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From A Token To A Threat: Notes For A Revolution In African-American Filmmaking (Part One)

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by Andre Seewood
March 12, 2012 11:55 AM
27 Comments
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Tyler Perry

The occasion of screening Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s engrossing documentary, INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door (2010), revealed the United States government’s deliberate censorship campaign against an African-American film from its production through to its exhibition. THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) is a film adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s powerful and revolutionary book, published in 1969, that was directed by actor Ivan Dixon (1931-2008) from a screenplay by Sam Greenlee and Melvin Clay.

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a deceptively simple tale of tokenism at the C.I.A. where several African-American men are hired as trainees in a publicity effort to counteract charges of racial intolerance leveled at the organization for its lack of African-American agents. These African-American trainees are hired with no intention of them ever being allowed to become official C.I.A. agents.

One particular trainee Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) decides to deploy all of the counter insurgency tactics and conspiratorial procedures he has learned in the C.I.A. training program to organize a clandestine group of African-American resistance fighters in the urban ghetto. The actual film is stunning in its detail and execution of how a dominant model of political oppression can be learned and used by those who are oppressed against those in power. The documentary film, INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD, exposes how the U.S. government and its agencies, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., attempted to keep the film from being produced by deliberately obstructing director/producer Ivan Dixon’s ability to secure domestic or international financing for the film. When those efforts did not stop Dixon from independently financing the work, the U.S. government “pressured” all the domestic exhibitors to stop showing the film after it had played for only 2 weeks in 1973 to brisk box office returns. The film was pulled from the theatres and not shown again until its release some 30 years later on DVD in 2004 from a master print that Ivan Dixon had hidden years before.

I should like to point out that Greenlee’s book and Dixon’s film were dangerous because both revealed a subversive idea concerning tokenism: that those who had been admitted as tokens into an unfair and oppressive political system could potentially use what they have learned against that system. We’re talking ‘double agency’ here, where one infiltrates the system to bring down that very system. But instead, in Greenlee’s paradigm of double agency through tokenism, his double agents work to protect the African-American community, its leaders and its members, by using the government’s tactics against the government itself. This idea was dangerous to the U.S. government only because it exposed the concerted efforts of its "real" agencies against the African-American community and its political leadership at the time of the film’s production and before. (i.e., the murder of Fred Hampton in 1969, F.B.I. surveillance of Dr. King, Malcolm X and its infiltration into the Nation of Islam, COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program), and the various disinformation campaigns against the Black Panther movement).

We learn several important lessons from Acham and Ward’s documentary, INFILITRATING HOLLYWOOD, and several even more important lessons from Sam Greenlee himself and his book as he speaks with the resigned wisdom of an undefeated warrior throughout the film. But the greatest lesson which we learn is that one of the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement is the fact that the right to represent ourselves on screen through films that we have produced, distributed, and exhibited was neglected as an essential component of the civil rights struggle. In my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film I have noted that there exists today a segregated and unequal relationship between how White films are funded, distributed and exhibited and how African-American films are funded, distributed and exhibited. The deliberate denial of international markets for African-American films has a deleterious effect on the development, production, distribution and exhibition of all African-American films because the international market provides important funding, box office receipts, aesthetic and technological crossovers that sustain the cultural preeminence of White American films. This advantage of foreign markets is denied to African-American films under the ruse that African-American films do not sell well overseas and it is an unfair and discriminatory practice that is upheld by Hollywood execs and studios. Thus, the struggle for civil rights for all African-Americans continues not just in the political, economic and social arenas, but also in the cultural arena through film and other media.

It has often been assumed that people go see what they want to see at the movies, yet this is an assumption that is not entirely true: people go see what they are offered to see at the movies and the industry has a variety of tools with which to shape, manipulate and guide (also read as: herd) its spectators. Tools such as screen ratios, movie ratings, advertising and marketing, awards and so-called "buzz" which itself is nothing more that paid hype or pre-advertising by allowing critics to see early previews of a particular film. Without the right to produce, distribute, and exhibit African-American films the power to represent ourselves is still in the hands of “white” power brokers who can control not only what gets made, but also what gets shown and who gets to see what gets made. But so far I haven’t said anything new here, because everyone knows that we are controlled by the industry and complaining about it doesn’t get us anywhere. But who said I’m complaining? What I am going to suggest in this two part essay is that we apply Greenlee’s paradigm of double agency through tokenism as detailed in his book and executed in Dixon’s film as one pillar to our approach in establishing an African-American film industry that is separate and far greater than the American Entertainment Complex. A Target of Fools or a Token of Justice.

The tool of power that Greenlee and Dixon were illuminating was "Tokenism." Indeed, tokenism is the very scepter of power wielded by those in control. The hiring of a few Blacks (Latinos, etc) in companies or organizations that are dominated by whites- even in high profile positions, the higher the better, diffuses racial tensions, assuages white guilt and gives hope to those who are oppressed that one day they might succeed within a system that is designed for them to fail. The seductive source of tokenism’s power is the hope it instills in both the token and the observer who are of the same race. That the token doesn’t recognize himself as a token is as important a detail as the observer who believes that the token can aid him or her to success. The token has money and celebrity but that same token only has an illusion of power and the moment that he or she tries to exercise any real power is the moment when the illusion is shattered and that token is removed and replaced. And this leads us directly to Tyler Perry, a successful African-American filmmaker who has been vilified and praised equally in blind measure to the extent that his use as a token by the American Entertainment Complex has been totally obscured.

Every token is used to blind others from those who are actually wielding power and control. Tyler Perry is but a token - non-threatening, rich and successful - but a token all the same. He gives hope to others who want to become successful African-American filmmakers. He provides a target for others who don’t like his films and consider his success undeserved. Yet Tyler Perry will never be a threat to the American Entertainment Complex, until the day should he decide to create his own film distribution company. The moment should he express that idea, would be the moment of his undoing, for in that gesture he would move from being a token to being a threat. But why would Tyler Perry do this when he’s so successful as a filmmaker and television producer under the aegis of Lionsgate? Again, this is why Greenlee’s paradigm for double agency through tokenism was so dangerous: it reveals that the power of tokenism can be folded back on itself and used to actually open doors with effort rather than close them with hope. As a token, the hope that Tyler Perry inspires actually closes more doors to African-American filmmakers than it opens. "Fewer African-American filmmakers, investors or Hollywood execs will be willing to take a risk on African-American films that differ or completely diverge from the expectations of the core market audience," targeted by Tyler Perry’s films (153, Slave Cinema).

As a threat, Tyler Perry could help to provide a platform for the development, production, distribution and exhibition of African-American films that differ from his own by secretly funding and organizing an African-American Entertainment Complex.

What this means is that perhaps we shouldn’t be attacking Tyler Perry, for even though I called him a token, I am not attacking him, I am only revealing his circumstance in the web of power. A token is only a negative in our struggle if that token refuses to participate in the sharing of their knowledge, wealth and influence against the powers that made them into a token in the first place. Having said this, we don’t also have to blindly praise his films either. Just as Lion’s Gate doesn’t worry or care about the quality or content of his films, we shouldn’t either because as a token Tyler Perry’s greatest untapped power is his ability to use his success to provide other African-American filmmakers the opportunity to make the films that they want to make, but to actually wield this power he would have to apply Greenlee’s paradigm as detailed and executed in THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR. As I stated in SLAVE CINEMA, "Tyler Perry’s success stifles more African-American voices in the cinema by literally forcing other African-American filmmakers to imitate his work if they want to be noticed by Hollywood and the African-American audience. One way to circumvent this negative aspect of his success would be if Tyler Perry himself helped to develop, finance and produce the work of African-American filmmakers whose visions, themes, and styles differ dramatically from his own" (154).

Thus, the question is not whether or not you like Tyler Perry’s films, but instead how do we encourage Tyler Perry to recognize that he is a token and use his token status to help create and sustain an African-American Entertainment Complex? An African-American Entertainment Complex that would allow African-American filmmakers to develop, produce, distribute and exhibit their films domestically and across the globe without having to rely on "white" Hollywood’s green light.

The second part of this essay will discuss the structure of the American Entertainment Complex as a model for the African-American Entertainment Complex. The film, INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door is available from the documentarychannel.com.

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.

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27 Comments

  • Tieuel Legacy! in Motion | March 19, 2012 2:37 AMReply

    This perspective goes a little further than the typical comments so it adds an interesting perspective. However, it's narrow in a lot of ways.

    The use of "token" or "Tom" have been used widely over the years. One issue is that people don't understand that opportunities can come from both. Even if a "Tom" doesn't believe in lowering standards for various ethnicities to participate or if the "token" doesn't place a school in every hood, it doesn't mean that they are against our race. It would be positive for filmmakers, and other professionals, to show dissenters that they are capable.

    I DO feel that Tyler, Michael Jordan, Denzel, and others could build distribution companies. However, the current model for studios and distros are in transition. Almost all of them are in debt for some reason or another. We forget that Tyler had a distro company. Lions Gate chose to take over. It lowered the prices of his music (used to be $19 for a CD) and DVDs (formerly $30 each). For distro to work it's important to ask, "How many of us buy new DVDs versus buying the bootleg?" It's not easy.

    For now, working with Lions Gate is best.

    And distros aren't interested in quality. They are interested in the dollar. If filmmakers show them a profit, they will distribute the film no matter what it looks like. Even if the film has an excellent picture, they will hesitate if they don't know the market.

  • anon | March 15, 2012 2:02 PMReply

    lol at this quote by Are We There Yet?:
    "Hopefully Nigeria's model can one day rival Hollywood in not only it's volume of productions, but also in it's quality and influence globally. However, that day is likely far off, and not necessarily relevant to Hollywood aspirants at the moment"
    umm what quality? since when is hollywood producing "quality" films black or white if cr*p like the help, tyler perry and transformers is seen as quality then god help you all! btw nigerians and other africans ARE producing good films right now and it will only improve but AA's always want to get in when its "prestigious" they're not intresting in building from scratch not that AA would HAVE to do that just by getting access to capital from nollywood would be enough to not only release their own independant films but also open themselves up to a huge market in africa but of course aa just doint think like this. Keep mocking nollywood but mark my words they'll be a time when you'll be begging to be in their films but the door will be FIRMLY closed - just like in hollywood.

  • Donella | March 15, 2012 5:12 PM

    I'm also hopeful that more African Americans shut out of Hollywood's machine explore Nollywood.

  • Faith | March 15, 2012 12:58 AMReply

    Interesting perspective but still ignores Tyler Perry's racio-misogyny. If his portrayal of black women was balanced, positive and engaging, he'd also be seen as a threat. Plus, the way he undercut Nzingha Stewart to hijack and ruin For Colored Girls shows he's only thinking of himself. Typical black male behavior to build his wealth/stature on the backs of black women he holds in contempt. Eventually he'll jump ship instead of building infrastructure that could advance the black collective.

  • Nadine | March 15, 2012 2:18 AM

    Oh dear Faith... I don't even bother. It's good that you are getting this off your chest, but the responses might get tiring. He's already jumping ship, mama... we've just got to do our own things...

  • Said | March 14, 2012 11:02 PMReply

    Interesting article, yet the refrain of "black cinema doesn't sell overseas" isn't some conspiracy by the industry, in my experience, my POV, its that most of the folk of similar skin hue overseas either a) aren't interested in 'black movies' because they already know the culture or b they have no connection to what they are watching. Too many Black folks in Hollywood tend to think that their stories and their experience is the universal experience for black folks around the world, which is so far from the truth its lost in the fog of delusion...

  • honest opinion | March 14, 2012 11:13 AMReply

    stop calling tyler perry a token. he earned his way. a token is considered someone who is plucked from the pack and put in a position to save face. Like the CIA did. Hollywood never gave typer perry a damn thing. But they should b using their power to produce black films on their own. I've always said that. Not just tyler perry. Will smith, Oprah. Three of the most powerful people (black, white, purple) in the entertainment industry. let''s get on other folks too. All of these black powers that be should have been form a studio. But they don't and you know why. At least Tyler perry is making films and putting black characters in it. unlike denzel or big willy, and the list goes on with black entertainers, doing shite if it doesn't totally benefit them.

  • lynneanne777 | March 17, 2012 10:52 AM

    Agree, thank you!

  • Maurice Emel | March 15, 2012 5:31 PM

    "All of these black powers that be should have been form a studio. But they don't and you know why" , ummmm, I dont know why, please tell me?

  • Miles Ellison | March 13, 2012 12:29 AMReply

    Suppose this African American Entertainment Complex gets created. Suppose Tyler Perry lends his considerable resources to the creation, marketing, and distribution of this gloriously diverse black cinematic content. The salient questions are these: who is going to watch this content, and will enough people watch this content so that it's economically viable to keep making them? Is there even a market for this?

  • Mandla | March 12, 2012 10:34 PMReply

    Excellent. Looking forward to Part Two of the essay.

  • Helluva | March 12, 2012 10:25 PMReply

    Good shit.

  • Marquis | March 12, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    Great article and very insightful. Thanks for sharing. I agree with your premise and solution. The only thing that I would ask for you to do is make a wider call to action for more "black folk" besides Tyler Perry to contribute to upliftment of Black Cinema and this includes "critics" and all who truly care about the development of an African-American Entertainment Complex. Which in my opinion should also include the African diaspora film communities as members in this struggle. Also, there will be no "African-American Entertainment Complex" until we learn to let ALL of our cinema live without throwing the words "hate" and other negative adjectives out into the world when first introduced to Black Cinema. The American Entertainment Complex takes the approach that allows for greater diversity (I'm not talking color) in their films (comedy, horror, drama, science-fiction, mystery, etc) that allows white filmmakers AND actors ample time to perfect their craft and even resurrect careers. The African-American Entertainment Complex as it is currently constsituted, does not do that. We are afforded one chance, one opportunity, one moment, then considered irrelevant when our time has passed. When that changes, your vision of an African-American Entertainment Complex actually making a difference, will truly be realized.

  • urbanauteur | March 12, 2012 7:57 PMReply

    @ANDRE, that was another 'smoking piece' , Gary C was definately on point also, my only hold up with waging idelogical warfare with this Hollywhite machine, maybe spending all that down time(in the bunker) 'pine-soling out' a "few" subversive knuckleheads, whose shady intents are`nt PURGE entriely nor consistant to sustain the potency of mass pressure, maybe some of us o`d on too much on Occupy:Medea(i'm guilty too), micro-nationalist/guerilla scholar- Molefi Asante said it best...we first must remove those shackles from our minds.... and i add to it, we can then get a mofo shot gun marriage to this Revolutonary Nexis.
    p.s.- pragmatic struggle is a lonesome dove indeed.

  • Donella | March 12, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    I agree with the spirit of this piece, especially part that details the efforts of Sam Greenlee. The Spook Who Sat by the Door is an amazing film that still frightens people to this day. However, the use of Tyler Perry as a comparison doesn't ring right. Greenlee made a political movie. Perry is romantic comedy. Maybe if you ran through several Black directors and producers, at least 5-10 comparisons, the analysis would seem stronger, more thorough, less personal.

  • Lalai | March 14, 2012 4:11 PM

    @Donella - Preach! Preach. And, preach.

    Thanks.

  • Helluva | March 12, 2012 10:32 PM

    @Donella...I thought the point of this piece was to re-assess how many of us see Tyler P. and stop hating on dude, plus encourage him to help finance and distribute black filmmakers of various ideologies and talents. Whereas many of us want to see him change or evolve artistically, a more sophisticated approach would involve utilization of his capital and clout as a producer & potential distributor. I think Lee Daniels understands this. Spike Lee...not so much.

  • Andre Seewood | March 12, 2012 5:36 PM

    It breaks my heart to have to say this but, Romantic comedies are political films also... The politics are obscured by what you are laughing at and the couple within the film that you are romanticizing. Also, I wasn't just talking about Greenlee and Dixon's film, but more importantly Greenlee's ideas about tokenism.

  • Gary C. | March 12, 2012 1:47 PMReply

    Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with the piece, as an ambitious screenwriter who happens to be black, I've felt that Perry's success was detrimental to aspiring african american filmmakers, and I also gotten into debates with Perry's faithful, i.e. women, about Perry having a responsibility to open doors for other black filmmakers, but I digress. The simple truth to the matter is that the issue with the what and why blacks struggle to make their films in their own vision in Hollywood is black consumerism more than entertainment politics or racism. There are certain consumer patterns blacks have, period. In any business endeavor where profits are a target, unless it's barbershops, hair and nail salons, urban clothes stores or night clubs and bars, if your a black business person relying on black consumership for survival, you're dooming yourself. We box ourselves in with our "likes." Is it more offensive because non black business person realizes this and adjusts how they sell to us accordingly? Movies are a business and being black, if I was a film studio exec, I would be hesitant to green light a black film for international distribution with a sizable budget if the movie doesn't fit the mold of Perry's religious themed relationship dramas or John Singleton type "hood" films. That's the reality. I recognize it so as a imaginative writer whose work can go outside the black box, I've made a conscious decision to focus the bulk of my writing of movies not targeted towards black audiences like historical, crime thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. We are our biggest artistic censors by what we choose to support cinematically.

  • Mel | March 12, 2012 5:44 PM

    Lots of good points here.

    For me it's not about being a "Black movie" it's about perceptions that are still at work, that have nothing to do with Black folks at all; but about what others feel comfortable with you doing. People talk about Black bus boycotts, but Whites folks are masters of it, because they do it everyday undetected.

    We can believe Hollywood when they say it's basic economics to not fund a particular movie for "marketing" reasons, but any really social analyst knows that you can shape what people come to want and value over a period of 3-5 years, and in 25 years, erase a value entirely. That's why they wanted to ban "Spook". You can market a film that has a Black cast, but Hollywood makes you do it in a way that it "digestible" (hence "The Help"). Because of this indoctrination of values, nobody subconsciously wants the black jellybean, and no "complacent" person wants to hear about radical freedom fighters, and you can't sustain on just 1 or 2 genre's, which is why I support Zoe Saldana. I felt bad for her (in Colombiana), she was up against a value system that wasn't ready for a Black female action star, at least not yet. But she tried.

    It's only been 45 years (20 if you've been keeping up) and we need more time to work it through. Right now it's important that we get a better chance to work in the industry, and keep showing our face, and show aspects of our values (however similar they are). It's a rough ride but we have to see where it's going. We STILL have whole populations of paying citizens who've never spoke to Black people before, and most of the people we know now are second generation folks who can be on open terms with that, so this is all new.

    Right now, we still have to "convince" people to take a chance our work, which implies that there are gatekeepers. Racism is a form of gatekeeping. It keeps out unfamiliar perspectives and values, which appears in various forms. Movies are very much about images that reflect themes and values, which in and of themselves are relative on a variety of levels.

    When people are socialized in a way that influences what they come to value, we are talking about something bigger than just a movie. When as story is turned down because producers don't believe it matches what they think audiences will value, we have a real problem. So in a way, it is "Infiltrating Hollywood" When you have to manipulate one's thoughts and values of your work. You have to trick them into seeing similar stories but are essentially saying the same message (Avatar, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Diary of the Dead etc)

    That's what people don't realize, these are all the same stories, but what changes is who stars in them. Plenty of buffoonery what we consider "regular" White cast movies "Meet the Fockers" "A Girl Named Polly" "Sex in the City" and the list goes on. What changes is what the audience perceives valuable and "Why". Plenty of White actors in dresses, but many of the White audience members don't see their attitudes slipping into action when it comes to a Black cast.

    "Finding Forester" is a great example. It did poorly in the box office, primarily because our perception and value changed based on "who" we saw. If the main character had been played by Leo DiCaprio it would have been ranked up there with the greats.

    If the movie "Blade" had starred Brad Pitt instead of Wesley, would it have made 60 million instead of 40 million?

    If Harry Potter was a Black nerdy kid (plenty of them), would it have even been movie franchise?

  • Zeus | March 12, 2012 2:07 PM

    Agreed Gary. Well said with "We are our biggest artistic censors by what we choose to support cinematically." I also agree with you Andre with your statement "The idea is not to "write black" but to be a Black writer". Well said--->http://vimeo.com/26458504

  • Rane | March 12, 2012 2:03 PM

    Well said.

  • Andre Seewood | March 12, 2012 2:01 PM

    @ Gary C. you are absolutely right and on target. As I detailed in my book Slave Cinema, Hollywood studios and execs think of all African-American films as a singular genre, no matter what the actual genre of the film a Black person is writing, directing or producing. The idea is not to "write black" but to be a Black writer; just as the idea is not to "make a Black film," but instead to be a filmmaker who is Black. In being the latter you can make any genre, style and budget of film you want to make and target as many audiences, including Black audiences, with the film you have made. "We are our biggest artistic censors by what," some of us (and Hollywood) think Blacks will "support cinematically."

  • Tamara | March 12, 2012 1:09 PMReply

    Interesting parallel with "Spook" and Tyler Perry and the notion of tokenism. I don't agree with all. You say infiltrate then imitate the process. I suppose that could work, but is that the only way? I don't think so. Might seem so for now, by way of what you posit, but...eh, I'd like to think there's another way...

  • Here We Go Again | March 12, 2012 12:19 PMReply

    Vomit. You had me until you played the Tyler card. Check a timeline, get a history lesson, check Tyler's bank accounts BEFORE Lionsgate knew his name. There is A LOT of lag time there. There were the millions of his own money made from his own stage play empire that most critics of Perry always "conveniently" overlook. He was a self-made millionaire before he shot his first roll of film. His box office receipts for the first few self-funded 1# opening weekend films got Lionsgate's attention, not the other way around. Anyway Lionsgate are SMALL potatoes anyhoo in the scheme of the things--practically new kids on the block when you go back as far as the 40s or 70s. What? NOOO mention of Will Smith using his own money to gain international distribution for his films (Not just the Karate Kid remake)? He talked about it on Oprah. Tyler has more in common with the early indie rappers and rap labels that sound music out of the trunk of their cars before getting signed to major labels in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Check the history of MC Hammer who was able to negotiate with CAPITOL RECORDS on his album deal because he sold about 250,000 units on his own. R&B acts could barely negotiate even with long careers and Hammer and others shook up an industry (For better or for worse-Sean Combs, anyone?).

    You make some good points but you make some glaring and inaccurate assessments of what is really going on. One word: Nollywood. Why are WE in America still trying to dismantle the master's house with his own tools. (Where dey do that at?) Accessible technology is literally the new emancipation proclamation. Can we just get our freedom papers and press on?

  • Are We There Yet? | March 13, 2012 12:40 AM

    The use of "token" need not be a negative. Nor does it necessarily mean "Uncle Tom" or "sellout." In the scope of this essay it seems to mean that TP is in a unique position, being the most prolific African-American producer currently working in Hollywood, and one who (unlike Will Smith or Sean Combs) owns and operates his own STUDIO in Atlanta, Ga. That provides him with a tremendous opportunity to shape the growth of black entertainment in this country if he wields his influence masterfully.

    I think your comparison of the record/music industry and the film industry doesn't work because of the differences in product (music vs. movies), production costs and human capital involved, and how each medium is ultimately consumed (5 minute songs vs. 90 minute films). Comparing these two industries in terms of production and distribution seems shortsighted, especially when the clout of African-Americans in film pales in comparison to their record industry counterparts, imo.

    As far as "freedom papers," I would think that is exactly what's meant in proposing the formal construction of an African-American Entertainment Complex. I'm not quite sure how Lionsgate is viewed as "small potatoes" either. In comparison to what, exactly? Nollywood? Hopefully Nigeria's model can one day rival Hollywood in not only it's volume of productions, but also in it's quality and influence globally. However, that day is likely far off, and not necessarily relevant to Hollywood aspirants at the moment.

  • Marco Bolo | March 12, 2012 3:32 PM

    Church!!!

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