Bill Duke’s 1991 neo-noir Deep Cover finding a home at the Criterion Collection gives the film the communal artistic reverence that it has always richly deserved. And there lies the bittersweet taste of acceptance.”

By Johnnie Hobbs III.

“So gather ’round as I run it down, and unravel my pedigree…”
-Russell Stevens/John Hull played by Laurence Fishburne

The Criterion Collection has been wonderfully dedicated (rightfully so) to showcasing, restoring, and preserving films from around the world since 1984. Films brought into the Criterion fold range from the obscure to the classic. Some notable films include Kar-Wai Wong’s In The Mood For Love, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. A film being invited to this elite collection gives it and the artists associated with the film instant cachet with cinephiles sometimes sight unseen. Cut to 1989 to mid-’90s. The film industry has a second brief love affair with cinema catering towards a large population of black audiences. The first brief love affair was with the 1970s blaxploitation films (Shaft, The Mack, Dolemite, Foxy Brown). The industry of the ’90s seemed to actively search for stories written and directed by young African-American filmmakers. Some notable films include John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood, The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society, Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City, Ernest Dickerson’s Juice, and Bill Duke’s Deep Cover. Black audiences and critics admired these new filmmakers. They shared a unique and unflinching perspective on life in the inner city Then one day, these directors disappeared from the mainstream conversation. A few moved on to have respected careers as television directors in the wake of a dimming film career. Some careers stopped and started, while others left the business altogether. The films these artists left behind are given high praise in subsets of the cinephile world, usually by black film critics of a certain age.

Bill Duke has a special journey as a theatre artist & film actor turned director with an illustrious television directing career well before the ‘90s boom of inner-city black stories in cinema. With A Rage in Harlem as his first feature debut in 1991, and well over 30 credits and 60 hours of TV directing under his belt, Duke’s second time helming a feature was Deep Cover. The main character of Russell Stevens, played by Laurence Fishburne, is a uniformed cop who is recruited by a drug enforcement agent to infiltrate a drug-smuggling ring lead by David Jason, played by Jeff Goldblum looking to expand his operation. While undercover as John Hull, Stevens goes to great lengths to hide his true identity, including selling drugs to his own people, setting out to eliminate any competition that looks to encroach upon their drug territory. Watching this movie it’s hard to believe that Stevens was supposed to be played by a white actor from a screenplay written by two white writers, adapted from a book by a white drug enforcement officer. Duke recognized what was going on outside. Hypersexuality and violence in movies. Loud anti-establishment pop and rap music. Reaganomics affected a community of black and brown people. The stereotypical myth of the “Welfare Queen” was etched into our subconscious from tv screens and newspapers. Crack in sections of inner cities was ubiquitous. And on and on. He wanted to create Deep Cover to reflect the times and speak to a group of people overlooked. The black undercover officer, Russell Stevens, is us, looking at the destruction caused not only by the people within the inner-city communities, including himself but by forces outside of it.

The decision to place the characters in a noir confirms its ingenuity. There is such an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for the term film noir that contemporary filmmakers can struggle to find their voice within the canyon of romanticized work without coming off as a cliche. Deep Cover manages to capture the characteristics of a film noir (visual style and tone, the first-person narrative from our anti-heroes, high drama in an underhanded world) yet be a time capsule for early ‘90’s governmental versus inner-city woes. Duke maneuvers the genre through the screenplay’s plot to make the film a vehicle with a message. Deep Cover almost creates a sub-genre. What tends to halt the message is the gratuitous violence and meaningless sex scene between Stevens and Betty, played by Victoria Dillard. A staple of most R-rated movies from the ’90s. Dillard’s Betty desires so badly to be more than just a pseudo-femme fatale. There are glimpses of a full life behind the eyes of the actress playing Betty but, even in a good noir that sets out to subvert the genre can’t get away from every trope.

Watching this movie it’s hard to believe that Stevens was supposed to be played by a white actor from a screenplay written by two white writers, adapted from a book by a white drug enforcement officer. Duke recognized what was going on outside.

Laurence Fishburne, just off the heels of 1991’s Boyz in the Hood, beautifully plays the stoic undercover detective whose facade cracks under pressure in the face of true corruption. Seeing Fishburne play good cop/better drug dealer is a hell of a ride that shouldn’t be missed. His partner in crime is drug trafficker David Jason, played by Jeff Goldblum. In the last several years Goldblum’s persona has become one of a flirtatious kook. At first view, it’s hard to take him seriously in the role. Once the movie continues, Goldblum’s awkward and out-of-place energy seems to fit. Goldblum doesn’t fit the stereotype of a drug trafficker, which is more than likely why he was cast. The most effective casting choice is that of the late and always memorable Clarence Williams III as Detective Taft who sets out to cleanse the streets of L.A. while moonlighting as a father figure for Fishburne’s undercover identity. When you think about Williams’ TV career, his casting makes more sense. For five seasons (1968 – 1973) while in his early ‘30s, Williams was cast as Link in Mod Squad, a TV show about a trio of reformed juvenile delinquents working as undercover cops. Bill Duke bringing on Williams as Taft was a poetic choice that deserves applause.

This brings us back to that bittersweet taste. Having a movie become a part of The Criterion Collection can be looked at as both a business and a socially inspired venture. Any way you look at it, more eyes will accept Deep Cover as a classic than ever before. People will appreciate the movie for expanding their creative scope of what it means to be a neo-noir. They’ll discover Bill Duke and accept him as a hauntingly deep and introspective artist. They will attach Bill Duke’s name to films created by prestigious artists that inspired his work. Artists like Fellini, Melvin Van Peebles, Micheal Schultz, Samuel Fuller, Norman Lear, Alex Haley. They will marvel at a career that we all desire. They will notice how the Criterion Collection has so few black directors in their mix while housing over 1,000 films. It should be noted that this is something they are working to re-correct. People will watch the Blu-ray supplements with interviews from Laurence Fishburne and Bill Duke and be inspired to create their own generation’s version of a movie inspired by social unrest. Criterion patrons will wonder when and why this movie disappeared. I hope they discover and accept the other ‘90s black filmmakers that disappeared from an industry with the same fervor, Criterion or not.

Johnnie Hobbs III is a filmmaker and teacher in Los Angeles, CA by way of Philadelphia. Read his manifesto for a new black period film here.

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