Sam Greenlee / When Desoree Danced exclusive feature
Dominique Hurd {Washington, District of Columbia}
Sam Greenlee {Chicago, Illinois}

Liberator: You wrote "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" in 1966, and then decided to make it into a film (scored by Herbie Hancock) in 1973. What inspired you to do so?

Sam Greenlee: Well, people your age don't read so I figured if I wanted to get to the younger generation I would have to turn it into a film. Fortunately, a lot of people who don't read have been inspired to read the book after they saw the film.

How did you go about finding the people that you wanted to work with on the film?

I met Ivan Dixon in Hollywood in 1970 shortly after the book came out. He had the book and he said wanted somebody to direct a film about it. He was certain he could get studio backing. So while he was shopping the film around to six major studios, I put together a proposal with a former classmate of mine. All six studios turned it down so we began raising funds from black independent investors. About 85 percent of the funding came from black people. All United Artist did was put up the chump change completion funds and when they saw the final cut they were quite upset because what we did to convince them to put up the money was cut the action shots. They thought was that we had another bling-bling, blaxploitation film but when we sort of modified the content, they were not too happy.

So you kinda "Uncle Tommed" it, then flipped it on them, huh?

Yeah. White folks is easy to play. They never think that you're as smart as they are. By the time they wake up and find out they been played it's too late.

So that was one complication with the funding, what were some other complications?

Well, we couldn't get a permit to shoot in Chicago, they turned us down. So, we took it into Gary (Indiana) up with Mayor Hatcher. We stole our Chicago shots. We just came in with a handheld camera and shot what we wanted. When the film was released, it initially jumped off making money and so United Artist got up and said well we don't like the film but its making money. So they put me on a twelve city tour to promote the film. Then we started getting reports that some of the exhibitors had been visited by FBI agents. They tried to convince them that they shouldn't screen the film. And we do know that the film was sometimes open on Friday and closed on Sunday and we had a three weeks contract. United Artists met with some people from the FBI and decided to take the film off the market even though it was grossed in the top 50 markets. So before we went into the profit so the investors could get their money back, the UA took it off the market. All of the prints, mysteriously disappeared. I had to put the negatives into a vault under a different name. That's how that survived. Most recently, I tried to pick up the distribution money. It's been on the market since January 24th of last year (2005). There were about 50 prints that just disappeared. And you know, after the film came out, I had the CIA, FBI, IRS on my case. And now I'm being harassed by social security.

That's crazy because I also read that you served as a foreign services officer, and were awarded a service award for bravery in the Baghdad revolution ...


So what are your feelings after serving then receiving such treatment?

Well, I think I've earned that treatment, you know, I didn't expect the white people to applaud what I had to say. I have paid my dues and if I get a chance I'd do it again. I became radicalized in a foreign service when I saw what the United States was doing abroad—the assassination attempts on the black male—I saw all kinds of stuff. The America public don't have the slightest idea of what is going on out there, particularly in the third world. You know, why are these people are willing to kill and die for a particular cause? Some just think 9-11 was a bunch of fanatics but they got damn good reasons to do what they do. I don't approve of it but I can certainly understand it.

Some people make up perceptions that are certainly out of context when they see the movie such as viewing it as just a violent movie and dubbing it as a black man who hates white men. However, there is a scene that refutes that notion, can you talk more about that?

They're not going to like it no matter what I do. And I really don't care what the white boy got to say. I don't think they have the slightest idea of what I'm talking about and I don't care. A lot of them assume that the light skinned character was a white boy in a black gang. I never met anybody black that didn't know what he was. He looks white but when he opens his mouth you know damn well he was a south Chicago brother. There are a lot of messages in there. You know, skin color is not significant, it's what you got inside and somewhere along the line you have to stop turning the cheek and fight back. All of that was in the book. And if whites give me a Pulitzer Prize then I got to figure out what I did wrong.

You also used real gang members to act in the film, how did that come about?

Yes. Well, I was teaching at Malcolm Community College; actually they were ex-gang bangers, they were in gangs for a short period of time. And one of them was studying theater at Malcolm Community College. Ivan had trouble with finding actors that could be as authentic as gang bangers and I said don't worry about it so I contacted my partner and he brought out a half a dozen of his close friends and they walked on to the set. Everybody knew what was going on.

What kind of impact do you think you made on the community with this film?

Oh, I've made a tremendous impact. I have not seen a brother like that in film in cinematic history.

Do you admire any black leaders today?

Contemporary? Nobody. History shows us leaders when it becomes necessary, and what has happened is there was an enormous output of energy during the 60s. New leaders will emerge; but the ones you got out there now are a bunch of ego trippin', would-be entertainers. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton couldn't beat me to a plate of barbecue. So who do you have? The black middle class got what they wanted and now they're sitting back enjoying their spoils and the rest of us are just barely getting by. NAACP, what are they doing? They're arguing about a piece of cloth? Who the hell cares about that? If it were up to me I'd tell all the people in the NAACP to put a flagpole in their front yard and put it up half mass to remind the people of who they lost in the damn war. What they ought to be doing is go back to one of the things they were pressing for years ago. In addition to the civil rights, they were pressing for education. Not just for blacks but whites as well. It's horrendous that a country of this type spends more money on weapons than on education. Now everybody is getting the short end of the stick. -END-

-Dominique Hurd

Desoree Alexander Greenlee Pyburn, mother

When Desoree danced, the Gods came down from the heavens and danced with her; her steel-shod shoes striking fire and lightning; her heels thumping thunder in counterpoint to the staccato beat of her toes and the sparks became lightning in reverse, returning to the heavens and back again and Ilegba slid down its burning shaft and called the Gods down out of the heavens and they danced night into day.

When Desoree danced, the great Jo Jones became the God of Thunder and Lightning; his tidy body moving and swaying to the rhythm; his hands speed-blur fast, striking lightning from the bass line cymbals and thunder from the bass drum, his smile lighting the furthest reaches of Harlem and his poly-rhythmic beat levitated Desoree and she danced just above the stage, her heels resounding the bass line as John Bubbles did and it was said that she danced as fast as Honi Coles, as cool as Bojangles, as acrobatic as the Nicholas Brothers and as fiery as herself.

When Desoree danced and the great Jo Jones played, they became mirror twins, thinking together and apart, lifting one another in a constant upward spiral. Jo Jones would run a long press roll beneath, riding on top of a half-time beat, ending with a bomb and Desoree would reverse it: bombing first with her heels, then a press roll with her feet. Desoree danced as a drummer plays and the audience was laughing and shouting, half of them on the time, on the one, the other half on half-time. Her smile was as wide as the Mississippi River at Vicksburg where she was born before her family moved to Chicago and she was there on the Apollo stage to turn Harlem on with the great Count Basie band behind her and taking flight, Bill Bojangles Robinson in the wings, the audience clapping, shouting, swaying and the great Lord Shango and the other African Gods dancing and inspired by her fire; Desoree danced, wearing her talent like a crown and much too soon the dance ended and she floated to the wings of the stage.

Bojangles asked that she stay for his closing act, then, with a broad smile on his ebony face, his Derby hat tilted just so, his tux fitting like a second skin, he strutted on stage to a standing ovation, poised briefly like an African emperor, hands poised on hipless hips, then broke into a fast up tempo rhythm and laid his genius on his adoring fans; going through his act with the ease of years of training and experience; up time, slow time, half time and when finished, left the audience limp and shouting and as he danced to the wings and returned with Desoree on his arm.

When Desoree danced with Bill Robinson that night on the Apollo stage, it was chocolate and vanilla and a reminder that Black comes in all shades of skin. They began with a little soft shoe shuffle to get the juices flowing, a little shuffle, slide and guide. Then, Prez picked it up, blowing so lazy it sounded like he was asleep and dreaming his solo, making genius seem like a part-time gig. Bojangles popped out a very up tempo beat with the fingers of his hand, Basie nodded, the rhythm section picked up, the band followed and they broke into a dance so fast that the sounds of their taps ran into one another as one long, sustained note. The audience was silent now, in witness of a legend in the making. Who was this woman dancing with their hero and more than holding her own? And when Mr. Robinson looked out the corner of his eye, he discovered that he was in a cuttin’ contest and when the crowd got hip to what was going on, they roared their approval and eager anticipation because it had been a long time since Mr. Robinson had been challenged to defend his crown and now he was on stage with a quicksilver woman from the South Side of Chicago where it is rumored reside the baddest Black folks on the planet. But, with a smile on his obsidian face, Bojangles accepted the challenge and waved the band silent, except for the rhythm section, slid to the side of the stage and gave her the first thirty-two bars and Desoree took them skyward.

When Desoree danced her thirty-two bars of Basie blues, Jo Jones smiling down from his high throne at the back of the band, her smile never left her face and she became transfixed, speaking other tongues in her head, entranced and feeling the music through her pores before she heard it; the rhythm and the dancer becoming one. She bucked and winged, spun and twirled, strutted and stanced and danced, danced, danced When she finished her turn, Mr. Robinson gave Desoree her due with a gracious and elegant tip of his hat, acknowledging the arrival of new found royalty and like the king he was, prepared to defend his crown.

Bill Robinson came on as cool as Desoree had been hot, the fire of her and the ice of him and some say that he invented cool. He did a simple time step, broke into a buck and wing, slid light and easy into a series of turns, came out of them with a little bird-like leap, broke into a series of rapids fire steps, hesitated a beat and then did his legendary walk up the bright, white, shiny staircase. Nobody could walk the stairs like Bill Bojangles Robinson. He came on down stage and eased into a full split, eased back up with that big smile still on his face like a split was the easiest thing in the world to do, strutted the stage doing the, Sand and a little Suzy Q, ending his thirty-two bars and the audience responded, but Desoree was ready to cut through the bull shit, knowing he hadn’t nothing yet and neither had she. Desoree was more than ready after too many years of study and training, dues paying, torn tendons, sprains, aching muscles and dancing through the pain with a smile on her face, making the difficult look easy and the impossible look effortless.

She had left two young boys in Chicago with her parents for a chance to conquer Harlem and she had been an original Regalette, the finest tap line of the time and now had the reputation after becoming a headliner at the Cotton Club, second billing to the great Bill Robinson and she wasn’t about to let him patronize her with that jive routine; so she came on smoking, not joking for her sixteen bars, not just laying there playing it safe and broke into a series of flips across the stage and back to mid-stage, higher with each leap, coming down from maximum height into a split, bounced up into a series of ballet pirouettes, flipped and slid like she was walking on ice and she and the audience laughed. She then started slow, her taps sounding as low as the echo of a dying love, hitting hard to punctuate each turn, came out into a Buck and Wing and they were into eight bars now and Mr. Robinson’s smile had tightened because her ovation had been greater than his and he did not play that shit in his Harlem. Bill Robinson reached way back to the days of his youth when he’d danced, hungry for coins on the streets of Harlem; back to the Honky Tonks and minstrel tent shows; the days of his tireless youth; pulled the old steps out of the suitcase of his mind, put them together and the master reemerged who had been resting on his laurels far too long and pulled out of his shell by a loving, youthful competitor and he loved for it as he prepared to cut her down. Desoree and Bojangles danced that day, creating a legend that resounded throughout Harlem and along the grapevine to Chicago and beyond. They danced that night, trading fours, taking four bars in turn, the people on their feet, their voices one continuous roar and Mr. Robinson’s smile was real because he was making magic once again with a brand new magician and Desoree smiled as well, ending her last four bars in a ballet curtsy and as a brand new princess, gave up the stage to the king. Bill Robinson waved the band to silence and began with a time step in place, his body, except for his feet, as still as deep well water. He tipped his Derby to a jauntier angle, placed his hands lightly against his hips, pink palms outward, the crowd falling silent as Jo Jones read his mind and began keeping time with rim shots ticking off like a metronome in perfect time.

Mr. Robinson began using more of the stage, making a slow turn and motioned to the greatest rhythm section of them all to give him the limb from which to fly and fly he did Count Basie fed him fat left hand blues chords, Freddie Green rocked as steady as the rising sun on acoustic guitar and Walter Page walked strong enough to cross the Sahara and Jo Jones called down the Gods to dance with him on the stage of the Apollo Theater. Bill Robinson drummed with his feet as Jo Jones drummed with his hands and the people of Harlem drummed as well, clapping in call and response, the band, after a nod from the Count, riffing the blues hard and Buck Clayton blew, Sweets Edison, too and Herschel Evans, Dickie Wells and Lester Young and the brass section shouted, the reed section sung sweet, the band on its feet now and Bill Robinson danced as never before. Mr. Robinson danced back to the wings grinning and clapping out the time and came back on stage with Desoree, with little Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes laughing and clapping out the time as the dancers broke into a double-time machine gun chatter and the Apollo became a church, temple, storefront or tent; wherever Black folks gathered to worship and make a joyous noise for the Lord.

Mr. Robinson became Lord Shango, Jo Jones Ilegba, Desoree both Oshun and Yemaya, Jo Jones drums increased a hundred fold, echoing the drums of the motherland, the crowd shouting, the musicians roaring and Desoree and Bojangles danced until their taps echoed against the end of time. Yes, when Desoree and Bojangles danced that night on the Apollo stage, the Gods came down from the heavens and danced with them. -END-

-Sam Greenlee

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