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Going Under: Deep Cover on Blu-ray

  There was a renaissance in Hollywood movies in the early nineteen-nineties, specifically among the African American talent who began to step up and tell the stories of their communities in a way they wanted to tell them, rather than being told to do so by white executives who thought they knew how to market to those communities. The result was that many non-black and international audiences became interested as well, and a fresh well of ability was established. This was often compared to the blaxploitation boom of the early seventies, and crime stories were featured prominently, but there were differences.

Fair enough, there were similarities too, but not all of them bad. For example, both eras provided valuable work for many black performers who otherwise would have been playing second fiddle to white actors, and while in the seventies when the popularity waned and those actors found themselves struggling to get jobs of the same exposure, in the nineties and onwards they had established themselves with these films and audiences would recognise them and want to see more of them. Stars like Eddie Murphy were holdovers from the eighties, and enjoyed continued success, but there was a more varied landscape of performers now, with male leads like Will Smith, Wesley Snipes or Laurence Fishburne finally making their mark on the culture.

Female leads had more trouble doing so if they were black, however: Robin Givens, for instance, was very well known thanks to her disastrous marriage to boxer Mike Tyson, but failed to consolidate that renown into a lasting career, A Rage in Harlem being the best known thing she was in. And Victoria Dillard, who starred alongside Fishburne in the same director's Deep Cover, saw her career fizzle out more or less after the decade was over. But Bill Duke, who directed Deep Cover, could also be said to have deserved a bigger chance at the helm of his own projects too, and he had been an actor, most memorably in action movies such as Commando, Predator and Action Jackson, plus had concurrently been guiding television episodes of the likes of megahit Dallas.

The film Duke went onto after this was Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, which while a hit for him was not exactly a stretch of his talents when you saw what he did with the screenplay for Deep Cover. It remains the high point of his direction, relating a complex story with clarity while retaining a moral ambiguity that kept the audience watching, unsure of where the characters were going to fall next. Duke continued directing into his seventies, but not on anything that made the same cultural impact as his earlier work, despite demonstrating he could have handled major projects with ease, so perhaps the industry still had its issues in knowing what to do with black directors, if not the leading actors who appeared in their movies and sustained their place somewhere near the top.

Not to say now, in the twenty-first century, there are no problems facing black performers who wish to go on to lasting careers, and it is still a problem for the female performers who do not slot into the character actress mould with ease, but if Dillard had appeared in such a substantial role in the twenty-twenties as she does in Deep Cover then its more probable she would have been more in demand, and now, of course, black women are directors and producers which they were really not back even as recently as the nineties. But those new black Hollywood efforts did tend to look something of a boys' club when the directors were the likes of John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles or Spike Lee bringing hits to the big screen, and importantly a renewed visibility for their race.

As for Deep Cover, while it was written by two white men - Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Henry Bean (The Believer) - it was akin to seeing one of those thirties gangster flicks which established an exciting new breed of film star, and indeed many of those black films were concerned with crime. Here we had Fishburne as a straight arrow cop who agrees to go undercover because his smug boss (Charles Martin Smith) wants to take down a powerful Central American drug lord who has ambitions in politics. If Fishburne can gather incriminating evidence on his nephew, it will reflect poorly on the aspiring leader of their nation, so our hero agrees and begins to operate as a drug dealer with connections, living out of a dingy apartment with a crack addict across the way who tries to sell him her son, giving you some idea of the huge social cost he is up against.

But what this does is pose the portrait of the smaller, personal matters and contrast them with the bigger picture that takes in foreign policy. The higher the cop gets in the organisation, the more he realises that as an undercover cop he makes a great drug dealer, and a bone deep cynicism sets in, helped by his closest associate, yuppie Jeff Goldblum on electrified form, who realises because he is Jewish he is as much as an outsider in this druggy world as Fishburne is. Goldblum should be a consumer of their cocaine, and the cop should be a crack addict, so as they try to break open opportunities, they realise they are really only out for themselves. And to make matters worse, Fishburne no longer knows whether he is a criminal or a lawman when Smith admits way too far into the mission that the landscape has changed, and the whole war on drugs was a sham, all for show with the cop a pawn sacrifice. If this was melodramatic (the opening five minutes looks like a weepie is on the cards), then its sheer refusal to play by the usual rules of crime thrillers left it well worth returning to as a piece with intelligent things to say, but also genuine suspense and top performances from a fine cast seizing every opportunity.

[The Criterion Collection release Deep Cover on Blu-ray with these special features and supplements:

New 4K digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New interview with director Bill Duke
AFI Conservatory seminar from 2018 featuring Duke and actor Laurence Fishburne, moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell
New conversation between film scholars Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie about Deep Cover's place within both the Black film boom of the early 1990s and the noir genre
New conversation between scholar Claudrena N. Harold and professor, DJ, and podcaster Oliver Wang about the film’s title track and its importance to the history of hip-hop
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by Gillespie.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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