Deep Cover, the 1992 neo-noir that has just been issued by the Criterion Collection, arrived in theaters amidst a slew of films featuring all-Black casts or directed by Black filmmakers. A time when, as critic and scholar Racquel L. Gates puts it in one of the disc’s bonus features, an economic recession and a wave of cultural upheavals spurred on by the rise of hip-hop, the arrival of Do The Right Thing, and the footage of Rodney King being assaulted by LAPD officers, Hollywood finally started to take notice of Black people.
This period opened the door for young directors like John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, 1991) and Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn, 1991), and allowed seasoned filmmakers like Bill Duke to helm stylish crime dramas like his 1991 adaptation of Chester Himes’ A Rage In Harlem and, one year later, Deep Cover.
At the time, Duke was still primarily known for his on-screen work in films like Car Wash (1976) and Predator (1987), as well as the short-lived Alex Haley-produced TV drama Palmerstown, U.S.A.(1980-81). But through the ’80s, he quietly amassed credits helming episodes of TV series (Knots Landing and Miami Vice, among them), gigs he says he snagged when the regular directors went on vacation. Duke had slipped in through a side entrance but was soon given the keys to the front gate.
With this access, he didn’t waste any time. In three years, he knocked out four features: Harlem, Deep Cover, The Cemetery Club, and the sequel to Sister Act. And though all were solid, it was into 1992’s Deep Cover that he seemed to pour the bulk of his energy and flair. A crime thriller set within the poisoned heart of the crack epidemic, the film has an astringent sting amplified by the dynamic acting of Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum and the subtly flashy cinematography of Bojan Bazelli.
Fishburne plays Russell Stevens, a cop who gets roped into an undercover gig by the DEA to infiltrate an L.A. drug trafficking and distributing ring that involves, among many others, a prominent South American politician (Rene Assa) and a high-powered attorney (Goldblum). As Stevens—using the name John Hull—climbs further up the ladder of this organization, and begins to fully see the rot at the core of the legal and illegal operations he is a part of, his soul and his moral grounding slowly crumble away.
Hardly the most original plot, but it is given a jolt of electricity through Fishburne’s fluid and marbled performance. As the film begins, Duke told his lead to take the character’s pseudonym seriously—to cut through this world of drug dealers and double-dealing politicians like a ship at full speed. Fishburne responded by moving through each scene with a dancer’s grace and a linebacker’s strength. Even when Hull is exiting a car to cross the street, the urge is to get out of the way.
Into this, Fishburne stirs in the emotional underpinnings of a character that, as seen in a flashback that opens the film, watched his drug-addicted father get killed after robbing a liquor store. Minutes before, Stevens’ dad has his son promise not to go down a similar path. It’s a vow he holds true until he is forced to shoot a rival drug dealer as a show of force. The first cracks start to show in Russell Stevens’ visage as he stares in a mirror, shaking and desperate.
The charge of Fishburne’s performance is matched by Goldblum, even if they are working on two different wavelengths. The latter’s character, David Jason, has a dream of introducing L.A. to the vast world of designer drugs but can’t wrest himself from the cocaine game. Hull, with his leonine intensity and sharp eye for a new angle, seems to be Jason’s way out.
It’s an unlikely pairing, but Fishburne and Goldblum play off each other beautifully. They’re like a great comedy team, finding a perfect rhythm that feels even more remarkable when Fishburne reveals, in a conversation with Duke and critic Elvis Mitchell added as a bonus feature to this release, that much of their dialogue was improvised.
Swirling around the ions of Fishburne and Goldblum are equally charged character actors, many of them playing delightfully against type. Clarence Williams III pops up with a wild-eyed fervor as a vice squad detective hell-bent on redeeming Hull. TV vet Gregory Sierra draws out his dark side as Felix Barbossa, the high-ranking member of the criminal enterprise. And the great Roger Guenvuer Smith is a marvel as a drug-addled dealer who delights in steamrolling over anyone that gets between himself and his next hit.
Duke didn’t intend Deep Cover as a message film about the ways in which drugs were devastating the BIPOC community at the time, but those themes sneak into the mix anyway. In one heartbreaking scene, Hull is cornered by the young Latina addict that lives across the hall from him, desperate enough for a hit that she offers her body and then her son in exchange for some quick cash. Later, a young Black teen working for Hull is murdered by a rival dealer. Even if viewers didn’t see the full impact of crack’s scourge themselves, they felt the shockwaves all the same.