friday night movie club

Deep Cover Defies the Standards of Hollywood Stories About Cops

Laurence Fishburne in Bill Duke’s Deep Cover. Photo: New Line Cinema

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from staff writer Angelica Jade Bastién, who will begin her screening of Deep Cover on June 5 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.

Language fails me right now. I am not quite sure how to thread together the immense anger and sadness and loneliness that defines the present moment not just for myself but for legions of people across the country now mired in two pandemics rewriting the rules of American livelihood: COVID-19 and anti-black racism. I have found myself late at night scrolling through my various timelines, watching on-the-ground filmmaking from citizens documenting both the swell of protests across the country sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others by police officers (to use any other language is to obfuscate the matter at hand) and the police violence with which those protests are being met. I’ve been seeing real moments of joy followed by images of bloodied marchers in the aftermath of police brutality. These videos are marked by urgency, functioning as weapons and wounds, illuminations of the power structures that bind our lives. It would be all too easy to turn away from this moment, to curl inward, to lose myself in objects of sprightly glamour and joy. That’s necessary, too; we all need some balm. We can’t endlessly observe horror and apathy and expect to survive. But it feels imperative to bear witness, to confront the horrors and hopes of the present moment instead of drowning myself in nostalgia for a normalcy that never was.

Late at night, I have also found myself turning to the slippery pleasures of film noir — a genre that’s always been good at laying bare lies at the heart of the American dream. For my first piece for Vulture back in 2015, I outlined the attributes of this tricksy genre, born out of the changing gender and racial landscape of America during and after World War II, under the Expressionist influence of European-refugee filmmakers like Billy Wilder: It’s stylistically marked by voice-over, high-contrast lighting, nonlinear storytelling, and poetic, rhythmic dialogue. Thematically, it delves into concepts like existentialism, free will, fear of the “other,” obsessions with the past and dread for the future. Its characters are usually archetypal — detectives, femmes fatales, criminals, people on the fringes of society. Its protagonists are often deeply flawed and morally cynical and butt against the power structures and people (police, politicians, the wealthy) our culture has tried to condition us into believing are good. As a result, noir has a prickly relationship to race. As cultural historian Eric Lott writes about noir’s early years in his book Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism, “At a moment when bold new forms of black, Chicano, and Asian activism and visibility confronted resurgent white revanchism and vigilantism, film noir’s relentless cinematography of chiaroscuro and moral focus on the rotten souls of white folks constantly though obliquely invoked the racial dimension of this figural play of light against dark.” What immediately comes to mind is a scene in the 1947 film Out of the Past, in which Robert Mitchum’s private detective moves with ease through an all-black jazz club. It’s a brief scene. But his ease is a tell. He’s comfortable in this space. In doing so, the film aligns its white protagonist with the idea of the other, as he both operates outside of certain power structures as well as within them. Classic noir is replete with scenes like it, in which race is an intriguing undercurrent to the story, meant to complicate the audience’s understanding of cultural hierarchy and its relationship to the idea of whiteness.

But what happens to noir when blackness isn’t a suggestion but a fact? What happens when the genre goes further than merely suggesting that operating outside of the law is a viable option and instead portrays the law itself as an unequivocal perpetrator of violence, against black folks and black liberation in particular? The answer to this is Deep Cover. The 1992 neo-noir directed by veteran actor and filmmaker Bill Duke takes the familiar attributes of the genre and uses them to confront questions about black masculinity, the reach of state-enacted violence, and the futility of trying to fix a decaying system from the inside. It’s a journey through the dark recesses of black male identity that proves searing in its understanding of how police have been depicted throughout Hollywood history. Released about a year after the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the movie follows Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishburne), a Cleveland cop tasked with going undercover as a drug dealer named John Hull to infiltrate a West Coast drug syndicate whose largest importer is the nephew of a South American politician.

But before we meet Russell Stevens Jr. the cop, we meet him as a young boy of 10 years old in the flashback that opens the film. It’s Christmas, 1972. Snow-dense streets are framed by twinkling lights as “Silent Night” hums along. “So gather ’round as I run it down and unravel my pedigree,” adult Russell muses in voiceover. What follows is heartbreak, as the young Russell witnesses his addict father (played by the legendary Glynn Turman) killed in a stickup of a corner store, his blood and guts sprayed against the window of the car, which we see from Russell’s point of view inside the vehicle. He furiously notes in voiceover that this moment was a turning point for him. “It wasn’t going to happen to me,” he says. This memory haunts the film. The bloodied money left behind becomes totemic for Russell, a reminder of who and what he doesn’t want to be: another dead black man undone by addiction and loss.

In writing about television’s deluge of cop-centered shows, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendock writes perceptively, “TV has long had a police’s-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world, prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed. Order, a police-imposed status quo, is good; disruption is bad […] In stories of American crime, TV teaches us that cops are the characters we should care about.” Casting black actors as cops is often a way to fortify this message, something Deep Cover seems hyper-aware of from the moment Russell sits down with DEA Agent Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith) as a potential recruit. “Do you know the difference between a black man and a nigger?” Agent Carvers asks the black recruit ahead of Russell, who stammers a response. “Most niggers don’t. Thanks for coming in. Next,” Carver replies. The next recruit’s response to the same question is markedly different; he grabs the white agent by his lapels and lifts him from his chair, “Do you know who the fuck you’re talking to?” But when the same question is posed to Russell, he responds cooly, “The nigger is the one who would even answer that question.” It’s the response Carver was looking for. Their ensuing dynamic, between black cop and white superior, makes one thing clear: By accepting the job, Russell isn’t simply helping his community, as he says he desires; he’s becoming a pointed tool of the state against his community. As John, Russell is forced to wrestle with his own complicity in a system that snuffs out black life.

As an example of noir, Deep Cover is as beguiling as those early films from the 1940s. Its language dances and jabs at you as its fraught male characters spit homophobic and racist jargon around Russell. It uses shadow and light across an urban landscape to reveal the inner darkness carried within these men. But Deep Cover pushes the genre. Its use of wipe transitions gives the feeling of peeling back layers of story. Its coloring is more garish and beckoning — cherry reds and cobalt blues punctuate inky blacks. Its specific use of voice-over, scholar Michael Boyce Gillespie argues, challenges conceptions of narrative authority and expressions of black interiority. “What if black film could be something other than embodied? What if black film was immaterial and bodiless?” Michael Boyce Gillespie asks in Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. “What if black film could be speculative or just ambivalent? What if black film is ultimately the worst window imaginable and an even poorer mirror?” It isn’t merely that Deep Cover places a black man in the context of noir; representation alone isn’t worthwhile praxis. It pushes the form, allowing notions of black hunger, black desire, and the black absurd to take root.

Consider the dynamic between Russell and David Jason (played by an at times beautifully unhinged Jeff Goldblum). Hollywood has long wrought works of homosocial interracial pairings as a way to surmount race or obscure it — The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier and cop buddy dramas like the Lethal Weapon series, all work to support a falsehood: that if we just come together, issues of racism can be easily overcome. Deep Cover refuses such empty platitudes, in part by detailing David’s “condescending infatuation with everything black,” to use his own words. Watching these drug dealers, traffickers, and power brokers navigate one another’s sometimes frightening machismo becomes a play on the cross-racial relations between Jason (Jewish), Russell (black), and the Latinos they are beholden to in the hierarchy of this specific drug industry. Deep Cover provides no easy answers about what it means to move through various spaces as a black man in an anti-black, confused world.

Consider, halfway through the film, when Russell is forced to kill another black man, a rival drug dealer named Ivy (James T. Morris) who has murdered a woman in Russell’s employ. The law of the street is that Russell must exert himself, enact vengeance. But when Russell confronts Ivy in the bathroom of a club after stalking him through its maze of bodies, it’s not machismo that we witness but stunning vulnerability. To kill this man, Russell understands, would be to solidify his role as an instrument of the state enacting violence against the very people he aims to help. He remains frozen in place even as Ivy pisses on his shoes. His chest heaves, his eyes dart. Until, he draws his gun and shoots Ivy twice. At home, later, after he washes the blood off, Russell thumbs through pictures of his parents and the bloodied bills his father handed to him from his snowy grave. “I had killed a man. A man who looked liked me. Whose mother and father looked like my mother and father. Nothing happened.”

In killing Ivy, the mask of John Hull slips off. This slippage is common in noir. But what makes it novel isn’t just Fishburne’s tremendously complex performance or the sharp editing by John Carter or the magnificent script by Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean or Bill Duke’s lucid direction. It’s that as Russell’s mask slips, so too does the one hanging over the genre, unabashedly revealing the material and emotional effects state violence has on black interior life. Even the ending of Deep Cover rebukes the common expectations of noir: Russell survives. He’s no longer a cop, or a drug dealer. The concluding voice-over, which shifts to look toward the future rather than reflect on the past, is multifaceted in meaning. It defies our understanding of what Hollywood can do with its storytelling, it pushes noir into new avenues, and it considers with grace and honesty the ways black people are used and abused by the state even as they hope to change things from the inside. An impossibility, I believe. In doing so, Deep Cover reminds us now is not the time to look away.

Deep Cover is available to stream with a subscription to Starz and is available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.

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Deep Cover Defies Standards of Hollywood Cop Stories