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