“Spook” opened in September 1973 in the midst of televised Watergate hearings, a number of years after the F.B.I.’s secret Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) disabled the Black Panthers. Paranoia was excessive. The yr’s different impartial options included the white vigilante story “Walking Tall” and the John F. Kennedy conspiracy docudrama “Executive Action.” An anticipatory article in The Chicago Defender, the nation’s pre-eminent African-American weekly, puzzled if “Greenlee’s masterpiece” may “touch off race warfare.”
Unsurprisingly, opinions have been combined. New York Magazine characterised “Spook” as “completely irresponsible.” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby gave a extra cautious appraisal: The film is “seldom convincing as melodrama,” however “the rage it projects is real.” Indeed, halfway by means of, the police set off a violent chain response — taking pictures an unarmed child as he flees by means of a again alley — that’s nonetheless unfolding when “Spook” ends.
Some weeks later, The Times ran a Sunday assume piece with the headline “This ‘Spook’ Has No Respect for Human Life.” It concluded that “not just a film about Black people,” “Spook” was “a valuable lesson” in dramatizing “man’s response to oppression.” By then, the film had just about disappeared. Greenlee stated that after three weeks in launch, throughout which F.B.I. brokers hounded exhibitors to pull the movie, UA withdrew it from circulation, citing poor field workplace grosses. (According to the Internet Movie Database, “Spook” introduced in $270,000 throughout its abortive run.)
White America was spooked. The film was blamed for serving as a Black Panthers textbook and for uplifting the Symbionese Liberation Army, the largely white revolutionary cell that might go on to kidnap Patty Hearst. Lawrence Cook’s big-screen profession went nowhere and, regardless of turning into a prolific TV director, Dixon would by no means direct one other theatrical film. Still, “Spook” had a fugitive existence, circulating for years on bootleg VHS tapes in video shops.
In 2003, the actor Tim Reid discovered the solely extant 35-millimeter print saved below a special title. In 2004, the film was reissued on DVD. Seven years later, it was the topic of a documentary characteristic and a yr later, it was named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. In 2018, the novel was optioned by Lee Daniels for a TV mini-series, and the film occasioned an anthology of educational papers.
Like all cult movies, “Spook” blazed a novel path to the canon. Historically, it may be bracketed with two earlier, extremely profitable impartial productions — “Putney Swope,” a 1969 absurdist comedy by the white director Robert Downey wherein an African-American takes expenses of a Madison Avenue promoting company, and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Melvin Van Peebles’s groundbreaking celebration of a Black outlaw, launched in 1971. But not like “Swope,” “Spook” is one thing aside from hip satire and, as opposed to “Sweetback,” it didn’t lend itself to recuperative commercialization.