Deep Cover is the best of the “hood” movies of the ‘90s. It started out as a possible sequel to Internal Affairs, which it’s not, although the two films do share a writer, Henry Bean. However, Michael Tolkin had just come off The Rapture, and had written the book and screenplay of The Player, a film that was about to come out. That made Tolkin a hotshot writer in Hollywood at that point. Tolkin’s script made Deep Cover one of the more radical crime movies ever made, one of the few that goes into details about how the DEA put drugs on the street in the US, making them very responsible for the crack epidemic. Very few films have been willing to go there.
Initially the story had a white cop going undercover for the DEA to infiltrate a smuggling ring. The success of Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City and Spike Lee’s films made the producers decide to change the race of the protagonist to cash in on the success of those Black led films. Here Laurence Fishburne plays a young Black cop, Russell Stevens Jr., who is recruited for the infiltration job, He ends up teamed with David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a lawyer who is a drug dealer on the side. He has to really sell the drugs and eliminate the competition, and the line between cop and drug dealer is becoming very thin—and at the same time, he could be part of a conspiracy that’s coming from the highest echelons of power.
The film was directed by Bill Duke, who is mainly known as an actor but has been behind the camera for years, amassing almost as many directorial credits as acting credits. He directed a lot of the big shows in the ‘80s, like Dallas, Crime Story and Miami Vice as well as films like The Killing Floor and A Rage in Harlem. He had also has memorable appearances in films like Predator and Car Wash.
Deep Cover also came at an interesting point in Fishburne’s career—in fact, it was the last movie where he was billed as “Larry Fishburne.” Fishburne had already been in tons of movies, and was transitioning towards being a lead actor. Even when playing a secondary role like in King of New York, he could steal a film from the likes of Christopher Walken, and that’s saying something. He’d already had great reviews for his performance in Boyz n the Hood, and was poised to become a big star—but never quite did, as reportedly his people turned down the Samuel L. Jackson role in Pulp Fiction because they claimed it wasn’t the lead of the movie! But here Fishburne really showed what he can do as a leading man, although the good parts did not line up after this knockout performance. Goldblum turns in one of his more wacked-out turns, and the combination with Fishburne almost turns it into a sort of buddy-cop movie (though with a buddy pair featuring a drug dealer). It’s also one of the few times Goldblum plays into his Jewishness something he has generally stayed clear of in his career.
The narration is great, the cinematography is fantastic, and it’s a film with a lot to say about the police, the war on drugs, and race—it’s a very, very smart movie. Its also a textbook neo-noir and perhaps the greatest example of a noir told through a African-American perspective. Thanks to this re-release from Criterion it should find a bigger audience, maybe the film was just too political to be the smash hit it should’ve. Even Tolkin, who had issues with the direction they took some of his script in, came to terms with it when he went to see Straight Outta Compton at the Arclight: when Dr. Dre introduces Snoop Dogg to the everyone in the studio and says he’s off to record a song for Deep Cover, a full house cheered. Deep Cover was Dre’s first solo thing, and Snoop Dogg’s first recording. The soundtrack is very important in the development of West Coast Hip-Hop, but the film transcends it.
Extras in the package include a new interview with Bill Duke; an AFI participatory seminar with Duke and Fishburne, moderated by Elvis Mitchell; a conversation with Raquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie about its place in the Black film boom of the ‘90s and in film noir; an interview with scholar Claudrena N. Harold and Prof. Oliver Wang, who is also a DJ and podcaster, about its title track and place in hip-hop history; the trailer and a booklet with an essay by Gillespie.