THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (Dir. Ivan Dixon, 1973, US) – ‘You have just played out the American dream…now, we’re gonna turn it into a nightmare’

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The high point of Blaxploitation political radicalism is commonly signposted with Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking film – ‘Sweetback’. When considering the limitations of Blaxploitation cinema, the seminal nature of Peebles film should in no way exclusively act as the definitive reference point for the radicalism of the era or black cinema. Released in 1973, The Spook who sat by the door falls under the auspice of Blaxploitation but the political reality with which it dealt, that of black militancy and anti establishment ideology, is an aspect that most films avoided in fear of commercial alienation and criticism from the white establishment. The claim that Blaxploitation offered new ways of representing what it meant to be black in America seems like another liberal oversight considering how many of these films perpetuated a fantasy urban image of a black anti-hero. Many of these so called Blaxploitation films did little to further the political cause of the black communities in America as many of the films were financed by the major studios in a deliberate and premature attempt to cash in on the emergence of a new black audience. With Blaxploitation, the difficulty with articulating a differing ideological perspective, one which was as fiercely radical and uncompromising as that of the values of black revolutionaries, remained worryingly absent from mainstream cinema.

Black actor and film maker, Ivan Dixon’s second film as a director, The Spook who sat by the door, makes for provocative and highly charged viewing today. Yet the explicit political sympathy it shows with the ideology of black militancy and its centrality within the black community as a force of real change continues to be largely responsible for its relative obscurity and marginal status. Written by Chicago based black activist Sam Greenlee, ‘The Spook who sat by the door’, was published in 1968. Greenlee served as a foreign services officer with the US Information Agency between 1954 and 1957. Though his first novel was a work of fiction, it undoubtedly reflected his own personal experience (and perhaps the discrimination he faced) working for an extension of the white establishment. Co-adapted by Greenlee for the screen (he also acted as one of the producers alongside Ivan Dixon), the novel like the film follows the journey of black CIA agent Dan Freeman who uses his training and skills to create a popular black uprising in the deprived ghetto of Chicago.

Post 68, America had been traumatised by a wave of political assassinations including that of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The death of the civil rights movement and the political gap left by the absence of aspiring leaders brought about a period of disillusionment. The reactionary, armed struggle and brand of empowering black militancy advocated by Marxist groups like The Black Panthers questioned the pacifist approach taken by the civil rights activists as somewhat abortive in achieving the ultimate objective of political, social and economic independence and freedom. Rejecting the non-violent ideologies of Martin Luther, black militancy argued that for real change and progress to take place in the black communities it would need to emerge from a collective and somewhat revolutionary attitude towards the oppression of the white establishment.

A handful of films were able to channel such anxieties including the much dismissed and misinterpreted 1973 film, The Spook who sat by the door. The financing for the project came from wealthy black members of the Chicago community whilst Ivan Dixon’s credentials as a black actor and competent director of TV shows secured a distribution deal with United Artists who also agreed to contribute the final share of the budget. On this basis alone, one could argue that Dixon’s film is an independent feature, made outside the sphere of studio interference and described by Greenlee as ‘guerrilla’ film making. Dixon had promised United Artists another blaxploitation film in the vein of his directorial debut Trouble Man but the finished film enraged the studio who gave it a truncated release. Ivan Dixon started his Hollywood career acting as an uncredited student double for Sidney Poitier on The Defiant Ones. Eventually shifting into television, recognition came with Nothing but a Man, an independent film for which he received critical acclaim in the lead role.

Dixon spent much of his career directing apolitical television shows, much of which he has openly criticised as insignificant. His career after The Spook who sat by the door seemed to stall; Dixon accused the FBI of making it difficult for him to find work – his inflammatory political ideals did not go down well with the wider conservative elements of the white establishment. I think the staunch resistance Dixon faced from United Artists when it came to distribution and the suppression of the final film galvanised a mind set which confirmed that it was possible to make a political film but virtually impossible to get it distributed. I suspect this is what largely prevented Dixon from continuing his engagement with political film making. He tried but had failed at subverting the system.

What makes The Spook who sat by the door fascinating viewing today is the film’s uncompromising approach in detailing the ideology of black militancy – the idea of an armed struggle is something that we actually witness and take place in the film. Perhaps the major criticism with the film is Dixon’s over reliance on the trappings of the blaxploitation film – one can see clear evidence throughout of Dixon’s anxiety with making a film that would potentially limit the commercial prospects. Upon the rigorous recruitment procedure, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) is hired to be the CIA’s first black agent and immediately given a redundant, powerless and token desk job. In the sequences in which Freeman interacts with the white establishment, Dixon mocks the Uncle Tom stereotype as our protagonist acts submissively, politely following orders and maintaining his subservient position as the CIA’s pathetic symbol of liberalism.

Though his time at the CIA is a humiliating one, Freeman’s infiltration proves to be worthwhile as he puts to work his skills and knowledge as an agent to instigate a political revolt in his own community. He recruits a mixture of naïve community activists and politicised revolutionaries, teaching them how political resistance must be determined by acts of violent retaliation – he inevitably attracts the support and even consent of the local community who rally around the group’s radical oppositional thinking. For me, this was the most surprising aspect of the film. Unlike most films in which the revolutionary or radical is eventually captured, imprisoned and killed, the ending sees Freeman very much in control of the revolution and prepared to go to any lengths to ensure it achieves the purpose of political emancipation – the CIA and FBI are unable to repress Freeman as he uses their ideas of guerrilla warfare as a weapon against them. The irony here is simply devastating.

Ivan Dixon’s film seems to be a missing link between the work of black film makers in the 1970s and the confrontational politics of a contemporary black film maker like Spike Lee.

TIKLI AND LAXMI BOMB (Dir. Aditya Kripalani, 2017, India) – Sex and the City

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The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam BombayTikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.

Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.

But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.

GALIGE (Dir. M. S. Sathyu, 1995, India)

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I recently caught Galige (1995) lurking in the library of Amazon’s Indian film channel Heera. Many of the key titles first made available by the NFDC on DVD through the Cinemas of India label can be found in the library. Most of the films have subtitles and claim to have been restored, which judging by some of the films I have seen, either the original negative must be in a sorry state or the term restoration has been somewhat inflated. Galige, directed by M. S. Sathyu, released in 1995, returns to the topic of secularism (Garam Hawa, 1973) but this time through the perspective of two youth; an orphaned girl who does not believe in religion or caste and a young Sikh boy who is on the run after committing an act of terrorism in the name of religion. Since they have both seen the ways in which religion separates rather than unites brings them closer together, creating a striking and refreshing socialist worldview. It might be reasonable to include Galige as part of a cycle of films released in the mid nineties, including Naseem (95) and Mammo (94) that dealt with the politics of secularism at a critical historical juncture, broadly signalling the end of Parallel Cinema.

Galige does not have an entry in The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema and I had problems finding information and reviews on the film which makes me wonder why and how so many of these films have made it to DVD and now on digital platforms without any context whatsoever. Although making a title accessible to film audiences is a major step in the right direction, especially for Parallel Cinema, the dearth of basic contextual information in the shape of reviews, interviews and analysis is unsurprising in the broader picture of Indian film titles shabbily making their way onto home video. Not all of the films warrant context but there is a critical historical dimension to Galige, namely the Khalistan movement, which demanded elucidation and has rarely been depicted on screen, perhaps in the shape of a booklet or companion video of some kind. In all, the Cinemas of India label is a missed opportunity in terms of bringing to life one of the most significant and prolific film movements of the last fifty years. I guess we should be grateful the NFDC didn’t watermark all their films!

MACHINES (Dir. Rahul Jain, 2016, India/Germany/Finland)

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The worker as machine is not a new phenomenon. It goes as far back as the industrial revolution. But I have to admit though. I thought this documentary was going to be about the singularity of the physical, industrial and technological symbolism of machines. It still is in some respects. But Rahul Jain trains his eye on translating the processes of manufacture, waste and labour into a hypnotically poetic synthesis of the toils and uncertain rituals of economic liberalisation. And what rises to the surface through a series of revelatory interviews with the factory workers in particular is a voice that speaks not of Marxist revolution but of the want for better (and safer) working conditions, a reasonable work shift, and acknowledgement from the boss that they exist. The interviews with the workers are interspersed with observational footage in the labyrinthine textile factory, relaying a socio-political discourse aligned to a wider social conscience. But this sort of comes undone towards the end. In an instant, the quizzical workers reduce the filmic apparatus to an obsolete ideological entity – deftly overturning the gaze of the documentarian and raising doubts about the ethical validity of the entire project. Machines is a tactile work that has a remarkable tempo that draws you in with its sincere political testimony of the migratory, factory worker. A masterful, accomplished exposition on the perpetual effects of globalisation.