr Farage said.

But when the Capitol attacks are brought up, he admitted: "The events of 6 January were not brilliant, I get that.

"He and I disagreed publicly on continually talking about the stolen election.

"But I think what the voters need is to look forward, and not look back."

However, he says the idea that this was some sort of "mass insurgency… I just don’t buy it".

Today's YouGov poll is a disaster for the Tories (see 8.20 post).

It forecasts a 120-seat majority for Labour - with the Conservatives crashing from 365 seats to 169, and Labour going from 202 to 385.

This is worse than the Tory defeat in 1997.

The Lib Dems would be the third-biggest party once more on 48 seats, and the SNP almost halve their seats to 25.

Senior cabinet Tories would lose their seats, including Jeremy Hunt's Godalming and Ash in Surrey to the Lib Dems (just), Penny Mordaunt losing Portsmouth North, and Johnny Mercer Plymouth Moor View.

Even worse, this model already accounts for the idea there's been a squeeze on the Labour lead in the campaign, implying its share of the vote is at 39.5% - a full five or six percentage points less than most polls.

But the intent of the poll is to cause trouble - the results from YouGov were bad enough without the spin of the poll's mysterious funders...

Read Sam's full analysis below.

Tonight at 7pm, our flagship weeknight politics show has a new home.

Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge is moving to a brand new studio ahead of a blockbuster year of elections around the world.

Sophy Ridge gives you a first look at the stunning new studio - take a look below:

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spook sat by the door

IMAGES

  1. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

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  2. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

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  3. Classic Movie Moments THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR

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  6. The battle of Chicago: The Spook Who Sat by the Door

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  2. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

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  3. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (novel)

    The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969), by Sam Greenlee, is the fictional story of Dan Freeman, the first black CIA officer, and of the CIA's history of training persons and political groups who later used their specialised training in gathering intelligence, political subversion, and guerrilla warfare against the CIA.

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  8. The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee

    Sam Greenlee 4.36 2,617 ratings236 reviews This book is both a satire of the civil rights problems in the United States in the late 60s and a serious attempt to focus on the issue of black militancy. Genres Fiction Historical Fiction Race Classics African American Mystery Politics ...more 256 pages, Paperback First published March 1, 1969

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    The Spook Who Sat by the Door (TV Series) - IMDb Episode guide 2 Cast & crew IMDbPro All topics The Spook Who Sat by the Door TV Series Drama An African American is hired by the CIA in the late 1960s to train for a high-level mission. Stars Lucas Till Bailey Chase William R. Moses See production info at IMDbPro Add to Watchlist Episodes 2

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  25. Politics latest: Tories heading for 1997-scale defeat, poll shows

    A vast new poll shows Labour heading for a majority of 120 - and 11 cabinet ministers losing their seats. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is expected to give a statement to MPs later on why the airstrikes ...