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Interview: Director Bill Duke on the Timeless Power of ‘Deep Cover’

Whether it’s in front of or behind the camera, Bill Duke is a filmmaker who has been taking chances for over 40 years. The first Black director to helm episodes of classic series including Dallas, Cagney & Lacey, and Hill Street Blues, Duke made his feature debut with The Killing Floor in 1984. He would follow that up with 1991’s A Rage in Harlem, then quickly release his third feature, the 1992 neo-noir classic Deep Cover

With a fantastic new restoration out this month from The Criterion Collection, Deep Cover provided the perfect opportunity for an insightful and highly enjoyable conversation with the director. The film stars Laurence Fishburne as Russell Stevens, a police officer recruited by a drug enforcement agent to go undercover with a criminal organization. It’s there where he meets David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), and the fates of the two become linked together as they both forge their own paths for survival. 

Duke and I dove into his career as he came into this masterful picture, while also digging deep to discuss the characters and themes that would make for a film which has endured the test of time, perhaps playing even better now than it did upon release. Deep Cover is the mark of a truly significant filmmaker, one who has made a lasting mark on cinema and shows no signs of slowing down. 

Warning: Plot details of Deep Cover, including the ending, are discussed. 

Mitchell Beaupre: It’s so great to have you, Bill, thanks for doing this. Deep Cover is one of my all-time favorite films. Could you start by speaking about where you were at in your career when you came onto the project? 

Bill Duke: First of all, thank you for having me. At that time, I was still acting and directing both. I had done The Killing Floor and A Rage in Harlem, and New Line was doing great independent movies, so they came to me with the project. 

What I loved about it was that it was based on a real story. I’m not sure if you know that or not. It came from this book that was written by a drug enforcement agent who had been on the street investigating the people who were selling drugs. One day he realized that these were just the people selling, they weren’t the ones growing it, and they weren’t the ones importing it or any of that. So, he went back to his people and said, “Hey, why don’t we go up to the people that are growing and importing?” And they said [puts finger to his mouth and shushes]. 

I knew I wanted to make the movie because it was dealing with something different. They would always talk about how Black communities were so irresponsible, but they never dealt with that other aspect, like what’s in the book – that business side of things. 

MB: The film opens with this prologue that establishes in one scene so much of what we need to know about Laurence Fishburne’s character. How did you want to use that scene to inform the viewer of what’s going on with him internally throughout the film? 

BD: If you look at it closely, the first thing you really see comes from the color. Two colors in particular, red and green. Red for the blood and green for the money. Those patterns are repeating throughout the film. If you look, for example, when he buys the big condo and Jeff Goldblum says what a great place it is. He sits on the couch, and if you look at the couch closely, it’s red and green. Those things are spread throughout the entire film, using the color in these subliminal ways. 

MB: With that idea of color in mind, you do such a wonderful job of establishing a very unique style here, fusing the energy of the modern era while also drawing on those noir influences. 

BD: I wanted to create a style that had no age. You can’t define it by its age. I wanted to be able to infuse different stylistic elements. Part of that was driven by editing the great music by Dr. Dre and Snoop because they gave it a street level that also contained such information within the lyrics. I wanted to integrate that style musically, editorially, et cetera. 

MB: What were some of the major cinematic influences that you were drawing from stylistically here? 

BD: I go back, historically, to Oscar Micheaux, the first real Black director. I drew from some of my favorite films, like Once Upon a Time in America and The Godfather one and two, to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane. I could go on and on and on. 

Melvin Van Peebles inspired me greatly. So many people, I call them pioneers, because they took chances. They didn’t know necessarily where they wanted to land, but they felt something internally and they went with it. Those are the guys that inspire me. I always talk about this one film I saw that blows my mind to this day. When I saw it, I just kept looking at it over and over. It’s called Run Lola Run. Have you seen it? 

MB: Yeah, the Tom Tykwer movie. 

BD: Was that an incredible movie or not? It never got the credit it deserves. It was total innovation. It was pioneering. I wish he had gotten more credit, and still deserves that credit because that movie really set standards. He borrowed from other places, but it was really something else. That’s one of my absolute favorites. 

MB: Looking at your career as a director, you’ve covered such an array of films. From The Killing Floor and A Rage in Harlem to this, and then after this you did a nun comedy with Sister Act 2, then your own gangster movie with Hoodlum later on. Was that idea of taking chances something you wanted to exemplify with your career? 

BD: I always wanted to do that. I always wanted to make films that weren’t considered “Black films”, but were feature films. I made a film many years ago called The Cemetery Club for Disney. It was about three white Jewish women who have lost their husbands, and so they formed this club in mourning. It was based on this really successful play, and I wanted to make it because it had such powerful messages, and powerful communication. 

We took the film around the country, doing the marketing and everything. At almost every single interview, I was asked the same question: “Why are you, a Black director, making a film about three white women?” I said, “What do you mean? It’s a great script!” I used to say, “Well, Steven Spielberg just directed The Color Purple.” The answer they would give me, with no malice intended, was to look at me and say, “But that’s different”. 

MB: They weren’t asking white directors those same questions. 

BD: Exactly. 

MB: One scene that really stands out in Deep Cover is when Fishburne and Goldblum are with Victoria Dillard’s character and these masks are brought out. The masks are literal, but they feel symbolic of the ways that both of these men are putting on their own masks to navigate this criminal world that they’re in. How did you incorporate that idea of masks into these characters? 

BD: Jeff Goldnblum’s mask is in the fact that he’s a businessman, but he’s also a family man. You see it in that scene where the gangsters come to his house, and he’s telling his wife to get back in the house. But once he gets his hands slapped in that club and his hands are bruised, that changes everything. He comes back and sits on that couch and his wife asks him what’s the matter. It’s like whatever family mask was there has come off. 

For Fishburne, his mask is being that undercover agent for his people. But after a certain amount of money is in your hands, you see that the people that hired you are as corrupt as the people you’re after. He knows he’s now out on his own. Luckily, he eventually comes back to himself. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Jeff Goldblum kills Clarence Williams’ character and Fishburne says, “You shouldn’t have done that”. That moment – life changing. 

MB: One of the transformative moments we see for Fishburne is when he kills Ivy in the bathroom and he has that fantastic line, “I killed a man who looks like me and nothing happened. No police came.” 

BD: He realizes more and more as the film goes on that he thinks he’s doing something good for his community, but as soon as he starts getting to the core of who is in charge of these things he gets told to shut up and mind his own business. Told to stay in his box.

MB: The movie is bookended with these two scenes that deal with the question, “What’s the difference between a Black man and an n word?” Fishburne’s answer for that question is extremely different at the beginning than it is at the end. 

BD: I think there’s an innocence to him in the beginning, but in the end he’s no longer innocent. He’s gone through all the things you could possibly go through from that point of really believing in what you were doing to realizing that you were naive. Then the final scene, after he gets to punch the guy in the stomach, is him taking a young boy to that grave site. In that scene he’s saying that he’s committing himself to the future. That young boy is not going to go through what his mother went through. That says a lot about his commitment to something beyond just being an officer. He’s committed to something larger. 

MB: I wanted to ask you about the end, because Belinda and her son are smaller parts in the movie, but I consider them the beating heart, as Fishburne sees himself in that young boy. How important was it for you to end the story there at her grave site? 

BD: That’s the message of the film to me. It’s like, we’re not just doing this for the present, but for the future. I wanted to ask how what we’re doing or not doing impacts the children of the future. That’s a question, in my opinion, that we should be asking all of the time. With the division in our world lately – in terms of COVID, race, the economy, politics, whatever – people need to be questioning to themselves, “Okay, you and I may disagree politically, but does that mean we have to hate each other?” What does that leave for our children? Aren’t we responsible for leaving them something larger than our egos? 

MB: Part of why I think the film has the lasting impact it does, why it works so well today, is that lack of a happy ending. The core drama of the narrative is resolved, but it has that open ending with Fishburne remarking that things aren’t really fixed in any kind of larger way, and he doesn’t know what the answers are. Do you think that ambiguous ending has helped it endure so well? 

BD: I think it’s lasting because we tried to speak the truth. The situation was not going to go away because of anything he did here. What he is saying to that little boy is, “All I can do is what I can”. Whether he’s part of the police force or not, he’s going to make sure that this child has a better life than he did, and that his mother would be proud. That’s what he can do, he can take care of this one boy, who is the future. That’s his obligation. Nothing is going to harm that boy. 

MB: I’d love to talk a bit more about Goldblum’s character as well, as he goes through such a transformation over the course of the movie, from that buttoned-down family man to this slicked back hair, all-black wearing ruthless criminal. Could you talk about casting Goldblum in that part? This character would play so differently if you had someone in that part who wasn’t as innately charming as him. 

BD: I wanted to cast somebody where you didn’t know where he’s going to lie. Goldblum has so many layers to him as an actor, and as a person. He’s not just one thing. He can make you laugh, he can make you cry, he can hurt you. I like making movies where the so-called “bad guys” show their humanity. 

One of my guilt things is when I watch the Showtime show Dexter. This guy is a serial killer, and yet you’re rooting for him because he’s killing people that are worse than him. That’s Goldblum. He can do something bad, but you’re still on his side. 

MB: Fishburne is ostensibly the hero of the movie, and we’re on his side, yet he also at times does things we might not agree with. Did you want to make sure that every character had that complexity to them? That there weren’t simply “good guys” and “bad guys”?

BD: Absolutely. I wanted to make human beings that have good elements and bad elements. They’re human and every day they make decisions based upon their humanity. I wanted the characters to remind us of ourselves. Not that these are heroes or anything. These are people who do things based on, what’s in their minds, a necessity for survival. We may not agree with the outcome or the decisions, but I want people to understand why they did what they did. 

MB: I’ve got to wrap in a few minutes, but I’d be remiss not to ask you a little bit about No Sudden Move. I love your appearance in that movie – you show up, with the costuming for your character, and you look like such a badass. You’ve worked with Steven Soderbergh multiple times now. How was it coming back to team up with him again? 

BD: Working with Steven is always a great honor. He’s brilliant. He works with actors in a very collaborative way. He trusts your work. He’s a great storyteller. He’s also so courageous because he’s making films that talk about powerful subjects. The politics of basketball in High Flying Bird. In No Sudden Move, this is based on a real situation that happened in Detroit during that time where the car dealerships were fighting over these elements and then the gangs got involved. 

I just love Steven because he thinks so differently from everyone else. You probably know this, but we shot High Flying Bird in a couple of weeks with five iPhone 7 Pluses. They did Dolly shots where he rolled them around on a wheelchair. Does that tell you something? 

MB: That’s a guy who takes chances. 

BD: He’s innovative. It’s really inspiring to see a filmmaker like that. He could have any camera he wants, and he chooses five iPhone 7 Pluses. He’s sending a message out there to young people, too. He’s saying to stop waiting to be discovered. Discover yourself. I absolutely admire him. 

MB: Who are some of the other directors working today whose work you really admire? 

BD: Spike. He’s trying to do some things to really raise the ceiling. I think Ryan Coogler created a whole new wave that hopefully makes studios think about Black folks differently. He made a billion dollars on Black Panther, a film that played globally. One of the things that we are faced with as Black directors with Black content is constantly being told that Black content does not sell well overseas. When we go in and pitch projects we say, “What about Black Panther?”, and we’re told, “Oh, that’s an anomaly”. What do you do with that? 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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