Don't Talk with Your Eyes Closed: Caught in the
Hollywood Gun Sights

WAHNEEMA LUBIANO




"Well, some of this is messed up, yet and still he is a good father and I do like the way he walks across the graveyard."
Towanda Williams, Trenton, N.J.; April 22, 1992


I watched the movie-Deep Cover-at the same time Towanda Williams did.' I didn't know her; I simply sat behind her in the theater. But I agreed. Mostly. Yes, I thought. Laurence Fishburne certainly is a father. And those
last frames are fascinating to watch. Only I placed within quotation marks the "good" before "father" because I find patriarchy problematic even when it comes covered in chocolate.

I first saw Deep Cover and wrote some of this work not long after finishing-back in December 1991-an essay on the U.S. political economy and its relation to family narratives in the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas discourse. I presented a part of it at the CUNY Graduate Center shortly after the Los Angeles uprising in the wake of the LAPD officers' trial for the beating of Rodney King and following President Bush and his attack dogs' assault on the "lack of family values" among urban black single mothers. I wrote most of the longer version that I'm presenting here following on the heels of the Republican Party national convention (and the subsequent damage to my television screen as a result of its encounter with a high velocity airborne projectile). My own autobiography notwithstanding, I guess you could say that I'm feeling a tad anti-family. Or, to be more precise, a bit anti-family discourse, or that aspect of it which manifests the economy of what Michael Warner refers to as repro-narratives.

On the other hand, my pleasure in watching Laurence Fishburne walk was, well, that was "real." And it is the complications of that pleasure that form the starting point for this discussion. Further, this paper is a continuations under altered circumstances and vocabulary, of an on-a-city-bus talk that I had with the woman whose language I've just quoted. This essay also intervenes in the almost century-long debate over "positive" and "negative" images in representations of blacks in Hollywood cinema. While the debate itself has often been conducted in simplistic terms, I don't see a way out of such considerations given the politics of the production of popular culture, the political context in which it is consumed, and the psycho-socio complexities of audience engagement with film. What I attempt here is foregrounding some of those complexities to try to escape the too easy dichotomy implied by evaluating representations as either "good" or "bad."

Deep Cover was directed by Bill Duke and written by Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Henry Bean (Internal Affairs). The major stars are Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum. The plot is easily summarized. A small boy, Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne), who sees his drug addict father killed in the course of a convenience store holdup (and is left with blood-stained money in his hand) grows up to be a cop recruited as a "deep" undercover drug courier by a white DEA agent named Carver. This agent tells Stevens that his psychological profile almost perfectly matches that of a criminal. Stevens is given a new identity-John Q. Hull, drug dealer wannabee-and is told to go undercover in order to get to three Latino drug dealers who inhabit three levels in the drug world hierarchy: Felix Barbossa (whom I see as the lieutenant), Gallegos (the prince-in charge of West Coast distribution), and Cruzman (the king-in charge of drug supply from an unnamed South American country, possibly the next president/premier of his country) carver, the DEA agent, tells Hull to stop after infiltrating level two (Gallegos) before proceeding onto level three. The drug dealer for whom Hull goes to work and with whom he later becomes a partner is a white Jewish lawyer, David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a man with a beautiful black mistress, Betty McCutheon (Victoria Dillard), who owns an African cultural artifact shop. He is married, with a child and a house in a wealthy suburb.

There are two subplots that are tied together in the primary plot by the end of the movie: ( 1) Clarence Williams, Jr., plays a good, Christian, and generally black nationalist cop known as Taft; Taft, unaware of John Hull's real Identity as a cop, runs a consistent black nationalist series of anti-drug lectures directed at John; (2) A small hating boy, who lives with his crack-addicted mother, is present in the transient apartment building where Hull takes up residence and becomes important in Hull's new existence.

By the movie's end, John has redeemed himself and his mission, he blows the whistle on DEA and federal government political double dealing when the DEA shuts down the undercover operation because the drug king (Guzmall) is the U.S. client politico in the region.


Beginning point: while "it may not always be evident, research is always autobiographical" Andrew Ross tells us. And because I agree with him (and the others who have made the same argument in many, many more words), I want to begin with my own investment. I am a critic and a consumer; what I like or dislike informs the object of my inquiry. Second, Manthia Diawara has mapped the debates around gendered spectatorship that have remained color-blind; hence my interest here builds from his work. I am talking here about looking. And, finally, I'm offering a possible "reading" of the film from a particular black leftist and feminist spectator's position with an eye to the difficulty of accounting for the work of ideology in aesthetic practice and the dynamics of black spectator accommodation and resistance. I'm trying to talk about seeing on screen more than what critics (academic and media alike) of black film often hold certain black images to "mean." So, while I'm not trying to talk about what everybody or anybody sees, many critics writing about films that represent black people or some variation of black life don't talk about seeing at all even as they speak of "images" or what the sight of something means. The hypervisibility, the very publicness of black people as a social fact, works to undermine the possibility of actually seeing black specificity.

Black specificity is literally "disappeared," or replaced by or merged with older, conventional narratives of maleness, family, and racialized 'reality"-often regardless of the ethnicity or race of the director and the producer of the project. The racialized other (in this case, the Laurence Fishhurne undercover cop character, John Hull) and the drug trade are simply the cover story. Deep Cover, the story of that police officer and his quest to "uncover" the deep structure of the West Coast drug trade, is the nexus of a conventional master narrative of identity, family, and the making of a good patriarch, and a black nationalist narrative of identity, family, and the making of a good black patriarch, set within what is presented as a realistic urban terrain. What I want to begin here is an examination of how those things both come together and separate.

Race representation (in this film, and, arguably in most Hollywood film production), in the aesthetic sense of a selection, or re-presentation, is a rewrite, or a newer picture, of older narratives about race, about masculinity, and about patriarchy. It is, in fact, a generalizing of a specific racial subject into a spectacle written across the public's imagination. Often when race enters the field of representation, the result is a containment of the politically cathected narrative, while the very spectacle of race sometimes blinds us to its emptying out of cultural specificity. In other words, under the cover of the presentation of racialized subjects and racialized circumstances, the fiction that results is often another reinscription of older master narratives that elide any specific imaginative play with the materials of storytelling by replacing them with the already-understood materials tied to race.

If "race" as it is understood in the political imagination of the U.S. public (of any race/ethnicity) is both theoretically useless (because of its inherent instability) but socially and politically inescapable, how might one talk about it, in this instance, to say something specific about a film? I am almost paralyzed by the difficulty concomitant with assuming the burden of criticizing the problem of representation, of the re-presenting of people and circumstances generally marginal to the cultural production of the dominant U.S. cultural industry. As the incredibly convoluted syntax and overabundance of prepositions in the preceding sentence suggests, unpacking the way people "do otherness" is hard and complicated work. And it is Valerie Smith's phrase "doing otherness" that animates my discussion here. "Doing otherness" foregrounds what is at stake in considering the representation of race-regardless of who is doing the representing. Bill Duke, the director of Deep Dover, is black, and while that makes some differences that I could talk about, I don't think that, finally, it makes much of a difference in this project. What is "otherness" on the ground of master narratives of family, masculinity, and patriarchy even with a black director, even in a story with black nationalist elements? But before I move on to the gist of this paper I want to define black nationalism.

Black nationalism, in its broadest sense, is a sign, an analytic, that describes a range of historically manifested ideas about black American possibilities that include any or all of the following: racial solidarity; cultural specificity; religious, economics and political power and/or separatism-this last has been articulated as a possibility both within and outside of U.S.territorial boundaries. Black nationalism in the realm of black cultural common sense is a name for a range of cultural and material activities and behaviors from vague feelings of black racial solidarity in the face of a white supremacist worldview and white dominance, to various cultural and behavioral manifestations of that solidarity (including but not limited to religious practices, musical and art production, educational projects, etc.), to programs designed to intervene materially along black racial lines in order to achieve some economic and political advances. Within the terms of black
nationalism, blackness and the black dreamed-of, autonomous subject is inevitably male, heterosexual, and in training to be a powerful patriarch-only in and on "black" terms, terms that are both separate from and continuous with those of the hegemonic culture. Having said that, I want to make clear that how I "feel" about any form of black nationalism depends on what is at stake. In an essay on Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas I was very critical. But when I consider what some deployments of it have allowed those of us engaged in black cultural studies to consider as a corrective to other and racist concepts, I am appreciative.


Notwithstanding my appreciation of black nationalism's strategic possibilities, I lack nationalist anxiety over racial virility, or its historical lack, plays itself out continually in black cultural production. My interest here is in examining that anxiety as it plays itself out in a Hollywood film that is about a black undercover cop, but is also-in fascinating ways-a hysterical black nationalist revision of a patriarchal family romance."' I say hysterical because the film's obsession with patriarchy is also the terrain for its anxiety over a "sufficient and necessary" heterosexuality. That is to say, its cakewalk to straight black masculine "realness" not only remakes a master narrative, hut trips all over its own attempts to discipline its homoeroticism. His hysteria is further complicated in the film's representation of the relations among various ethnicities: the black Americans, the Jewish lawyer, and the Latino drug lords.

My focus on this film, then, includes what I found pleasurable, dismaying, and interesting about it, as well as the problems of that dismay, pleasure, and interest. My discussion is intended as a corrective to some of the shortcomings of black film criticism; as such it joins the work of Jacqueline Bobo, Manthia Diawara, Valerie Smith, and Coco Fusco-among others. Image-centered critics of black film often think of a black audience as a monolithic aggregate completely at the mercy of a film." Such an audience is educated in the "right" way by a "good" movie and duped by a "bad" one; it is misled by the lack of "reality" and edified by accurately represented social "reality." In other words, image-centered criticism often rests on arguments that suggest that images literally "make" the audience or viewer; that absent the "work" of a particular cultural production, the viewer is ablank slate.

As a counter to the notion of an always "duped" or "dupeable" blackfilm audience Lisa Jones argues that black audiences refuse to completely suspend dishelicf as an opposition to being manipulated by Hollywood imaginings of their reactions:

The industry (Hollywood] often overlooked the statement that black actors made in their performances and focused on the roles themselves. This goes back to "Gone with the Wind." The industry [simply] saw Mammy standing by Scarlett, not Hattie McDaniel, the powerful actress.

Black audiences not only saw Hattie McDaniel the actress, I might add, but could see her making a monetary killing in a role that they could "see" as parody of labor and racial inequality, and a send-up of white employers' attempts to extract the surplus value-emotional attachment-from the labor of black maids. A black spectator could know that the 'subjects" in the film are actors.

What such a spectator "sees" is both the fiction and knowledge of social "facts": a "real" actor, for example, who is part of other "real" films (which are also fictions), and who is discussed in Jet, Ebony, and Emerge magazines. These are some of the building blocks of film reception, then, especially among a marginalized group such as black Americans. An illustration: in Deep Cover, Fishburne/Stevens/Hull, our hero, is first seen as clean-shaven with irregular, bumpy skin and strange complexion colors He is, therefore, alienated from the bearded Fishburne "we" all know from earlier films (like Boyz N the Hood) and from media interviews. That "other" Fishburne might be simply another fiction, but against the Deep Cover Fishburne, the earlier one is part of a complicated apparatus for recreating a more critical "reality" for the "knowledgeable" black spectator. Fishburne returns, before long into the film, as hairy-faced. This is his "real" self-which in the film is also a false "self" because the beard is part of being a "fake" drug dealer.

I am not arguing here that black film spectators, myself among them, are never duped. Spectators-fragmented and differential-are duped and unduped (as Towanda Williams and I were)-often at the same time. Those critics, myself among them, interested in ideology and aesthetics, in the politics of pleasure, thus have our work cut out for us. The effect of ideology is that the world is re-created in such a way that the stitches are hidden. I am not talking necessarily about deliberate misrepresentations but the various ways that constituted realities are perceived as natural, as inevitable.

Inability on the part of critics and audiences to "see" the artificial nature of constructed blackness seems to be one problem, but so is the inability of particular cultural productions to do much with black cultural specificity outside of representing it as legal transgressiveness. I've indicated that white and black critics saw the cop/drug nexus; I did not read one critic who saw this as a heavily patriarchal family romance. I did. Towanda Williams did.' In this film, John Hull/Larry Fishburne is the subject of a white gaze; he becomes the "spectacle" and the working out of others' desires. He and his circumstances are the visual markers of urban blackness, which are somehow emptied of any specific within-the-group meanings, while a family romance, a quest for the trappings of patriarchal power, is played out as the film follows his movement deep undercover to trap what the media tells us is one of the most dangerous and persistent enemies of the contemporary U.S.social order-a Latino drug lord.

What are the manifestations of consistent U.S. fascination with that blackness as spectacle? The film evokes what is presented as realism with its baggage of essential blackness manifested in the drug trade. And what is missing from the drug world "realism" of this movie? Missing are the many whites engaged in it and the economic impact of that participation. I'm not necessarily interested in a more social realist text, but given this film's mode, I am criticizing its skewed realism. This movie's narrative logic turns on the amassing of multi-millions in drug trade. That kind of money is amassed in the higher, white American-dominated end of the trade, cocaine-not the black American-dominated lower end, crack. But that is the problem with the the use of some of the forms of "essential blackness" (like the "black drug trade")-they beat out the more complicated (and racially integrated) "real"every time.


On the other hand, particular narratives of "the black" as irretrievably "other" are both presented and criticized in this film. Criticized after a fashion: after all, the criticism comes from David Jason, the Jewish lawyer who is responsible both for using jungle beast metaphors and similes in describing John Hull and for being critical about those metaphors. I'm not sure, however, how one weighs either his use or his criticism of those metaphors and similes, because he is, by the film's logic, a thoroughly discredited character.

Jason, and his Jewishness, however, function in a number of ways as the mediator between blackness and whiteness. Through the vehicle of his character, blackness is evoked by its opposite: whiteness is a manifestation of a world of order-clean, well-lit rooms, the bright suburbs, clean white shirts and well-madc suits, a daughter in a breakfast nook doing her homework, tidy shelves of law books, all in all a seeming lack of chaos. Whiteness, however, also flirts with black chaos-in a hotel room with a black hooker, in the disco, and in the crack house. All of these flirtations involve some kind of white slumming'' or are attributed to a specific white man, who the film reminds us several times is a Jew and who also refers to himself as a Jewish outsider in kinship with his black "brother."

The film not only sets up Jason as the Jew who is the "outsider," its narrative reprcselits (and by extension sometimes criticizes) the anti-Semitism of the judicial system and media who would love to have a black and a Jewish lawyer as drug dealer villains. That critique, however, is both complicated and undermined by the film's climatic resolution of the threads of black nationalism, its drive to reclaim "blackness," and its disciplining black and Jewish male homoerotic possibilities. As I point out below, David Jason represents the graying boundary between whiteness and blackness, between Jewish ethnicity and black racialism, between "real" and false" masculinity and patriarchy.

Given the film's re-creation of and critique of a disturbing black essence, that is the black nationalist presence in this film and where can we note its comings and goings? Its presence is the core of the family romance written to accomtnodate it. I have argued in my own early work that black nationalist's cultural arm-the black aesthetic-in its opposition to white dominance produces a narrative, an aesthetic project, that is fully as monolithic (even if not as politically powerful) as that of the dominant group.

Caution: fully as monolithic in linguistic structure does not necessarily mean consistently so or unquestionably consensually articulated, nor is a monolithic black aesthetic in any way as active in our social formation as that of the dominant group. And while it is important to mark the moments of patriarchal formation in black American cultural discourse, it is not sufficient. We have to explain how the formation takes shape and what it does when it coheres. Patriarchy might be damn near universal, but we have to account for, or at least trace the representation of, its specifics nonetheless.

Much of the discourse of black cultural nationalism is given over to masculine-centered, homophobia, and heterosexist rhetoric and political physicality; it has insisted that black integration with whites represents an "unnatural" relationship just as it has also insisted on the positioning of good black women as mothers and inspirers of black men and/or teachers of their (or others') children. The extravagantly displayed homophobia and sexist language and behavior of "blackness" is not necessarily always aimed at gay men, lesbians, or straight women, but is instead a form of "drag" assumed to construct masculinity for a straight, politically and economically powerful white male gaze. The anxiety against which this masculinity is performed is the (historically specific but consistent) de-masculinizing of black men-first as chattels and then as universal and de-powered "others" to white males.

Black nationalism in this film is articulated in the family narratives and in certain metaphors: David Jason tells John Hull that Hull reminds him of a black panther, for example, but not, Jason hastens to add, in a racist way but in a way that understands the panther as a dangerous but powerful beast. The moment of this "naming" in the film is loaded with supercharged significance: Jason is staring at Hull, subjecting Hull to the extended scrutiny that generally marks film representation of sexual or romantic attraction. For historically savvy viewers, however, the image of "panther" also resonates with images of the Black Panthers, another kind of "dangerous but powerful" beast and one of the sure markers of black political nationalism. And, importantly, a marker for "manly" opposition to white men. The most explicit manifestation of black nationalism, however, is articulated in John Hull's voice-overs, in language like "I shot a man who looked like me, whose parents looked like my parents," or in the language of the good cop, Taft, who calls John a "Judas" for selling drugs. The way in which black nationalism most thoroughly coalesces into a conventional master narrative, however, is by means of its centering of the family romance.

While Deep Cover is ostensibly about the drug trade and is even critical about white political complicity in that trade, it is framed on both ends by family narratives. The film's beginning, and structurally essential, point is the father/son scene (a late-twentieth-century "blackened" version of the primal scene) with a conventional enough U.S. black movie scenario of a black junky robbing a convenience store. The film's ending-structurally anticipated-is the constitution of a new, improved, and multicultural family for the little Latino boy whose "bad" mother, a drug addict named Belinda Chacon, dies. She's "bad" largely because she is so destroyed that she doesn't even provide proper nutrition for her child; the audience sees John doing so instead-albeit in extremely rudimentary fashion: he gives the child money for milk and a chicken burrito instead of the " junk" that Belinda is offering him. And John's paternal sensibility so overwhelms her maternal sensibility that she offers to sell her son to him. John, according to the film logic, is a better "mother" than she is.

Throughout the film family functions as the moral ground evoked again and again in the rehabilitation of John Hull. The family narrative on display, however, is a departure from the historical black nationalist family narrative in regard to the importance of the mother-who according to black nationalist convention is omnipresent as the nurturer of black children, the cultural carrier of the anti-racist black essence, and the teacher of the community. In contrast, there are no "fit" black mothers (or any mothers of color) left alive or visible in this film until Betty McCutheon, David Jason's mistress, is rehabilitated at the end (and left offscreen) to be the "mother" along with John Hull, the father, of the Latino boy.

McCutheon is the marker for black male reclamation of "his" history.Hull's wooing of McCutheon away from Jason, and his ability to overpower her original resistance to and suspicion of him (because she first met him while he was fully under Jason's tutelage), is not only the black nationalist filmic reclamation from the Jewish middleman of black history/territory, it is also Hull's way of claiming his right to male ownership. That ownership represents Hull's bid for Jason's attention and respect in a new and sexual way. Now they have something in common: Hull's sexual intercourse with McCutheon is a totem exchange between the two males'-a homoerotic nuance almost completely covered over by the change in ownership of the female body, a totem exchange with even greater resonance given Jason's assertion earlier that he was crazy about "black black" women. McCutheon is not only a dark-skinned black woman, but she is cultural gatekeeper for African artifacts. Because she represents the commodification of African art, her reclamation is doubly important to a black nationalist project. And McCutheon doesn't just switch boyfriends and return to the black homeland via Hull, she also makes the first step along the film's path to her remaking into a "fit" mother.

So, we have dead bad families at the movie's beginning and at the end: a dead bad black father at the beginning, and a dead bad white father(Jason) at the end. In the beginning we get a look at a good but invisible black mother-of whose existence we only learn retrospectively when Hull looks at her photograph after killing a bad black drug dealer while mouthing the black nationalist apology for within-the-group killing. Family-dead or alive, dying or being resurrected-is everywhere in this film. Hull's pedigree is established at the beginning of the film by his own father-a junky, but one gamely (the film insists), however ineptly, trying to be a good father.

The good black cop's family also comes into the family structure of the narrative when Taft talks about his children and shows their pictures to Hull during an interrogation. (Again, the mother is absent; she doesn't even rate a picture.) That cop articulates, along with Jerry Carver, the corrupt DEA agent, the tie between the drug trade and killing children/babies. Such articulations are the coming together of family narrative and black nationalist common sense: "Don't destroy your own people." This admonition gains resonance in the dramatic high point of the moment when the good cop dies in Hull's arms, dies, in fact, for Hull's "sins" against his people. The death of that good father brings Hull back into the black family as well as back into the law-and-order family: Taft, the good, black nationalist cop, dies saying "You and me are one. Don't forget who you are."

But the same film that represents the constitution of a black nationalist patriarchy also "shows" us a homosocial/homoerotic romantic triangle: Goldblum's character, Fishburne's character, and Williams' character. Goldblum/Jason kills his rival for love/fathering-Williams/Taft; but the"right" love wins in the end. Fishburne/Hull reemerges as the "good" cop, the ideal cop; he kills Goldblum/Jason, the bad father/bad lover/drug dealer, and '-arrests" the fruits of the drug trade-the $11 million-and the "bad" government. One could say that Williams/ Taft and his "love"-the "dead" part of the triangle-is resurrected in rather spectacularly changed circumstances for Fishburne/Hull's character.

Despite the existence of that triangle, the patriarchy is never in danger. Once McCutheon is remade (beginning with her desire to get out of the drug trade), then the future John Q. Hull (a play on "John Q. Public"-only the substitution of "Hull" for "Public" indicates that this is only the frame of the vessel?) family takes shape. The contrast to Hull (who emerges by the end of the movie as a good father) is provided by Jason, who has a family and who seems to be a good father-he provides materially for his family and even helps his daughter with her homework-but is definitely not a good father. Jason, in fact, is a walking critique of the straight,white, bourgeois male: surburban provider extraordinaire. But he and the suburbs-shot in blinding sunlight-are corrupt underneath (despite his daughter's innocence). And his blonde wife knows his "real" occupation and urges him out of the business-but not because it's corrupt. Rather, she's concerned that the drug lord, Barbossa, doesn't appreciate her husband's abilities and, worse, hurts him. Jason is not only a drug dealer-and a real one (unlike Hull, who is faking it)-but his family isn't enough for him; he wants to have his cake and eat it too: the blond suburbs and the "black black" hookers, too. And, I might add, his black male buddy also.

Via the film's narrative logic, Hull's heterosexuality is established most explicitly (and its potency underscored) while the black nationalist germs of his family are brought together in his seduction of McCutheon-whom he steals away from the corrupt white patriarch/drug dealer. The two black lovers bond together, against Jason's increasing psychological anarchy. The proof of Hull's heterosexuality is enhanced by Felix Barbossa's recognition of Hull as a "real" man, unlike Jason, whom Felix goads with homophobic insults. And Hull goes up the aesthetic ladder as he climbs the drug distribution and patriarchy ladder: he dresses better and buys a nice apartment. Jason is his style "father," although interestingly enough Hull, the "real" drug dealer in Barbossa's eyes, wears suits that are American cut, while Jason (the "outsider" Jew and insufficiently manly drug dealer-again, according to Barbossa, the Latino "real" drug dealer) wears suits that are European cut-emphasizing the Jewish lawyer as the European outsider in the American (albeit illegal drug) mise-en-scene. As Hull climbs the corporate ladder, he moves away from B-Boy style toward EM (Ebony Male) style. Ironically, while the middle-class style makes him look more like the lawyer Jason (notwithstanding the difference in cut of suits), it also makes him look more like the drug lord Jason, who both is and is not (depending on whether one believes one's eyes or Barbossa's rhetoric) a "real" drug dealer. The Fishburne/Hull fashion makeover is not only an instance of guidance on the part of Goldblum/Jason, it remakes Hull into a suitable aestheticized companion for Jason.

John Hull's patriarchal fitness, nonetheless, has to rest on something other than fashion style (however fine) and intentions (however noble). And the means by which he is able to consolidate his position as future patriarch arrives via a rather heavy piece of symbolism: a truck full of money-more than $11 million in smallish bills-that hangs in the air dangling from a large shipping crane, a fairly literal god from the machine. His patriarchal status is secured by the means of that money from above, visibly severed from its means of production. No longer "owned" by the U.S. drug trade or the Latino originators, it is transformed into Hull's "own" money. Not only is money an absolute (and fetishistically overdetermined) value in the film, but it is contingent and exchange value also-it is found money, reward money, for Hull's unveiling of the drug lord, destruction of his drug partnership with Jason, his killing of Jason, and, most dramatically, his "uncovering" of U.S. political complicity in the international drug trade. And like all good and wealthy patriarchs, his relationship to the source of his new power is ambiguous, as the rather heavy-footed voice-over makes clear.

Within a black nationalistic symbolic economy, Hull's individual triumph also narratively represents the triumph, as I noted earlier, of black nationalism over the symbolic management of black people by the Jew-as-ethnic middleman. This ability to interrupt another's manipulation is of small significance within a system where masculinity is predicated on the ability to dominate, not be dominated, to manage, not be managed. Jason as the almost white controller of the female gatekeeper of Africanness is pushed aside as the black male becomes the discipliner of the other ethnic "interlopers" on U.S. terrain-the Latinos.

Despite the film's display of black nationalist sensibility, from the beginning Hull's identity as cop is both emptied of specific cultural meaning-being a good cop is a raceless absolute-and, at the same time, filled with race meanings-a good black cop can always be further mobilized by being reminded of his work, theoretically at least, on behalf of his people.

Deep Cover is, finally, a story that reproduces the depth logic of identity. Deep inside, he is a true cop; he has a true relationship to a racial group; he is a true father (as opposed to a bad or absent father and as opposed to an absent or bad mother); and he truly cares about black people. His black sentiments, contrasted to the facile declarations of the inept (and murdered dealer Eddie who glibly called out "stay black" in passing) are "real" and run deeply.

We are taught by the film to appreciate Hull's depth from the beginning. He signs on for "deep" heavy-duty undercover work, unlike, I suppose, the undercover "shallow" cops who go home every night. His depth is in contrast to Jason, who is not a "real" drug lord because he too goes home at night to the suburbs. Hull is so deep and true a cop that he remains one even when he thinks that he isn't: in a low moment of self-disgust and loathing for DEA hypocrisy he says, "I've been a cop pretending to be a drug dealer, but I'm really a drug dealer pretending to be a cop." Hull emerges as a real cop precisely because he undergoes the (romantic) dark night of the soul that such self-criticism frames: he is what he is.

To return to my earlier argument, some representations actually empty out race specifics-at the same time they inscribe racialized generalities-leaving narrative vessels that could be anything, could revolve around any one. Still, I want to account for the pleasure of those of us who constitute the group against which this film in some meaningful way transgresses, however complicated and attenuated that pleasure might be. The political and historical conditions of racism add both exoticism and poignancy to the representation of a racialized other. Against the racist discourse of bad or absent "black" fathers, this film represents a "good" and present-on-the scene father within the terms of a repro-narrative about which most black people are not inclined to be critical-especially given the salience of the family and the idea of generational succession and progression as a bulwark against a racist world.

In short, we cannot attribute any purity of political expression to popular culture although we can locate its power to identify ideas and desires that are relatively oppositional alongside those that are clearly complicit to the official culture.
-Andrew Ross, No Respect


In black nationalist terms, Hull "wins" over Jason: a white male is dead. A bad, white patriarch is dissolved. But a black male doesn't just win, a black masculinist version of virile history wins and it does so because the triangle (which I described earlier) formed by Williams/Taft, Goldblum/Jason, and Fishburne/Hull-the ambiguous black cop/drug dealer trembling on the brink of the historical void-is shattered. Taft, the Christian and black nationalist rival-literally-for Hull is shot by Jason (the finishing touch of the film's establishment of his super-villainy) because he wants to end both Hull's "flirtation" with his earlier cop history and black male bonding. But Taft (and black history) prove stronger than the attraction that Hull's character has admitted he feels for Jason's world: the money,the clothes, the interior design.

Ironically, Taft, embodying black brotherhood, black patriarchy, and selfless devotion to the (white) law wins back (just about from the grave) Hull, not only to black history but also to the master narrative, the "master's" narrative. Freed by that murder, Hull rejects Jason's corrupt whiteness,the seduction of his drug world, and the "not real" patriarchy for the "real"things: blackness, black solidarity, legality, and not so incidentally, the white judicial system. The film's logic that makes it necessary for Hull to kill Jason is also "killing" the homoerotic temptation he represented, leaving Hull fit for the new, black, grand family narrative.

A new black patriarchy is enframed not only by a black (American hero) killing the Jewish outsider, but also at the expense of the dead, finally femininely quiet Latina: Hull's voice-over tells us that until Belinda was dead Hull never knew how pretty she was. (Complete and final silence is more effective than any kind of cosmetic makeover could possibly be.) But she is dead and so are all the black mothers in this film, including a black mother with no existence outside of a wallet photograph. Fishburne/Hull is quite a family man but leaves a trail of corpses in his wake: dead, missing, or absent black and Latina mothers, other dead black fathers, a dead white father, a missing or absent Latino father. Quite a body count and those are only the dead parents.

We watch the creation of a black patriarch. And while we know that not all patriarchs are created politically or economically equal, this one plays a complicated game with the master hero narrative. By being true to "himself" and his identifications-remember the psychological profile of his character-he is a perfect drug dealer and a perfect cop. By not giving up his mission he makes the bust, gets the woman, the family, and $11 million dollars that "doesn't know where it came from." By being "true" to one, two, or three of his "real" selves he is able also to embarrass the U.S.government and expose a corrupt DEA. Of course. Patriarchy with a difference. But within-the-group manhood is tied nonetheless to fatherhood (and, in this film, respect for the law); it is the political imaginary for many members of the group, male and female, across the political spectrum. There is dissent, of course, or I wouldn't be writing this

Caught up in the importance of the manhood = fatherhood equation, the movie needs certain killings and certain resurrections in order to generate the "proper"-and in this film ethnically mixed-black family. The very same drug trade destroys, or weeds out, some families (the "bad" or pathological ones) and creates the means for the sustenance of the other "good" ones. Isn't this the regulation patriarchal myth revised and replayed? Yet, the logic and overpoweringly attractive aesthetic of this movie to an audience constantly confronted with reiterations of their familial pathology is the cover story that fades everything to black.

However, the film provides one last marker of black American specificity.At the end of the movie-after laying his talisman, the blood-stained money from his junky father, on Belinda Chacon's grave-John Hull "straightens up" from his crouch over the grave. I watched him walk (on his way to claim "cleaner" money?) in a particular and instantly recognizable way across the graveyard, and saw what Towanda Williams saw, what other black Americans could see: a manifestation of the subcultural style that is one of the markers of black American specificity.

The walk across the graveyard: not quite a swagger, not quite the gait of a model on a fashion runway (male or female), but yes, it was quite like that. Each leg swinging loosely as it crossed over and in front of the other. Not quite lower limb "vogueing" but not quite not either. And again what are the words that kept coming to me while I tried to make sense of that movement? Runway, model, showcase, style. The ending is a display of patriarchal "drag" and subcultural style. The new, stylish black father. The tension between the newly aestheticized via subcultural style object of our visual delight and his newly won patriarchal status on display. Walking across the dead Latina's graveyard.

This film is about men making themselves men for other men as much as for themselves. By now, following the work of Hortense Spillers, the contributors to Toni Cade Bambara's The Black Woman, Alice Walker, Judith Butler, and, of course, Eve Sedgwick, we've learned how to recognize this dynamic as a trade that goes on over and through women's bodies, a site for gender performance and performativity.


The voice-over and the film frequently articulate the black nationalist sentiments of group unity and black family sanctity. And herein the knot of pleasure and dismay. The film creates and almost parodies the cathected nexus of patriarchy and homoerotic sublimation-a parody that I found pleasurable. But recognizing the black nationalist aesthetic, I looked for the black women who, according to that discourse, are required to nurture and teach their children. However, there were no mothers on that screen. Horrifically confining as that black nationalist narrative is, by the end of this movie I would have been relieved to at least see them alive.

But why? What would "seeing" them there, having them represented, mean? Where would it mean and to whom? These questions are irritants that push me back to my beginning; the positive/negative image representation discourse is as cathected as it is precisely because films and audience remaking of and remarking on films is part of world making. At some point this film stopped being a black nationalist family narrative-with all of the possibilities and limitations of that narrative-and became something else. It became more simply a film of masculine display against a larger white master narrative. And it became a film that produced a father completely self-sufficient because he could nurture better than any woman.

"Yet and still," the last thing I saw was Fishburne walking that walk. Again: the ending is a display of patriarchal "drag" and subcultural style. I "see" the two together. Towanda Williams did also; although she didn't
say so, her syntax-including the conjunction-gave her away: " . . . he is a good father and I do like the way he walks across the graveyard." In other words, we "saw" some things together, after a fashion, things like his "fashion." What the difference is or means is the work that remains.

Recognition of some aspect of its treatment of black specificity is no reason to "forgive" this film all of its trespasses. On the other hand, it reminded me of a concern of those of us-critics and cultural producers alike-who want to help bring about politically interventionary projects: what we need to map is a way not to de-aestheticize our cultural specificity, but to aestheticize a different political agenda for cultural production.


NOTES

1. This essay is the revised version of a presentation made at the English Institute, Harvard University, August 1992, and part of a longer work-in-progress that uses the film under discussion here-Deep Cover to explore the phallocentric depth logic of certain deployments of black nationalism, including the positive-versus-negative image discourse around black film The original program listing at the English Institute was "Criticism and Black Film " Special thanks are due to Raphael Allen, and to the members of the Wesleyan Center for The Humanities seminar, where I presented a draft of this essay-especially to Ellen Rooney, Anne duCille, Indira Karamcheti, Elizabeth Weed, Joel Pfister, Dick Ohmann, and Karen Bock-for their comments and suggestions

2. This essay takes for granted what have come to be commonplaces of a number of overlapping discourses: nineteenth- and twentieth-century black feminism, twentieth-century black aesthetic theory, poststructuralism, Marxism, critical race studies, and queer theory; however, space does not permit even a brutally reduced genealogy of the intersections and interstices of those various discourses.

3. "Fear of a Queer Planet," Social Text 29 (vol. 9, no. 4): 3-17.

4. Despite what Towanda Williams and I agree about, I am not suggesting that she and I are "sisters" in some racially transcendent way-that would be romanticism by yet another means-or that our areas of agreement are transparent. Yet, I'm willing to engage in amateur (and partial) ethnographic research in order to think out loud about the possible significance and usefulness for "reading" the film of the congruence of our responses. And my interest in black cultural studies and Jacqueline Bobo's work on the necessity of addressing black spectator response convinces me that negotiating the differences and similarities u ithin racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized groups is important albeit incredibly difficult work for politically and theoretically engaged intellectuals. That the questions raised in doing such work won't be answered "once and for all" is all the more reason to do it. If by theory we mean "trying to account for" instead of producing a finished account or trajectory, then the slipperiness of something like "identity" or "black nationalism"-for example-is fecund ground for reconsidering our assumptions about representation, spectatorship, and reception.

5. While I am not persuaded by the particularities of Clyde Taylor's argument about positive and negative image discourse in the recent (volume 7, number 2) issue of Black Film Review, I agree with his sense that the debate itself is both central to and problematic within black film criticism.

6. No Respect (New York: Routledge, 1989): 14.

7. "Black Spectatorship," Screen 29.4 (Autumn 1988): 66

8. I'm using the word "black" instead of "African-American" because I want to keep before us an ongoing tension of race relations in the United States between people of African descent and all others here on this ground regardless of those others' cultural, natal, or political positions While people of various races and ethnicities have been constituted in various ways by the formidable plasticity and fecundity of racism in the United States and elsewhere, for much of the history that the production of Afro- or African-American Studies maps, racism has found its most virulent expression in the division of the U.S. public into black and white.

9. Articulated most succinctly in Robert Park's assertion that "the Negro is the lady of the races" (Race and Culture: Essays in the Sociology of Contemporary Man [Glencoe, IL.: Free Press, 1950]: 280). Indira Karamcheti has reminded me that in so doing Park was himself following Leo Frobenius's lead (private conversation, Wesleyan Center for the Humanities, December 4, 1992).

10. This film's screenplay was written by two white Americans. Given, however, the ubiquity of black nationalist cultural common sense, such authorship does not preclude either the representation of that common sense, or representation of its hysteria. And while I don't want to elide the complications inherent in the writers' relation to their material by falling back on theories of auteurship that would center the black director as the source of the film's cultural logic, it would be foolish to "write off" his input into the film.

11. Re my willingness to refer to a"blackaudience":In order to refer to any group constituted as a social fact, one risks reducing and simplifying the complexities of that group. On the other hand, what could any of us say if we were denied the rhetorical indulgence of referring to social collectivities? Much cultural production theory and commentary is predicated on speculation about possible audiences. It is on that ground and with the assistance of my chat with Towanda Williams, then, that I am willing to speculate about or attempt to account for such a group's response to this film. And by that means join the hordes who try to resist the heady pleasure of spinning a self-originating only close reading.

12. The Village Voice (Film Special), June 1991; interview with Donald Bogle.


13. As I asserted earlier: I do recognize the obvious difference(s) between us. And could write an essay about those differences as well as the correspondences between our respective "readings" of the film-and the possible epistemological statuses of the respective positions. (Sigh: all things in time.)

14. By one-third of the way through the movie we see the familial structures established that will be dissolved and reformed: family one, small Latino boy and mother; family two, John Hull (later orphaned) and his father; and family three, drug lord prince level-nephew, and drug lord king level-uncle. Any repro-narrativity possibilities of a latino/latina family combination are disrupted by John Hull's takeover of the Latino boy after his mother dies. Given the contingent nature of ethnic relations and identity politics in the current U.S. political mise-en-scene, this colonizing of the l.atino/Latina family combination by a black American
is complicated to say the very least.

15. 1 am indebted here to Eve Sedgwick's arguments, particularly those articulated in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press,1985).

16. I sometimes interchange the characters' names with the actors' names because I want to underscore the point that Lisa Jones (quoted earlier) makes: that black audiences refuse to accept that the "real" actors "disappear" into their roles. Whether or not dominant-race audiences make the same refusal under all or some circumstances is not my concern here. My concern-within the terms of the positive/negative debate around black film-is to foreground the ways in which a black audience fights off or can fight off racist and caricatured representations of "blackness," as well as the points at which the caricature (racist or not) can become overwhelmingly attractive.


Copyright 1992 Wahneema H. Lubiano

Back to Wahneema Lubiano front page I Back to Black Cultural Studies front page