While Hollywood is the epicenter of worldwide filmmaking, there are only a few genres that a film scholar would consider quintessentially American. One of these bedrocks of American cinema is the noir genre.
What we think of when we of film noir – hardboiled protagonists skulking around with femme fatales trying to crack a mystery – was not really a commodity seen by American audiences until the 1940’s. The pessimism and fatalism that were the hallmarks of noir were a byproduct of the post-war attitudes of America where a substantial portion of the population had just experienced the horrors of World War II. This would be followed by another period of time where America wallowed in the fear and paranoia of the Cold War and McCarthyism, which would contribute to noir films throughout the 50’s until the genre tapered out with the beginning of the 60’s.
Pure noir cinema would be considered dead by the 1960’s, but attempts to replicate the genre would be prevalent in its immediate aftermath. Films with similar cynicism and style, dark lighting and gritty dialogue would arise in the 1960’s, but their tropes were beginning to be reimagined. This brought upon the age of neo-noir, of which Bill Duke would create one of the most intriguing riffs on the genre with his film Deep Cover (dir. Bill Duke, 1992).
Deep Cover is an extremely angry film about an undercover cop (Laurence Fishburne, in a role archetypical to the noir genre) that is ordered to go undercover to find a major supplier of the Los Angeles drug trade. Over the course of the film, Fishburne’s character, Russell Stevens, narrates over the action in a detached tone about all of the darkness he is experiencing and the people he sees killed. Finally, Stevens, who joined the police force in order to clean up the streets after watching his drug addicted father get shot during a stick-up, discovers that the drug war is a front for major power grabs by players more powerful than the dealers on the street.
The fact that Deep Cover cribs from noir is no accident. While the noir genre portrayed the pessimism of the postwar era as a whole, Duke zeros his focus and frames his neo-noir film on the growing weariness that poor communities of color would face in the midst of the Reagan Administration’s War on Drugs. He uses the hardboiled narration and unflinching violent crime of the genre to create a fatalist film about the path America is heading down and how the misery of people of color is just another tool to maintain wealth and power. Deep Cover shows the capability of neo-noir to be a vehicle for something with gigantic political aspirations. It increases the scope of political issues in film originated by works like The Parallax View (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1974) while also giving a platform for other films like Devil in a Blue Dress (dir. Carl Franklin, 1995) to wade into the waters of the noir as it relates to the black experience. However, Deep Cover ends up being a film with roots of American cinema’s past that uses its darkness to paint a bleak picture of its present and future unlike anything before or since.
Deep Cover is currently streaming on Cinemax’s streaming platform, MAX GO.