Deep Cover (1992)

Directed by Bill Duke; Written by Henry Bean

The war on drugs goes further back than anyone would like to admit, but its lies and repercussions are laid out in plain view in Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, the story of an undercover vice cop’s descent into the dirty world of drug enforcement and the political machinations that dictate it. 

Laurence Fishburne plays Russell Stevens, a young police officer. Savvy, immaculately composed, but lit from within by an anger that goes straight back to watching his father die in front of him during a robbery gone wrong. He watched his dad die from addiction, he’s hellbent on staying as far away from it all as possible. 

So he has doubts when he’s called before Carver (Charles Martin Smith), a tadpole of a man who’s nonetheless charged with bringing down the drug lords supplying the west coast with the white stuff. He wants Stevens as his man on the ground; Stevens considers and while thinking of the damage done by drugs to black communities across the country, he signs up. 

From then on, it’s early 90s L.A. and all that entails, be it gangsta rap, denim, crop tops, urban misery and lots of drugs and people enslaved to it. Dealers in loud outfits and louder cars, ragged abusers, and rundown addicts just itching for a little more. Taken together and set to a thumping score by Michel Colombier that’s linchpinned by Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover”, the first half of Duke’s film has the vitality, vibrancy and visual acuity of a music video. Duke vividly portrays a time and place and heightens it the way art can. 

Once Stevens starts to get in a foot in the door, and links up with L.A. main pusherman David Jason (Jeff Goldblum, not quite the zaddy we know today but already showing off his jitterbug lips and sly eyebrows) Deep Cover goes from internal struggle on the part of Stevens to a more classic tale of larger-than-life characters and even greater violence. 

With no backroom dealings in nondescript outfits, the drug world of Duke’s L.A. lives in limos, wears Versace, conducts its business out in the open and doesn’t move in silence. Its rambunctious, stylish, and people looking for gritty street-level insight will be disappointed. It’s more De Palma’s Scarface than The Wire in its material excesses and swaggering of its players. 

Deep Cover still wants a cynical point to come across however. One damning the menagerie of America’s war on drugs and its political morass. Priorities change with each administration, enemies become allies, and those on the ground are collateral damage. It was never about saving the communities within, just exerting influence without.

Much of this is communicated through a running voiceover by Fishburne, his world-weary words falling matter-of-factly over the proceedings as someone who has seen behind the curtain and now knows, for better or worse, the wider picture behind the intimate pain he still feels. 

Through Fishburne and its themes, Deep Cover makes for an interesting  accompaniment to John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, released the year prior. Here he plays Furious Styles, a man living in South Central L.A., who shows his son the underlying mechanics of racial inequality in the U.S. and how Black people’s lot in life is engineered by outside forces.

Deep Cover is way less insightful and poignant than Boyz n the Hood, but the same sentiment is there: The cyclical way of things and how trauma is passed down from generations is at the heart of Duke’s film, and together, they make for a compelling treatise angry about the state of things, a vivid 90s snapshot, and a compelling choir where two unique voices find each other.  

In the case of Deep Cover, however, it just gets a little lost in the (fun!) drug lord swagger at times, leaving it ideal Saturday night fare in its loud antics, but underpinned with sincere social commentary that could stand a modern-day revisit. 

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