Charles Martin Smith
1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Deep Cover June 16, 2020
eep Cover (1992), directed by Bill Duke, is an invigorating cop noir. It understands that one cannot simply “infiltrate” the police with an intent to change the system for the better from the inside out alone. Such is a futile way of thinking, it shows. To join is to strengthen the system, no matter the ideological motivation; to join is to in some way be exploited by the system. It isn’t until around the end of the
movie that its lead, Cleveland-based undercover officer Russell Stevens (a great Laurence Fishburne), who has this kind of reform on the brain, fully digests this, though.
The film begins with a 1972-set flashback where, through the eyes of a young Stevens, we see his drug-addicted father (Glynn Turman) rob a liquor store and then get gunned down by the police. The traumatic experience unsurprisingly
changes everything for him. Not only does a grown Stevens tell us, through voiceover, that he soon resolved that what happened to his dad “wasn’t going to happen to me.” It’s also intimated that this is one of the reasons he decides to pursue law enforcement as an adult, potentially reforming the system so merciless to his father and to the black community more broadly.
Stevens knows the police disproportionately target minorities, especially black people, but he is optimistically seeking to change that. He is well aware that he will be used essentially as a tool against his community, and so isn't exteriorly
ruffled at first — he's prepared himself to be stony. When asked by a methodically provocative white agent during a hiring interview whether he knows what the “difference between a black man and a n-gger" is, Stevens cooly replies, “the n-gger is the one who would even answer that question.” (In preceding interviews with black prospective officers, we see two subjects who aren't hired fumble and get enraged at the question, respectively.) Stevens aims to be an exception — made a kind of example.
Because he “looks like a criminal,” Stevens is assigned at the beginning of Deep Cover by DEA agent Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith) to pose as a dealer to impinge on the West Coast’s largest drug-dealing operation. His invasion is initially successful, and soon he begins to closely work with David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), one of the most lucrative dealers within the network who also happens to be Stevens’ court-appointed lawyer when, in his drug-dealer guise, he is arrested.
This pairing seems a pointed riposte to the tendency in police-centric (or adjacent) entertainment media to pair black and white actors as partners. The trend has always suggested, I think, that this is in some way an argument-ending counter to or at the least a distraction from the reality that the police have long been used as a tool to oppress black people and perpetuate white supremacy. Systemic racism can't be that ingrained, the casting seems to offer. The casting also typically pushes forward a cynical, subliminal “if we could all just get along” antiracist message that certainly oversimplifies matters — that law enforcement could be better if it were simply more diverse. In Deep Cover, though, clichés
are shaken up. Jason is actively bad and amoral, and treats Stevens with unconcealed patronization. There is at least one occasion where Jason himself evinces a fetishization of “everything black.” In the movie, the majority of law-enforcement officials are portrayed as pretty evil, Machiavellian — never as upstanding as they might outwardly appear.
The film follows Stevens as he increasingly realizes that he cannot bring about change alone — the system is too pervasive, too rotten, to be reformed. At one point, when Stevens finds himself with an insurmountable amount of drugs, Carver tells him he cannot take it in because, vaguely, there isn't enough capacity for it. He suggests to Stevens that he simply deal it; he is posing as a drug pusher, after all. Once he's gone through with it, having felt as though he had no other option, Stevens immediately makes clear his regret over voiceover. How ironic it is that he has become a police officer to make tactile changes — in part specifically to help minimize the presence of drugs in his community — but it is through his role as someone purportedly “protecting” people that the problem has worsened. Later, when Stevens kills a rival black dealer who has murdered a woman, something really shifts in him. “I had killed a man,” Stevens says. “A man who looked liked me. Whose mother and father looked like my mother and father." He is especially bothered by the way his killing someone does not come with any corporeal consequences — it's part of the job. "Nothing happened," he says over voiceover, slowly. The weight of these words is heavy.
In foreseeable movie fashion, Stevens eventually takes matters into his own hands, and, through some wise word choice in the courtroom at the end of the film, is subversively able to make at least a little of the change he had been seeking. But what makes Deep Cover a particularly exceptional cop thriller — and loose homage to classic film noir — is that it refuses to both closely work with genre conventions and adhere to what so much police-related entertainment does when there is a black police officer at the front. (Which is to say, often act like his or her experiences are not much different than their white counterparts, and that those experiences steep in a straightforward sort of valor.) As perceptively written by Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean, the movie is rankled by the continuation of colorblind casting, pushing against it. Deep Cover is well aware of the falsehoods kept alive by propagandistic law-enforcement-centric escapism and successfully brings to the screen what it could be: a morally dubious, weary indictment of a seemingly irreplaceable establishment whose generally positive public image, insidiously, has partially been upheld by the movies. A-