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The Spook Who Sat by the Door and the Art of Propaganda

The legendary sociologist, author, historian and more, W.E.B. Du Bois said in his 1926 “Criteria of Negro Art” speech that he did not “care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” The response the United States had to the 1973 blaxploitation film The Spook Who Sat by the Door offers a strong example of the imbalance to which Du Bois refers.

The film, based on Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel of the same name, tells the fictional story of the first Black man in the CIA, who leaves his government position to found, train and head the “Black Freedom Fighters of North America,” a guerrilla fighting unit in his native Chicago that even today is plagued with wanton police brutality. There are many scenes in the film that depict the Freedom Fighters engaging in armed warfare with police officers and the National Guard, so it’s easy to understand why it was virtually wiped from existence shortly after its release in the states. Richard Brody wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which he mentions how the film “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.”

An essay that Brody cites notes that, though there is no direct evidence of federal involvement, “it is certainly a view widely-held by all those involved in the film’s production and considering the dizzying array of disruptive tactics employed by Hoover’s FBI and the Cointelpro program from the late 1960s onwards it is certainly by no means far-fetched to consider this plausible.” The great lengths that Americans—whether it was the FBI or not—went to to obscure the film from history provide an unmistakable example of the stripping and silencing that Du Bois spoke of.

Meanwhile, the country’s first ever blockbuster, which some speculate made up to $100 million at the box office (which, as Richard Corliss points out, amounts to $1.8 billion after being adjusted for inflation), was the 1915 The Birth of A Nation, a white supremacist propaganda film that made valiant protagonists of the members of the Ku Klux Klan. The film, complete with blackface and unapologetically racist depictions of fried chicken-eating, sexually devious “Black” people, was not pulled from theaters, did not have its prints destroyed and negatives mislabeled in any nationwide obscurantism campaign, but was instead the first film to be shown at the White House. Imagine that.

White supremacist and nationalist artistic propaganda is a topic that African American artists and thinkers have covered extensively. Author Ishmael Reed said in 1988 that the 1976 classic Rocky “made millions of dollars exploiting the public’s fear of black males,” citing the juxtaposition of the protagonist, the Italian American heavyweight boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to his main rival in the film, the African American and arrogant Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who Balboa must and does defeat. I would actually take Reed’s assertion further and argue that that the propaganda didn’t stop with the original film, but rather was expanded upon in Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), the main antagonists of which are the African American, menacing, disrespectful, gold chain overloaded Clubber Lang (Mr. T), and the cold and unfeeling Soviet Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), respectively. Both characters are crafted from cartoonish stereotypes and are defeated by a Balboa who has taken to wearing the American flag on his trunks. The underlying messages of these films could be interpreted as such: When Rocky wins, America wins, and there isn’t a Negro or commie in existence that can topple America.

Du Bois’ insistence on the use of pro-Black artistic propaganda, I must imagine, is due in part to the same imbalance he makes reference to. He understood that for Black people and other minorities to lose the battle of propaganda in the United States is to allow undertones of racism and prejudice to pervade its media without contest, hence his disgust with one side’s propaganda being praised while the other’s is destroyed. Do not misunderstand: The Spook Who Sat by the Door is not any more indicative of today’s implementation of propaganda than The Birth of a Nation is. Pro-Black propaganda is by no means unequivocally or even commonly violent or anti-white, as some Breitbart readers may be quick to assume. Instead, the great majority of it focuses on exposing the racism and contradictions found virtually everywhere in the country. So, Black people, let us continue to propagandize through our music like Anderson Paak’s support of protestors in “Lockdown,” and through our comedy like the late Patrice O’Neal, who made a crowd erupt with laughter by suggesting that lifeguards call off their searches for us if they can’t see us from the edge of the beach. Let us propagandize however we can.

Myles Walker

Myles Walker

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