Essays · Movies

We Have Always Been At War With Drugs: ‘Deep Cover’ A Quarter-Century Later

Looking back at Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne wearily fighting the war on drugs 25 years ago.
Deep Cover
New Line Cinema
By  · Published on April 18th, 2017

This Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Deep Cover, itself an endpoint of the preceding quarter-century. It bears a deep weariness, beset by crime, racism, and, increasingly, the American government itself. Every frame of the film is soaked in that weariness, and its script explicitly addresses it, as the entire business of its story turns out to be that of the American government’s profit from the illegal drug trade, with then-president George H.W. Bush and the former president of Panama, the notorious CIA operative Manuel Noriega addressed by name.

That it’s ostensibly a crime thriller, a genre picture, makes Deep Cover all the more effective a messenger. In his last film billed as “Larry” — while we’re talking about culmination — Laurence Fishburne stars as a young police officer who, as a child, watched his addict father die, which trauma imbues him with a moral rectitude and a desire to do good. All else is suppressed until DEA agent Charles Martin Smith comes along touting a bullshit detector, recruiting Fishburne for an undercover operation for which Smith feels Fishburne’s true criminal nature, inherited from his father suits him perfectly. Posing, reluctantly, as a low level dealer, Fishburne ascends rapidly, meeting arriviste drug lawyer Jeff Goldblum (in a performance that was something of a revelation at the time, that essayed what we now call “toxic masculinity” exquisitely), who begins to pull Fishburne into a gravitational vortex of criminal schemes, which lead, as in the opening paragraph, all the way to the proverbial top.

Director Bill Duke and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who, to digress for a second, has also done quite intriguing work lately in both Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, and prior to Deep Cover in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York) present a visual world that connects the street-level drug trade, the stylish nightclubs of the kingpins’ world, and Goldblum’s American Dream domestic life that he, in his privileged ennui, seeks to escape, by the color red. The reds of the street are the blood spilled there, the sticky paint on the back rooms of seedy bars, itself crusted in old blood. The high life reds are sex, both physical and ethereal, the glamour of the world of illicitly gained money. In suburbia, the reds are muted, dull, quieter, present but overlooked, and significantly, worn by Goldblum’s mostly ignored daughter. His attraction to the dangerous life marks his family, even by omission.

The hazy, minor key neo-noir tone and textures compliment and abet performances that, uniformly, are of a suitably pulpy, melodramatic theatricality. Duke, as an actor of great accomplishment himself, creates a theatrical space giving the cast great latitude to build robust and satisfying performances. Goldblum, again, is fantastic in a flashy role. Veterans Gregory Sierra, Clarence Williams III, and Roger Guenveur Smith all play at in that pitch as well, large and loud and fun. Fishburne has a more varied and complex task on his hands, and frequently is obligated to counterpoint louder scene partners with more muted, pensive work. He is the lead, after all, and so must lead, and so he does, so well.

It’s Charles Martin Smith, though, who is the piece’s villain, and the face of all that is wrong in Deep Cover’s, and our own, America. He is the face of authority, an insubstantial, rumpled, physically ineffectual white man who purports to know a young black man better than he knows himself, and who purports to prove his point by stacking the deck, forcing Fishburne into a life of the very crime he’d sworn to fight. The choice of an actor as wholly associated with wholesome benignity as Charles Martin Smith to play the avatar of American perfidy would seem like a dramatic counterpoint if it wasn’t an exact match to reality. At the end of the day, American life is a middle-aged white man in an unflattering suit explaining to you with round vowels why what you want isn’t what will happen, because that’s just the way it is.

Of course, the reason why movies are better than real life is that you can rewrite the ending of a movie. Real life always ends with the protagonist dying, but movies can end with Larry Fishburne fucking over the entire American system and skating with eight figures in his pocket. Why I submit Deep Cover as a truly great and enduring film is that few films are able to gaze this deep into the abyss without sinking. It dives, confronts the leviathan, and returns to the surface, bloody but whole. It manages the rare feat of being an entertaining and formally beguiling piece of dramatic fiction while being an unblinkingly defiant and cogent political statement, with neither suffering due to the needs of the other.

As an epilogue, we must mention the all-time banger closing credits song by Dr. Dre and Snoop (Doggy) Dogg, the latter’s recording debut. Yes, Deep Cover gave the world Snoop. Out of darkness, light.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all