Friday, February 19, 2016

Los Angeles By Firelight

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Five
Bill Duke (director), Deep Cover

Russell Stevens, a Cincinnati uniformed patrol cop on a dead-end career track, gets conscripted by the feds to bust a powerful drug ring controlling central Los Angeles. Given a new identity as cocaine pusher John Hull, Stevens vanishes into his duty, sleeping rough, building networks, and advancing rapidly. But he quickly discovers himself becoming the monster he promised his junkie father he’d never be. Neither the law nor the criminal underworld will let him leave.

Released under two weeks before the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, this film concisely captures the simmering cauldron of issues that fueled that violence: racial stratification, ham-fisted street policing in the late Reagan-Bush years, drug turf wars which peaked that year, and fears that the government used drugs to control poor blacks. Though critically revered, the movie barely broke even, “too black” for mainstream distributors. Yet its relevance is urgent in today’s “Black Lives Matter” environment.

Laurence Fishburne plays Stevens, in his last role billed under his former child actor moniker of “Larry” Fishburne. In his run up LaLa-Land’s drug culture, he finds a quick ally in David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish lawyer whose connections, and eagerness for street cred, make him an easy mark. Jason is the most revolting form of class tourist, sleeping with black women, appropriating black cultural signifiers, then sleeping soundly in his exclusive gated community.

Stevens, as Hull, and Jason find themselves wedged between conflicting forces. From beneath, they’re owned by Colombian kleptocrat Anton Gallegos, who considers his pushers interchangeable cannon fodder. From above, LAPD vice detective Taft (Clarence Williams III, TV’s The Mod Squad) considers Hull a kindred spirit. He quotes the Bible and attempts to save Hull, but finds himself hamstrung by laws, public scrutiny, and his manifestly corrupt partner. Seasoned movie audiences know somebody’s going to die.

The drug lifestyle proves powerfully seductive to Stevens. Starting out his undercover role in cargo pants and a wife-beater, he graduates to button-down shirts, before earning his own hand-tailored suits. But he staunchly resists sampling his own product, and won’t even drink alcohol, for no other reason than that he promised his dying father. Perhaps he should; it would calm his objectless rage and self-loathing. Twelve-step devotees will recognize Stevens as a classic dry drunk.

Jeff Goldblum (left) and "Larry" Fishburne, approaching the film's final confrontation
This movie is redolent of hip-hop culture, which in 1992 was just bursting into the American mainstream. The movie’s soundtrack features Los Angeles hip-hop stalwart Dr. Dre, and one of the first recording credits for Dre’s promising young apprentice, Snoop Doggy Dogg (still billed thusly). Stevens quotes Iceberg Slim while capping a rival dealer in a dance club restroom. The rival wears parachute pants and a high-top fade, signalling the brutal death of Eighties idealism.

Most tellingly, Stevens’ DEA handler Carver (Charles Martin Smith, American Graffiti) encourages this slide into profligacy. Operating a massive sting on shoestring budgets, Carver urges Stevens to push product, live large, and kill. He seems eerily well-informed, calling himself “God,” but lacks money to enforce his divine dictates. At key moments, Carver also proves vulnerable to top-down political pressure, turning against the operative he created in exactly the way Stevens despises from his Colombian contacts.

While Stevens increasingly vanishes into his John Hull role, David Jason follows the opposite track. Starting off nebbishy in his slim-fit courtroom suits, squeamish to watch his pusher superiors enforce street ethics with terminal force, he gradually becomes everything Stevens leaves behind. He starts using guns as tools of street politics, and wears tight t-shirts showcasing his massively hulked-out figure. By the climactic confrontation, he evolves into about the scariest white nerd in film history.

The story unfolds in different directions simultaneously. “John Hull” sells drugs to Shakey Town’s lowest black denizens, trembling human refuse desperate for anything to kill the pain. But the corruption his investigation uncovers reaches the very top, far above DEA machinations or political oversight. Stevens performs an elaborate political pas-de-deux, appeasing two enemies while keeping his conscience clean. He embodies the then-growing African American fear, that the state was using crack to keep Blacks poor.

Into the 1990s, Laurence Fishburne played increasingly sententious Magic Negro roles, culminating in Morpheus, among the most frustratingly Confucian characters ever played onscreen. But here, at the commencement of his mature career, Fishburne plays something altogether different. Rage and desperation battle beneath his tightly controlled exterior, an explosion waiting to happen. Sorta like situations happening today. A quarter century on, this story looks frighteningly familiar. Like all great literature, this movie is ultimately about us.

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