Finally receiving the attention it deserves, Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1992) makes its Blu-ray debut as one of the latest additions to the Criterion Collection. A profoundly resonating and supremely acted crime film, Deep Cover dives into the story of a cop who grows conflicted through his time undercover in the Los Angeles drug scene. Arriving with a new 4K digital restoration and an ample amount of supplemental material, Duke’s film warrants a close examination of the modalities of race and identity it engages with through its sharp, character-driven exposé on the war on drugs in the 1990s.
Deep Cover centers around Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishburne), a police officer assigned to operate undercover as a drug peddler to infiltrate a deeply-organized drug ring. Through his time posing as dealer “John Hull,” Stevens grows weary and critical of his role as a cop posing as a dealer and begins to question his sense of ethics and morality. Seemingly conventional, Deep Cover offers more than other run-of-the-mill neo-noirs of the 1990s and onward. To call it just a neo-noir would be to understate the labor of the film’s themes and performances. The film is deeply concerned with various modalities of Blackness and their configuration within the genre conventions of film noir. Stevens’s moral dilemma throughout the film is steeped in his own confrontation with himself as a Black subject within the policing apparatus and as a pawn of that apparatus in the narcotics scene.
The racial dynamics at play in Deep Cover are by no accident and are indicative of the moment in which the film emerges. Set against a hip-hop score (including Dr. Dre’s solo debut single, “Deep Cover,” featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg) and arriving just a year after the proliferation of Black films in 1991, Deep Cover is marked by its engagement with the war on drugs happening in US urban streets and its ties to Latin America, American politics, and the disproportionate death and criminalization of Black people. In a supplemental conversation with film scholars Michael B. Gillespie and Racquel J. Gates, Gates jokes that “every time Hollywood goes broke, they remember that Black people exist.” Like Blaxploitation in the 1970s, the early 1990s witnessed a boom of Black films as a result of studios working through a tough market and making smaller pictures aimed at specific audiences. Jumping at the potential market for Black films (re)ignited by 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, Deep Cover engages in a contemporary issue, the war on drugs, from a specific cultural perspective and market expectation.
The film’s director, veteran stage and screen actor Bill Duke, brings attention to Black aesthetics rooted in and influenced by the practices and politics prevalent in Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Duke’s career in film and television, as highlighted in a self-narrated retrospective on his filmography, is built upon and informed as much by his dedication to the art and craft of film and media as it is by the politics of racial representation on the screen and behind the camera. Duke has remained committed throughout his tenure to work that speaks to Black experiences and expressivities. Working on Deep Cover through the support of New Line Cinema, Duke delivered on his filmmaking praxis.
Duke is bent on provoking questions about the ways Blackness and Black being are configured within the dynamics of Stevens’s undercover beat. Originally, the character of Stevens was written for a white performer. However, Stevens was changed to a Black man (possibly in response to the 1991 Black film boom), which for a filmmaker like Duke radically transforms the purpose of the material and the poignancy of the character. Throughout the picture, Stevens’s existence, purpose, and social position are determined by his negotiation (and other’s overdetermination) of Blackness.
No more prevalent is this negotiation of modalities than early in the picture when DEA Agent Gerry Carver (Charles Martin Smith) separately interviews several Black police officers, including Stevens, for the undercover racket. Without wince or remorse, Carver asks each interviewee, “Do you know the difference between a Black man and a nigger?” While the first two interviewees meet Carver’s question with confusion and anger, Stevens remains calm, cool, and assertive: “The nigger is the one that would even answer that question.”
Stevens’s clever rhetoric in his response to Carver “earns” him the undercover job and effectively subverts the racialized dichotomy that Carver, a white authoritative figure, attempts to impart onto Stevens (a dichotomy, perhaps, further enforced by young Stevens’s [Cory Curtis] subjection to the death of his junkie father [Glynn Turman] earlier in the picture that set Stevens on a determined path to “not die like him” by becoming a cop). Carvers’s double bind is premised on a static and overdetermined approximation of Black being that is indicative of the anti-Black logics the film is bent on interrogating. Stevens’s confrontation with the logics of that bind and the power presumed upon Black subjectivity by it reveal the film to be interested in complicating the ways Blackness gets subjected to violence that subtends Black to a fixed and rigid category. Deep Cover actively engages with the effects of this binary logic to forestall the recurring attempts to prescribe Black and Blackness to categories of being that are devoid of nuance, complication, and humanity.
Although the film garnered some critical attention when it first came out, the cultural resonance and impact of the film remains somewhat unacknowledged, something Criterion’s release will hopefully mitigate. The significance of the film is not lost on film critic Elvis Mitchell, who moderated an AFI conversation with star Laurence Fishburne and director Bill Duke that is featured on this release. Discussing various aspects of the film with AFI students, including funny anecdotes about Marlon Brando’s love of Deep Cover and Fishburne’s distaste for Carlito’s Way (1993) (a film he sees as a ripoff of Deep Cover), Fishburne and Duke reveal several ways the film found itself steeped in contemporary conversations about race, identity, sexuality, and the drug trade. From the film’s use of hip-hop and jailhouse poems to the carefully considered mise-en-scène and character improvisation, Duke attributes the success of the many fine details of Deep Cover to a “constant friction of ideas” in the making of the film. Rather than forcing the film to speak from one perspective, Deep Cover thrives off of the multiple expressivities illuminated through content most films would gloss over with colorblind liberalism, such as the interracial buddy coupling of Stevens and David Jason (Jeff Goldblum).
In their conversation on Deep Cover, the Black film boom of the early 1990s, and the noir genre, Gillespie and Gates recognize that each character in the film is somehow complicit in the drug trade, blurring the lines of good and bad within each character, vastly complicating and deeply humanizing them. Deep Cover strives off the uneasy categorization of its characters, which owes a lot to the terrific performances and Duke’s commitment as a director to get his actors to “surrender” to their roles and the creative process. The lives of Deep Cover’s characters extend beyond each frame. It is rare to find a film in line with genre conventions (like that of film noir) yet devoted to offering daring and multifaceted characters who complicate our own moral sensibilities.
Deep Cover is a cultural and political force aesthetically driven by the critical work of Black artists through the Blaxploitation era, the LA Rebellion, and the Black film boom of the early 1990s. Additionally, it is a film intricately tied and indebted to hip-hop aesthetics. According to Claudrena N. Harold and Oliver Wang, the hit single of the film, “Deep Cover,” arrives right when “hip-hop is beginning to permeate the screen” and is a moment when “up and coming generation[s] of … Black filmmakers are really beginning to make their voices heard and the growing popularity of hip-hop as a music partly … empowers these directors to pitch these films” that may have not received play just a few years prior. Harold attributes the significance of hip-hop in films like Deep Cover to their commitment to speaking about problems like “the racial logics of the criminal justice system [and] the hyper-policing of the African American body politic.” Crime films like Deep Cover were and (possibly) still are the most fertile sites to debilitate anti-Black carceral and policing logics and operate with and as an extension of the insight and critique proffered through hip-hop.
Black film should not be held to a standard of serving as a corrective to social racial injustices. Rather, we should attend to Black film as art aesthetically and politically driven by the constant negotiations between media practices and Black expressivity that excavate a space for questions, dialogue, and confrontation. Deep Cover is actively ambiguous in its approach to solving any kind of social issue. There is no redress for which Deep Cover can compensate. No denouement. Instead, the film offers introspection that vastly complicates what film does and what a story ought to do.