Many hip-hop music fans know the hit soundtrack of Deep Cover because it featured a pre-mega fame Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. In this recommendation, I want to make a case for Deep Cover as a movie. It was a modest money maker in 1992, but got a bit lost in the avalanche of drugs and crime flicks that Hollywood put out in that era. I re-watched it recently for the first time since in debuted in theaters, and was struck by how it laid to waste its competition in the genre.
Based on a story by accomplished screenwriter Michael Tolkin, the film centers on an apparently straight-laced cop named Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishbourne) whose father was a drug-addicted criminal and met a violent end. A shifty DEA official (Charles Martin Smith) sees in Stevens the ideal personality for an undercover agent in the drug trade. Stevens agrees, and under the name John Hull begins penetrating the seamy, violent underworld of Los Angeles. But he develops doubts not just about whether the investigation is morally justifiable but also about his own nature.
Director Bill Duke (on the right in this photo taken on the set) is one of many talented artists who have a higher profile among Blacks than whites. To the extent white filmgoers know him at all, it’s mainly as a portrayer of fearsome tough guys in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies Predator and Commando. But he’s also a skilled director who has focused his cinema work on Black-centered stories (e.g., A Rage in Harlem, Dark Girls). What he achieves in Deep Cover is unique to my knowledge, namely crossing conventions of 1970s Blaxploitation with mid-20th century film noir. That could have easily crashed and burned because the former genre embraced more traditional morality tales (evidenced here in the parable-like opening sequence with Stevens’ father, Smith’s role as a white-as-rice boss with an dirty agenda, and Clarence Williams III’s role as a righteous cop/pastor blend) and the latter cherished murky gray morality and characters like Russell Stevens Jr.. But Duke mixes these potentially competing cinematic traditions into a potent cocktail with a smooth finish.
And speaking of underappreciated African-American artists, how did it take so long for Hollywood to give Laurence Fishburne a leading role? His anguished performance as a man trying to atone for his father’s sins while stomaching the rot around him gives Deep Cover psychic weight to accompany its effective action sequences. Fishburne also strikes sparks with Victoria Dillard, who plays an African art dealer who launders drug money on the side (or maybe other way around). In a wonderfully screwy yet scary role, Jeff Goldblum gives Fishburne first-class support, including providing some comic relief in this otherwise tense drama.