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Michael T. Martin
Black Film Center/Archive

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, March 18, 2010

Screenwriters of two important films participating in symposium at IU's Black Film Center/Archive

March 18, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Black Film Center/Archive next Wednesday and Thursday (March 24-25) will host its second major program this spring, a symposium devoted to the study of "Cinematic Representations of Racial Conflict in Real Time."

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Awarded a New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities: New Perspectives grant in 2009, the symposium will reassess two classic films in black cinema -- Michael Roemer's 1964 movie "Nothing But a Man" and Ivan Dixon's 1973 adaptation of Sam Greenlee's controversial book, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. In addition, the 1989 documentary by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller, "The FBI's War on Black America," will have its local premier during the symposium.

Greenlee, who also wrote the screenplay, Mueller and Robert M. Young, the screenwriter and co-producer of "Nothing But a Man" and an accomplished director for television and film, will join a dozen film scholars and historians who will discuss the films and their continued significance today.

Free screenings for the first two films will take place Tuesday (March 23) at the new home of the Black Film Center Archive, located in suite 044B of the Herman B Wells Library. "The Spook Who Sat by the Door," will shown at 9:30 a.m., and "Nothing But a Man," will be shown at 7 p.m., while "The FBI's War on Black America" will be shown at 2 p.m., Wednesday (March 24), in the same location.

The symposium will begin at 6 p.m., Wednesday, with a panel discussion of "Nothing But a Man," a landmark independent film set in the Jim Crow South that was the first dramatic story featuring a largely black cast intended for an integrated audience. It was included in the National Film Registry in 1993.

At 9:30 a.m., Thursday, a second panel will discuss "The Spook Who Sat by the Door," which criticized the racist atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States by depicting a fictitious black CIA agent who was recruited to integrate the agency. After five years of absorbing knowledge of spy practices, he resigns to use them to lead a black guerrilla movement in this country. The film was pulled by United Artists three days after its release due to its subject matter.

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Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of African American and African Diaspora studies, said the symposium will address two concerns: The strategies deployed in film to signify modes of political address and mobilization in real time -- particularly during a period of intense racial conflict in the United States -- and the utility of revisiting cinematic texts for ideological accounts of historical activity.

The films offers distinctive and competing ideological stances about the means of resistance to racial oppression, which in actuality reflected the mobilizing strategies of black militants at the time of the their release. They address labor and gender relations among African Americans, the social experience of rural life in the South and the moral and physical decay of urban spaces, especially in the inner cities.

"'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' addresses the plight and potential revolutionary role of the black underclass in urban America," Martin said. "Moreover, it is distinguishable from the genre of blaxploitation films some critics have assigned it to and, despite being a United Artists production, Spook subverts Hollywood genre conventions on behalf of a political project. In this regard, the film was meant as a work of political provocation," he says.

In addition to "The Spook Who Sat by the Door, " Greenlee is the author of Baghdad Blues, a 1976 novel based on his experiences traveling in Iraq in the 1950s, and three collections of poems, Blues for an African Princess (1971), Ammunition!: Poetry and Other Raps (1975) and Be-Bop Man/Be-Bop Woman 1968-1993: Poetry and Other Raps (1995). In 1990 Greenlee was the Illinois poet laureate.

Along with "Nothing But a Man," Young has made many award-winning documentaries and feature films, such as "Triumph of the Spirit," "Dominick and Eugene" and "Extremities." He remains active in television and recently directed several episodes of "Battlestar Gallactica."

Mueller also co-directed and produced the 2004 film, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train."

Other participants will include: Terri Francis of Yale University; Devorah Heitner of Lake Forest College; Marilyn Yaquinto of Truman State University; and Fred McElroy, Khalil Muhammad, Karen Bowdre and David Wall, all from IU Bloomington.

More information about the Black Film Center/Archive is available at