Jul 16, 2021
By Jason Wilson
Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne) is a highly principled cop in Cincinnati who prides himself on his straight-edged lifestyle in the years after witnessing his cocaine-addled father’s death in the middle of a liquor-store robbery.
“It wasn’t gonna happen to me,” he says via voiceover.
As a uniformed officer he gets recruited by a pencil pusher named Carver (Charles Martin Smith) to go undercover in Los Angeles and infiltrate a drug ring under the alias John Hull and to presumably help fight back the overflowing amount of narcotics entering the country from big-time suppliers in Latin America.
While Stevens’ background and present stance on drugs makes him something of an ideal candidate to take on such an assignment, it’s pretty clear from the beginning that the only part of his identity that really matters to Carver is that he’s a Black man, and someone whom he can lord over. “I’m God,” Carver says multiple times to explain away his apparent omnipotence in the scenes to come.
Working his way up the cartel hierarchy, Stevens (as Hull) forms a partnership with crooked lawyer and go-between for dealers and suppliers, David Jason (Jeff Goldblum). Naturally, things go sideways almost immediately – as they are wont to do in any movie so steeped in noir-ish leanings – both with his relationship with the cartel and his handlers in law enforcement.
Stevens’ mission, such as it is, seems half-baked and incompetent from the get-go. This is not due to his aptitude or lack thereof, but more due to the inconsistent whims of his superiors, bureaucracy, and straight-up corruption. Noir films will often have several double- and even triple-crosses and while there are several on the ground floor with how Stevens and Jason navigate their own precarious positions, the biggest betrayal comes from the top. Carver plays ignorant when confronted by Stevens for pulling the plug because allegiances changed, but it’s all about climbing the ladder for him.
“You ever killed anybody?” Stevens asks Carver at one point in the movie.
“Are you kidding? I went to Princeton to avoid all that shit,” Carver retorts.
The war on drugs was a failed enterprise before it even started but especially by 1992 when the film was released, and yet it marches on today. The enemy, as stated by the likes of Carver, is ethereal and ever changing to match whatever loose allegiances are in place at the time. Men like Carver – white, affluent – typically dip their toes in and can get a cushy office gig, which he does, after the dust settles. He tells Stevens to follow suit but it’s either not genuine or it’s ignorant to what opportunities will be available. Stevens has effectively been left out in the cold.
Deep Cover is a gritty piece of noir filmmaking that deals with very specific themes that remain prevalent three decades later in terms of class inequality, racist systemic structures, governmental subterfuge, and fixed social strata.
And while it’s an excellent representation of Black cinema of the era, it almost wasn’t. As film historian Michael B. Gillespie – who is also critical of the term “neo-noir” – writes in his superb accompanying essay, “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?,” the character of Russell Stevens was originally conceived as a white man, which seems impossible based on the finished product. As embodied by Fishburne, Stevens/Hull is inextricable from his Blackness because of what the film says about Black people being set up for failure by a racist system. The dilemmas facing Stevens wouldn’t be the same for a white dude. Even within the context of what we see, Goldblum’s Jason is in a position of leverage over Fishburne’s Stevens even if Jason has his own issues as a white-passing Jewish man. Stevens/Hull is not the kind of character where you could have simply transplanted someone like, say, Bruce Willis and kept the story, so it had to have involved a considerable overhaul.
The change occurred when director Bill Duke came aboard the project and collaborated with screenwriters Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin. It was at least partially due to a cynical attempt to cash in on other Black crime films of the era like New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood, but fortunately the finished film is something to behold. It’s a thrilling and fresh interpretation of noir that should have a wider and more openly celebrated reputation than it does.
The chemistry between Fishburne and Goldblum is spectacular as they banter – sometimes playfully and sometimes with an edge as sharp and precise as a scalpel. Gillespie notes that director Duke built strong rapports with his actors and fostered and encouraged improvisation. But the film never feels unwieldy even when the actions within are spiraling out of control. It’s frenetic with a variety of jump cuts, dutch angles, and neon-soaked lighting but it all feels purposeful. It’s simultaneously drawing attention to the fact that it’s a movie while also juggling the gravity of the reality at its core.
And even if the very end of the film offers a glimmer of hope amid all the darkness enshrouding Stevens, it’s undercut by the notion that nothing will ever fundamentally change as long as the people pulling the strings are allowed to continue to do so. It’s a bittersweet fist-pump that rhetorically asks, “was it worth it?”
The Criterion disc includes several key features alongside its digital restoration including a 2018 seminar discussion with Duke and Fishburne moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell, a new interview with Duke, a feature discussing the hip-hop title track by Dr. Dre and featuring Snoop Dogg, and a conversation between Gillespie and fellow film scholar Racquel J. Gates about the film’s overlap between Black cinema and noir.
After rightly being called out for a painful lack of Black cinema in the collection, Criterion seems to be making strides in addressing the absence and Deep Cover is certainly a step in the right direction.