“So gather round as I run it down, and unravel my pedigree.” It’s one of many lines within Bill Duke’s Deep Cover that resonates so profoundly on a poetic level. As Laurence Fishburne’s Russell Stevens introduces his life, it would be remiss to not think of Deep Cover’s story as a cautionary tale. There’s an ugly truth about the world he narrates, whilst painfully asking its audience – what would you do if you were placed in his shoes?
Deep Cover positions itself as a fearless and unapologetic critique of America. Like the Black films of its era – Boyz n the Hood, Do the Right Thing, New Jack City and many others, the commentary it evokes speaks volumes about the value of Black lives and the corruptible institutions that provide a daily assault on our consciousness. Here, it’s filtered through the ongoing prism known as the war on drugs, where racism, classism, political corruption, and social inequality are weaponised to thrive and abuse those at its mercy. And it’s why 29 years since its release, this underrated classic remains a powerful tour-de-force.
It begins with a shocking provocation – a question that doesn’t beg or entertain for an answer but elicits the right response from Stevens, a police officer recruited by the DEA to infiltrate a Latin drug cartel. His boss Carver (Charles Martin Smith), profiling his newest recruit like a ‘stop and search’, gives him one rule to follow – “don’t blow your cover.” Thus, beginning a journey into the criminal underworld where Stevens works his way up the drug hierarchy, filled with noble intentions of “making a difference” without befalling to the same pitfalls that plagued his deceased father.
What’s striking is how Duke finds empathy in those dark corners of its narrative. Deep Cover says a lot about the traumas we carry, whether it’s the barriers we place to protect ourselves, the unspoken fears that haunt us, or how we try to break the cycles of our past so that history doesn’t repeat itself. In one crucial scene, Stevens asks Carver whether he had killed anyone. It’s a sincere question – a rare reprieve and reflection out of the boxed corners he’s consigned to. Carver’s response is one of smug wealth and privilege, the kind that separates himself from the dark underbelly Stevens is tasked to venture. The kind where Stevens’ concerns can be so openly dismissed, festering a rotten culture of condescending justifications and weaponised biases for why he’s the perfect man to fulfil the assignment. And it becomes another profound statement Duke makes where Black bodies are used to fight in wars on the frontline, and their commander in chief can reap all the rewards without ever getting their hands dirty.
Stevens – without question – is a metaphor for the violent chaos he’s exposed to. He’s no different from a soldier; he believes in the ideals of the war. His flaws are turned into “virtues”. He kills for the job (even when your rivals identifies as you) and is emotionally blackmailed into submission – only to return more disillusioned and conflicted than ever before. The underlining brilliance behind Fishburne’s performance is that slow, unravelling erosion of his moral compass in a film that’s relentlessly searching for a soul.
The religious irony is not lost when Deep Cover’s world is set in ‘The City of Angels’. Carver sees himself as ‘God’, where every intrinsic detail about Stevens’ personal life is a tool to manipulate him. Stevens’ narration speaks like a confessional in a sermon. Taft (played by Clarence Williams III) is a faithful disciple, a surrogate father figure to Stevens who attempts to bring him back into the light. For a city that has a notorious history, Fishburne’s performance is steeped in tragedy, surrounded by characters who are each complicit in their actions as well as their sins. And as the audience, you’re watching a character sink deeper and deeper into an inevitable purgatory cycle.
This cycle is constantly offset by his on-screen partnership with David (a brilliant performance by Jeff Goldblum). Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean’s script doesn’t fall into the traditional beats of the ‘buddy cop’ formula. They’re paired as opposites, growing together as a ‘means to an end’ in the drug war while enjoying the spoils through power, control, greed, and a newfound identity. It’s the American Dream reconstructed where richness can put them on top of the pyramid. But it’s also a microcosm for how Blackness is viewed in each other’s eyes. In Stevens’ eyes, that point of view is vividly clear. In David, it’s another insight to privilege, where Black culture is servitude to his needs (e.g., his love of having sex with Black women outside of his marriage) but finding new lows to disrespect its presence.
Duke is not interested in painting a pretty vista. It’s a stylish and visceral depiction filled with rapid jump cuts and Dutch angle shots that reimagines the classic traits of a film noir. It’s a brilliant exploration of the duality of the human psyche through the eyes of a Black man. And just like a noir, its resolution never feels satisfying. Because how do you summarise an existence in which America can paint itself as a hero (at all costs) and you’re used as a pawn in their endgame? There are no easy answers, and Duke doesn’t provide any.
It’s why it still holds up today as an enthralling piece of work. Not just because of its cultural standpoint, but the invaluable lessons it continues to reward. That’s a testament to Bill Duke’s work, and the Criterion release is a celebration of that feat.
Deep Cover will be released as part of the Criterion Collection on August 23rd 2021.