Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: To kick off Black History Month, we’re looking back on genre films by unsung or underappreciated Black filmmakers.
“Money doesn’t know where it came from.” Such noir koans are readily found throughout Deep Cover, Bill Duke’s crime thriller about a Midwestern cop (Laurence Fishburne) recruited by the DEA to infiltrate a West Coast drug ring. A product of the same era that birthed Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City, the film is partly about the War On Drugs, and partly about a larger American identity crisis. The style is exaggerated and pulpy; the voice-over narration, sonorous and detached. Russell (Fishburne), the son of a drug-addicted stick-up man whose death he witnessed from the getaway car, is someone who blends in. Not for nothing is his undercover name “John Hull.”
His target in Los Angeles is a kingpin whose uncle has considerable political connections someplace unspecified in South America. Of course, he must work his way up from the bottom, earning trust or, better yet, money. Along the way, he starts doing business with Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish lawyer who slips a little too easily into the role of a cold-blooded gangster. One gets the gut feeling that everything here is a façade: stings, fronts, fake drugs, crooked cops, manipulative feds. As for what’s real, the answer is, naturally, the cash.
The symbolism can be as grotesque as the sadistic violence; one of the more indelible images of the film is a gangster with a heavy-duty gold chain dying in a puddle of his own piss. It is one of the more literary examples of the last pre-Tarantino generation of crime films, influenced by the under-regarded Black masters of the hardboiled, a little Iceberg Slim (whose rhymes are quoted throughout) and a bit of Chester Himes, whose novel A Rage In Harlem was previously adapted by Duke. “John” observes one character as “a crazy, good-natured, desperate asshole with a life expectancy of about half an hour.” Elsewhere he muses, “All my faults were becoming virtues.”
As a depiction of crime, law enforcement, and drug dealing, the film is a cartoon; as an exploration of the Man’s ulterior motives, it’s trenchant and angry. Stylistic and attitudinal cues come by way of Miami Vice, anti-heroic Blaxploitation, and the politicized, independent-minded B-films of Samuel Fuller. Duke, who is known chiefly as a character actor with a long resume of cop roles, has long had a sideline as a director, mostly in TV. The handful of more personally realized works he produced in the ’80s and ’90s, beginning with the made-for-PBS The Killing Floor, make one wish he’d continued in that vein. It really is all about the money: After his Depression-era gangster flick Hoodlum—which has its strong moments—flopped at the box office, his ambitions never recovered.