Review: Film Noir 'Deep Cover' Gets Thorough New Release from Criterion

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 26, 2021

The film noir genre was, and somewhat still is, reserved for drama involving white performers and characters, which only scratches at the surface of why Bill Duke's 1992 noir "Deep Cover" feels so triumphant. Rather than being a story of a Black man working his way through a white-dominated world, the film skewers the whiteness of the genre while also providing an alternative where Black-led stories can occupy the same space and, in some ways, change it for the better.

"Deep Cover" arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection, with a stellar new 1080p presentation sourced from a new 4K digital restoration personally approved by Duke. Save for some inherent softness in certain sequences, and less film grain texture than was to be expected, this is a terrific new presentation that shows off cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's stark palette, filled with reds and blues. There's a great new interview with Duke about the film and his career as a whole, as well as some other special features that will more than reward further inspection. This is a great package for a film that many people have been clamoring for, and I, for one, am very happy to see Duke get any attention for his work as a filmmaker.

Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) is a Black police officer who joins to a top-secret drug task force with the goal of taking down a Latin American drug ring operating in LA. Working undercover, he ingratiates himself with an ambitious cocaine dealer named David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), and the duo rise in the ranks of the LA drug market. But, of course, the line between right and wrong starts to blur for Russell as he sees incredible pushback and oversight from his superiors on the force and the allure of decadence that comes with big-time drug money.

Duke deftly embraces film noir tropes and still finds room to propose an alternative to the normal narrative conventions. To "Deep Cover," justice in America should be met with wariness and skepticism. If you were a Black cop being taken advantage of by a system that was originally created to suppress Black thought, then why not build a life of crime? Duke asks and explores these questions without directly answering any of them. But that's film noir's biggest strength as a genre; Pretend as if all violence and crime will repeat at one point, as it's just America.

If you're a fan of noir, I urge you to pick up "Deep Cover." It's an action-packed thrill ride with a lot on its mind, and it's steered by a director that understands deeply the failures of America and the war on drugs.

Other special features include:

• 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
• Trailer
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Plus: An essay by Gillespie

"Deep Cover" is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.