Here at S&A we’ve covered Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise And Fall of The Spook Who Sat By The Door a number times, before and after it gained prominence in the film market.
For those unaware, this documentary tells the story behind the making of the cult-favorite movie The Spook Who Sat By The Door, with interviews centering around Sam Greenlee, the writer of the original book and screenplay, along with film co-stars Paul Butler, J.A. Preston and the late director Ivan Dixon’s wife Berlie Dixon, among other notables.
The directors of this telling documentary are Christine Acham and Cliff Ward.
Christine Acham received her PhD in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She is an Associate Professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California-Davis where she teaches film, television, popular culture, documentary history and production.
Cliff Ward obtained his Cinema Production Certificate from the Cinema-Television Department at Los Angeles City College. He is an independent editor who has produced films for organizations such as the California Black Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles School District.
I previously got an opportunity to interview both filmmakers. The transcript of that interview follows below
So let’s start with the basics: What made you pick “Spook…” as the subject for a documentary? And what was both of yours introduction to the original movie?
Christine Acham: I saw the film in an African-American film class in grad school (USC) – it was such amazing film. And then learning the stories behind it, and that the hearing that film was repressed and that we were watching one of the last copies of the film and the idea of passing bootlegs around to each other made it a fascinating project I wanted to know more about. When I started teaching, I wanted to write a background article about the film so I contacted Sam Greenlee and he was so open about it so when he made it to California I took a camera just to record the for the article and he turned out to be such a fascinating person with such amazing stories that it just lead to the fact that this needed to be a documentary.
I started shooting footage in 2003, but that footage was shot in DV, so when in 2008 Cliff and I realized that we wanted this documentary to go onto television and in festivals I called Sam again and we re-shot his interviews in HD.
Cliff Ward: I had always heard rumblings about this movie you have to see and book you had to read but I didn’t get deep into it until I met Christine and as soon as we watched it together it captured me.
Not everyone is aware about how the movie was repressed, but from what I knew the movie the movie was always around – maybe that’s because I live in NYC. That said, how was it passed around when you (Christine) were in school?
Christine: When I was in grad school, on of my classmate’s mother was a Black Panther, so she made us copies of the film, which was pretty exciting. Now what became challenging was to find better bootleg copies! So we’d go online and actually you were talking about NY, most of the better stores were located there, so we bought it online and compared who had the better copies. And we passed the better copies around.
Cliff: Thankfully it was re-released on DVD in 2004, so now you can go out and purchase it on pretty much anywhere.
Sam Greenlee is a very interesting person, to say the least. How was it getting to know him and get him to share on camera…and getting him to open up? And are you still in communication with him?
Christine: From the beginning Sam was very open with telling us the problems behind making the film and stories about what happened during the shoot and about how he knew a lot of the theater owners in Chicago and they’d call directly and tell him about how the FBI asked them to pull the movie out of their theaters. He was very open about those kind of discussions. Now as far as coming to know him and getting to know the vulnerable side of Sam, that came from getting to know him over time and spending a lot time with him; he was more willing to show the not-so-hard side of him.
Cliff: And we're still very much in touch with him. He came out to Black Harvest [Film Festival] and took questions from the crowd and hung out and everything. Sam's great.
From concept to the completed film, how long did it take to put your film together – to find all the cast and crew that were featured? Was it about two years?
Cliff: That’s exactly right, two years. Some people we found through the DGA, others we found through connections Sam. So we were just happening along finding their different investors and Michael Khan, their editor, and finding what sources we could.
So from all those people, who stood out to you? Who was the most exciting person you found – outside of Sam?
Christine: For me, getting Berlie Dixon to do an interview, to fill in that gap from her husband’s perspective was the coup interview, the standout. Michael Khan was another one. But at first [Berlie] didn’t answer us. I even sent handwritten letters, but I didn’t hear back from her until Cliff put together the trailer and we sent it to her that she called us back finally. And really, the whole process in going to see Berlie was real interesting. She invited us to North Carolina, but really she invited us to show her the rough cut of the film so we go there and were sort of…
Cliff: It was an audition.
Christine: Yeah, and so we got there and we all watched the rough cut with the family. And we found what really got her to call us back in the first place is that Cliff had come up with the title of the film, “Infiltrating Hollywood,” and she said I called you back because the title of your film engaged me cause that’s exactly what Ivan did – infiltrate Hollywood. So only after watching the rough cut that she decided to do the interview with us.
So she was among the last people you interviewed?
Christine: Actually, she was the second-to-last. J.A. Preston was the last interview.
I think the film would have still worked even if you didn’t have her, but providing Ivan Dixon’s perspective, since he’s no longer with is, man that was essential.
Christine: That’s 100 percent right. I’m glad we pursued her without being too obnoxious. Thankfully, she was so gracious to ask us to her home and allowed herself to be interviewed.
I have to say that it’s impressive that you pulled this together in two years because from speaking to other documentary filmmakers, it usually takes them YEARS to gain access.
Cliff: It all stems from the people that we interviewed. They were so enthusiastic about talking about this whole film that they did back in 1970. This is something that they were really excited to talk about. Well, almost everyone (laughs).
Can you share who wasn’t?
Christine: J.A. Preston was really hesitant. Paula Kelly we never could get in touch with. I sent her letters when she was performing at the Pasadena Playhouse and never heard back from her. Herbie Hancock we never heard back from too, but he’s harder to get in contact with – we don’t know if he even reads his letters or not. But Paula Kelly definitely was a loss. We even did crazy things like contacting her hairdresser and she’d tell me she hasn’t been in for a while. It was crazy. I really wanted her, she would’ve provided another great female voice to the film, but it’s one of those things you just have to finally say 'okay' and shut the book on.
Lawrence Cook, the star of “Spook” passed away years before your production began. Where there any attempts to speak to his family or loved ones about the impact that this film had on his life and career?
Christine: We couldn’t find anyone connected Lawrence Cook, except for J.A. Preston. We definitely tried to get that in there – it’d be the missing link in the film. I hunted for addresses, but he just disappeared. We had a really hard time finding someone to speak for him. It’s really tough. You want to have a complete a story as possible. If we could find someone who could speak form him, we’d be happy to cut that footage into the film, no problem.
Another great actor from the movie, Paul Butler who played Do-Daddy Dean, seemed to be a wealth of information in your doc. He also passed away, albeit pretty recently. What can you share about him that we don’t see in your film? And was this his last interview?
Chrstine Acham: Paul’s connection to Sam was evident. He really cared for Sam and felt that being in that movie was an integral part of him becoming a solid actor. He was really inspired by Sam’s words. What I really loved is that he’s still tied to political views and loved talking about the black community.
Cliff Ward: What you saw on the screen is who he was. There were no walls with Paul. He was a great interview. It was a tough loss for Christine and I – it touched us both as we had plans to continue corresponding with him and hanging out with him in the future.
Christine: And we never even got the interview to show him the film. And we think it was his last interview – given the timing. He was working on Rubicon at the time and they had to replace him on the show. And Paul had a great sense of humor, which was really engaging for a documentary.
(Writers note: Roger Robinson replaced Paul Butler on the AMC show Rubicon. I watched the show, and Robinson was fantastic as always and a real draw, but I can see where Bulter would’ve added a great essence to that character. What a loss).
Without giving away anything from the film, how much information were you actually able to piece together from FBI or CIA files about the movie and/or Sam Greenlee?
Christine: We never got any CIA documents. WE requested them on two separate occasions and they never responded. The FBI documents showed that they followed Sam since he wrote the book, then their perspective on what they thought it was all about.
Cliff: Most of the material, ten documents, five of which we were given, were redacted. “Sam flew to Europe, blank, few to Jamaica…” And the rest is redacted.
Christine: When you apply for the Freedom Of Information Act, The reason they give for not handing them over is that they will not give anything that would effect the security of the country or that will negatively impact that person. Interestingly, we had Sam’s signature on the FBI requests for documents, as well as mine, so obviously the fact that it would be damaging to the person is completely ridiculous – he obviously asked for the information. And to the think that an 81-year-old man would be a danger to the country is ridiculous. It was interesting to hear the woman at Martha’s Vineyard [African-American Film Festival) say that’s pretty much it – you can ask and you might get it or you don’t get. We knew from the documents that he’s definitely considered to be a person of interest.
Ivan Dixon was a very interesting person as an actor, accomplished director and activist as he refused to play any stereotypical parts, served in Negro Actors for Action during the Civil Rights Movement, etc. Any plans to do a documentary on him, especially considering your access to his wife Berlie, who contributed widely to your film?
Christine: Ivan is the one that definitely interests me. Right now I’m working on doing a documentary about Nothing But A Man. And actually, Berlie had volunteered on making some connections for me with the producers of the film. So that’s the next project I’m thinking about doing. Whether that turns out to be a larger focus on Ivan Dixon as documentaries tend to grow and morph, we’ll see.
So to close, anything else you feel like sharing?
Cliff: We’ve encountered a lot of the same stories that Christine was saying: the passing along of bootleg copies from their Black Panther grandparents and that people make sure they’ve passed the book onto their kids when they came of age. Everyone has stories like that, like “I remember seeing this bootleg copy in the basement of my sister’s house…” The reason this movie is still out there is because the people won’t let the movie the die.
The film recently aired on the Documentary Channel. If you want to purchase a copy, you're advised to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's a trailer: