The year 1990 saw the publication of a non-fiction book entitled Deep Cover: The Inside Story of How DEA Infighting, Incompetence and Subterfuge Lost Us the Biggest Battle of the Drug War. Its author is Michael Levine, a former DEA veteran and “America's top undercover cop for 25 years”, according to the television show 60 minutes. The subject matter Levine explored in his book sparked an interest in Henry Bean and Pierre David, who had collaborated on the 1990 crime thriller Internal Affairs, with the former writing the film’s screenplay and the latter executive producing it. Their objective was to adapt Levine’s book into a run of the mill thriller revolving around an undercover cop, but Gary Lucchesi, the former President of Production at Paramount Pictures, had other ideas. Seeing as how the movies of Spike Lee became great successes, the studio was mightily impressed, so Lucchesi proposed that the protagonist of Deep Cover be African-American. Screenwriter Michael Tolkin was hired to write the first draft, Bean was in charge of the revisions made to the script, whereas the film’s director Bill Duke and several cast members helped refine several of its aspects. Surprisingly enough, the finished screenplay was turned down by Paramount, as well as every other major studio. It was even suggested by some executives that the protagonist be a white man after all. But after the success of the 1991 crime thriller New Jack City starring Wesley Snipes, Ice-T and Chris Rock, New Line Cinema, the studio that had previously said “no” to making Deep Cover, reassessed its initial decision. The plan was to give the movie a budget below $8 million, so that the risk would not outweigh the potential reward. As it turned out, Deep Cover went on to gross $16.6 million in North America.
The film’s director Bill Duke worked as an actor on films such as Commando and Predator, while making his directorial debut in 1984 with the made-for-television drama The Killing Floor. His second feature, the crime movie A Rage in Harlem, received a five-minute standing ovation at the 44th Cannes Film Festival in 1991. Around the time he got hired to direct his third feature Deep Cover, he said he was not interested in making ’black’ movies: “I’m interested in making movies that reflect reality as I perceive it.”. When asked in a 2020 Vulture interview by Matt Zoller Seitz to describe said reality regarding drugs and politics in America in 1991, the director stated: “The crack epidemic was in full swing. The black community was seen as the ‘horror station of the universe,’ you know? The news and the government made it seem like these evil, sick, crazy black people were doing bad things, killing each other, killing cops and killing other people. In those days, the drug infection in our community was just overwhelming. But when you really research what was going on, you see that there was—when I say poverty, I mean extreme, extreme, extreme poverty. We’re talking about a welfare system that was dysfunctional, making it hard for men to be part of their own households and then blaming them for that. We’re also talking about the public-school educational system totally broken. We’re talking about the ratio of black men in prison compared to the numbers in the population being way out of whack. I could go on and on and on. I wanted to really explore what was at the core of it and what could be done, in the form of a thriller.”
Deep Cover follows Russell Stevens (Larry Fishburne), a police officer who at ten years old witnessed the death of his cocaine-addicted father while the latter was in the process of robbing a store. The traumatic event not only led Russell into law enforcement, but also embedded him with a very strict moral code lacking any underlying values. This, along with his hot temper and his disdain for authority, can be found in his psychological profile, implying that he exhibits ‘criminal tendencies’. That is why DEA chief Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith) deems him the perfect candidate for an undercover job that entails posing as a drug dealer for the purpose of bringing down a West Coast drug cartel, with South American diplomat Hector Gúzman at the top. Stevens, shaped by his traumatic experience and now going by the undercover name of John Hull, has never so much as had an alcoholic drink, let alone anything else. But his newest assignment threatens to put his entire self-concept to the test, as he slowly becomes seduced by the many temptations inherent in one such lifestyle. His partner-in-crime becomes David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), lawyer by day, drug trafficker by night and the two plan on upping their game by getting in the business of distributing synthetic cocaine.
Growing all the more dissatisfied with the tasks he is given by his superior and eventually realizing that chief Carver never painted him the whole picture pertaining to the operation at hand, Stevens becomes painfully disillusioned with both his purpose and his role in the grand scheme of things. As the lines start becoming all the more blurred, we the viewers are meant to swim in a sea of moral ambiguity alongside the protagonist, who begins questioning whether he is better suited for the role of a drug kingpin than he ever was for that of a cop. By the end of the film, we find ourselves unsure of whether we are rooting for him to take down the drug overlords as was the initial plan, thereby fulfilling his assignment as a man of the law, or if we would rather see him succeed in a business he seems to have a natural talent for.
But instead of telling us all of the above, the movie’s prerogative is to show us—the screenwriters abstain from using excessive wording so as to get their point across, allowing Duke to focus on action-based character development and the ‘how’ of his storytelling. And therein lies Deep Cover’s true brilliance. Montenegrin DOP Bojan Bazelli’s stylish cinematography reassuringly pulls us into the underworld Stevens quickly becomes a part of, making it feel surprisingly welcoming and oddly seductive despite the frequent outbursts of violence and the depiction of the inevitable descent into a kind of personal hell that accompanies drug addiction. The story is, in its essence, fairly gritty, but it seldom looks like it. The colors are highly saturated, Bazelli’s camera often pulls the audience into the frame, making certain scenes look as if they were taken straight out of a 90s rap video, with a soundtrack that features the eponymous title track, performed by then-newcomer Snoop Dogg. The voice-over narration done by Laurence Fishburne reads and feels like spoken word poetry that is used to accentuate the film’s overall tone, rather than to serve as a means of filling in the plot-based blanks.
Another testament to the movie’s show, don’t tell policy is the notable presence of religious imagery, courtesy of screenwriter Tolkin who had previously demonstrated a fondness for themes of guilt and redemption in movies such as his 1991 drama The Rapture or the satirical black comedy The Player (1992). There is also the inclusion of Clarence Williams III in the role of Detective Taft, a deeply religious man who serves as a mirror of Stevens’ conscience and ultimately becomes the main catalyst for the protagonist’s choice regarding the path he is meant to take.
For the role of Stevens, both Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes were considered, before the part ultimately went to Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne), who Duke thought had the capacity to portray a character the viewers could both believe in and identify with. Fishburne and his co-star Goldblum researched their roles and bonded in the weeks prior to shooting by riding in an LAPD squad car that was called to a homicide scene. The two actors were altogether very different in their approach to acting—while Goldblum was a big fan of improvisation, often coming up with lines on the spot, Fishburne was more prone to drawing inside the lines by sticking to the script. And Duke is the type of director who welcomed improvisation: “Larry hated working with me in the beginning. He’s used to rehearsing a scene the way it’s going to be shot. I said, ‘Larry, that’s not how I work.’ It always made him nervous, but he started to trust me and we had a good collaboration.”
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Deep Cover is a thoroughly exhilarating thriller that successfully avoids the rather clichéd black-and-white juxtaposition of “good” and “evil”, seeking to explore the shades of grey inherent in the human condition instead. It is also a bold piece of filmmaking that does not shy away from exposing corruption in American politics, pertaining to the hypocrisy behind the government’s self-serving motives that can be found at the very core of the war on drugs. And on top of that, the film’s director resorts to a visually interesting aesthetic that effortlessly enthralls the viewers and catapults them into America’s poverty-stricken underbelly of the early 90s.
Josh Olson on DEEP COVER