One of the most remarkable Black films released in the 1990s, Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1992) is an uncompromising film noir that uses the so-called war on drugs as its backdrop. The story follows Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne) as he is recruited for an undercover operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration to infiltrate the largest supplier of cocaine on the West Coast. Becoming “John Hull,” Stevens moves up the infrastructural pyramid of the drug trade as his assignment grows increasingly complicated by his success as a dealer, the shifting priorities of the operation’s mission, and his own sense of self. With questions of Black identity as its animating core, Deep Cover challenges many of the presumptions of noir and Black film.
The movie began as a collaboration between screenwriter Henry Bean and producer Pierre David, following their success with the noir Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990). They tapped Michael Tolkin to write a script, with Bean then revising as well as working with Duke on the material once the director came aboard. Loosely inspired by Michael Levine’s 1990 book Deep Cover, a nonfiction account of how 1980s DEA undercover operations involving Latin American drug trafficking in the United States were derailed by political subterfuge and incompetence, the screenplay was originally written with a white lead character. But before the project landed at New Line Cinema, which released Deep Cover following the 1991 box-office success of Black films including Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, an executive at another studio suggested changing the lead character to a Black man. “Impressed with the successes of Spike Lee,” that studio “was looking for a film that they first could ‘niche-market’ to blacks,” according to a 1992 article in the Los Angeles Times. For his part, Bean was intrigued by the suggested revision. “The details of blackness gave the character a particularity and resonance that it otherwise didn’t have,” he told the Times.
Deep Cover was Bill Duke’s second theatrical feature, after his adaptation of Chester Himes’s 1957 novel A Rage in Harlem (1991), which had followed television films such as the labor-union drama The Killing Floor (1984). While studying at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Duke had performed in a 1969–70 off-Broadway production of Amiri Baraka’s Slave Ship and the 1971–72 Broadway production of Melvin Van Peebles’s Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. Michael Schultz’s Car Wash (1976), in which Duke plays the troubled Black nationalist Abdullah, offered the first cinematic glimpse of Duke’s prodigious talent. Before you start reminiscing about Duke’s roles across the eighties, which include memorable supporting turns in American Gigolo and Predator, do yourself a favor and look at some of his extensive directing for episodic television. His direction is distinguished by his rapport with his actors—especially palpable in his receptiveness to improvisation—qualities that contribute immensely to Deep Cover’s sharp sense of character.
Film noir of the forties and fifties was often defined by whiteness, the ambiguities of crime and the law, masculinities and femininities in crisis, social critique, and a coding of all manner of difference with measures of aberrance, peril, and an evocative aesthetic profile of high-contrast lighting. Among other things, noir of that era also demonstrated pop psychoanalysis, New Deal heroism, and the latent celebration of the suburbs as a haven from the infrastructural catastrophes known as cities. Whether one considers it a genre, mode, or tendency, film noir must always be appreciated with its cultural and historical contexts in mind. This is why the term neonoir is an untenable, if not lazy, explanation for all latter-day noir films as derivatively nostalgic for noir’s supposed golden age. As James Naremore writes, “Film noir belongs to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema; it has less to do with a group of artifacts than with a discourse—a loose, evolving system of arguments and readings.”
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