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MOVIES : Fighting the ‘John Singleton Thing’ : Bill Duke tries to break out of the ‘ghetto-ization’ of filmmaking with ‘Deep Cover’

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In the upcoming film, “Deep Cover,” Larry Fishburne, as undercover cop Russell Stevens Jr., faces temptation as he tries to infiltrate an international drug ring: fast cars, snazzy threads, penthouse condos, beautiful women and untold millions. The last temptations of Christ were hardly less powerful--for anybody, much less a guy who has fought his way out of the ghetto.

“In three years, both of us will be worth half-a-billion dollars apiece,” says Jeff Goldblum as David Jason, a lawyer-turned-drug kingpin to his would-be partner. “You know what happens when you’re worth a half-billion dollars? You won’t be a nigger anymore. Your children will never be ‘niggers.’ They won’t be black. They’ll only be green.”

That line held particular resonance for the filmmaking team shooting “Deep Cover” last fall on the San Pedro docks. As he waited for machines to roll out the fog for the movie’s climax aboard a docked South American steamer, director Bill Duke expressed his own take on the so-called resurgence of “black films,” which had been instrumental in greenlighting a film like “Deep Cover” and which had changed the hue of many an African-American filmmaker, like Duke himself, from black to “green” in a town much taken with what has become known as “the John Singleton Thing.”

John Singleton, of course, is the 24-year-old director of “Boyz N the Hood,” the Columbia Pictures movie about the coming of age of a group of Los Angeles street toughs that was produced for $6 million and has grossed nearly $58 million to date. The Academy Award nomination for this first-time director has given added heft to the emergence of black directors, set off to a large extent by the string of widely publicized films by Spike Lee, the controversial director who is now lecturing at Harvard while finishing post-production work on his $33-million film biography of “Malcolm X.”

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In their wake have come such African-American film directors as Matty Rich (“Straight Out of Brooklyn”), Ernest Dickerson (“Juice”), Charles Burnett (“To Sleep With Anger”), Robert Townsend (“The Five Heartbeats”) and Mario Van Peebles (“New Jack City”).

But while the success of Lee and Singleton may have helped to give Duke his break into features from television, the director rejected the genre of “black films” as an unnecessary and perhaps harmful designation and one that he does not apply to “Deep Cover” or, for that matter, to the movie that marked his feature film debut, last year’s “A Rage in Harlem.”

“I’m not interested in making ‘black’ movies,” Duke said. “I’m interested in making movies that reflect reality as I perceive it. It really upsets me that the media insists on turning ‘Do the Right Thing’ or ‘Boyz N the Hood’ into ‘black films.’ They are American films. They may open the window on the black experience, but they had things to say to everybody. That’s why they were so successful.”

That, of course, is the hope for “Deep Cover” as much as it is for any of the movies currently in the studio pipelines that are targeted to black audiences--an audience that makes up 12% of the population but accounts for 25% of movie ticket sales. “Deep Cover,” in fact, is a case in point for a marketing strategy that continues to build on “The John Singleton Thing”: starting with a core audience, in this case blacks, and eventually crossing over into the mainstream.

But African-American filmmakers like Duke have become increasingly restive, if not resentful, of what might be construed as a new “ghetto-ization” of filmmaking. And though “Deep Cover” may be riding the momentum of the past couple years, its multiracial creative team and cast point to a future in which such narrow definitions might be, if not transcended, at least widened.

“I think it’s essential to get beyond the present focus on black films per se because it makes the cost of failure too high for us,” said Duke. “A flop by me or Robert Townsend or Charles Burnett or Ernest Dickerson is not perceived by the industry in the same way as a flop by a white filmmaker, like Scorsese, in terms of getting another chance at it. That window of opportunity for black filmmakers can shut just as fast as it was opened if we become the flavor of the month.”

Yet, despite the lackluster performance of Duke’s “A Rage in Harlem” at the box office ($10 million), the director seemingly had little problem getting the nod to make this picture. What helped, said Duke, is the “openness of a guy like Bob Shaye,” the chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, which is distributing the movie. Presumably, the director’s resume didn’t hurt, either, swollen as it is with acting credits (“Bird on a Wire,” “Predator,” “Commando”) as well as hundreds of credits for directing episodic television (“Cagney & Lacey,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Miami Vice”) and dramatic specials (“The Killing Floor,” “Raisin in the Sun”).

Still, the history of getting “Deep Cover” in front of the cameras is a textbook example of what Duke cited as the pitfalls in store when projects are developed as part of a trend.

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According to producer-writer Henry Bean, “Deep Cover” began as a collaboration between him and producer Pierre David as a follow-up to their 1990 hit, “Internal Affairs,” for Paramount. Bean and David envisioned “Deep Cover” as a fairly typical “crime thriller” about an undercover cop. From the start, Bean said that it never occurred to them that the lead would be played by a black actor. Though they had tailored “Internal Affairs” to be a vehicle for Andy Garcia--as a Latino whose ethnicity was central to his character--that was not the case with “Deep Cover.”

“We thought ‘Who are the stars who might play this?’ and by and large those guys are all white,” recalled Bean, occupying a director’s chair on the San Pedro set. “Eddie Murphy is the only guy who comes up when the question has nothing to do with race.”

In fact, it was former Paramount production executive Gary Lucchesi at Paramount, said Bean, who suggested that they revise the role to accommodate an African-American actor. At that time, the studio, impressed with the successes of Spike Lee, was looking for a film that they first could “niche-market” to blacks. Back at the drawing board for a script revision, Bean said he was intrigued by the idea. “The details of blackness gave the character a particularity and resonance that it otherwise didn’t have,” he said. “The dilemmas that were stock in an abstract form became less stock.”

This became dramatically apparent from the first scene of the film in which Russell Stevens Jr., as a young boy, witnesses the death of his father, a criminal who is shot in a petty robbery. In the course of the film, Stevens makes a concerted effort to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and crime that claimed his father, repressing the fears that he, too, is cut out for such a life. The temptation then to “go over” to the other side, a drug ring spearheaded by a Manuel Noriega-like figure, became all the more compelling.

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“It contained this notion, this horrible feeling which the character had,” said Bean, “that somehow he was supposed to be genetically predisposed to yield to the temptation. ‘I’m a black man and therefore I’m supposed to be a criminal.’ To me that’s the most exciting part of this movie.” Screenwriter Michael Tolkin was brought it to do a first graph and then Bean himself took over revising the script.

Asked if he, as a white male writer, was concerned about his ability to write authentically about the African-American experience, Bean replied that had the suggestion not come from Lucchesi, he would have been hesitant to assay the challenge on his own. However, once he embarked on the task, he trusted his writer’s imagination to determine what rang true and not true about the characters.

“White males write false white male characters all the time,” said Bean. “A cliche is easy, but I believe that a writer has a right to write about whatever he or she wants. I believe that I know blacks far better than Latins and I had little problem, for example, writing the Andy Garcia character in ‘Internal Affairs.’ Still, I reached an inert point and really felt at a loss in writing ‘Deep Cover,’ when it came to a point about the characters’ relationship to each other regarding their respective class. I felt stymied when the dialogue needed to reflect how black people feel about somebody like the Goldblum character with his assumptions of middle-class privilege. Everything I wrote seemed like a cliche. But once Bill and the actors came aboard, they helped me out a lot with those issues.”

While Bean and David were excited about the new direction, they were soon to discover they were developing a movie for a black actor that no studio was willing to greenlight at least in the winter of 1990. When they delivered Bean’s revised script to Paramount, the studio passed on the idea and placed the film in turnaround. According to David, part of the reason was Frank Mancuso’s tenure as studio head was ending (he would be fired in March 1991).

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“Gary Lucchesi was still enthusiastic about the idea,” recalled David. “But it was a time of great nervousness at the studio. There was a lot of turmoil.”

Bean and David shopped the script around town and were turned down by every major studio, some of whom, like Paramount, suggested they rewrite the lead role with a Caucasian. “It could easily have been revised,” said Bean, “but in my opinion, the ‘blackness’ gave the picture its worth.”

“The truth is,” said someone close to the production, “the studios didn’t believe at that time that a black lead could open the film strong enough to justify the risk.”

Then Van Peebles’ “New Jack City” opened strong in March 1991 and New Line, which had also passed on the film, reconsidered.

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Caught up in the fever occasioned whenever a film that is done for peanuts by comparative Hollywood standards yields a bundle, New Line saw in “Deep Cover,” budgeted below $8 million, a chance to go for the gold with relatively little risk. That conviction was further reinforced when “Boyz N The Hood” was released in the summer of 1991.

“I was impressed with ‘Boyz’ and the fact that it was well-done enough that a lot of white people were willing to see it,” said New Line’s Bob Shaye. “I felt ‘Deep Cover’ had the same crossover potential if it were an equally well-made film.”

Shaye, noting that the studio planned to spend $5 million to $6 million marketing the film, said that what he was looking for was not only a “product” that he felt his studio could promote well, but also a movie that could go beyond the genre of “crime thriller.” What impressed him about the script of “Deep Cover,” he said, was the fact that it was “unique in its dealing of black-white issues,” reflecting a contemporary dynamic that he had yet to see expressed in films.

“First and foremost, I wanted an entertaining film,” he said. “Beyond that, you could say that we’ve got problems in the ‘90s, they’re more and more in-our-face, and I think films that address those issues for whites as well as blacks in an intelligent, thought-provoking manner stand to do well at the box office.”

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He said it wasn’t essential that “Deep Cover” be made by a black director, but Duke was among the first choices. “We talked to a lot of different candidates, both black and white, and while I knew that Bill was a very skilled and thoughtful director, at first we didn’t necessarily think that the film was the best material for him to work on. But you have to look beyond a person’s work to try to perceive inchoate talent and I thought his suggestions and thoughts in the course of our meetings, and his willingness to listen, finally made him the best choice.”

When he received the script, Duke said that he was glad to read about a black protagonist who, for once, was not so much in conflict with the white mainstream as with himself. “The moral struggle Russell Stevens Jr. undergoes in the course of the film is something anyone can relate to,” he said.

Duke and Bean were determined to play to as wide an audience as possible while fulfilling their mandate to deliver a film that New Line could “niche market.” They were particularly keen to keep the casting as multiracial as possible even as the studio pushed for black actors. (“There was a lot of arguing from within over casting,” said Bean.) The writer-producer and Duke even toyed with idea of giving Stevens an estranged wife who was white but New Line, fearful that the issue of miscegenation might overshadow the main premise, nixed the idea. Ultimately, said Bean, they went with “what made sense psychologically.”

After the role of Russell Stevens Jr. was first offered to Denzel Washington (who turned it down), only two other actors were seriously considered: Wesley Snipes (“New Jack City”) and Larry Fishburne. Fresh from his role as Furious Styles in “Boyz N the Hood” and already the veteran of more than 20 movies, the 30-year-old Fishburne appeared to be the better choice. “Larry’s not your typical leading man,” said Duke. “He’s not a super-good-looking guy. But I wanted somebody who the audience could not only identify with but also believe in. Someone, who when he fell from grace, you could still believe that he had the possibility of being redeemed.”

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Fishburne saw Stevens as the first African-American hero to act as the eyes and ears of an action thriller, filling the same ethnic role Al Pacino served in “Serpico” or Garcia in “Internal Affairs.” The actor said that he was particularly intrigued with the tension in the character between escaping the past and acknowledging it within himself. He recognized Stevens’ struggle with assimilation as his own.

“I’m proud of the roles that I’ve played which have been specifically written as African-American,” he said. “But that’s not all that my career is about. It’s limiting for black actors to just be considered for ‘black’ roles. What I liked about this role was that it offered me wider psychological possibilities to play than a lot of the parts that I’ve been offered in the past. Stevens’ refusal to sway to temptation has as much or more to do with him as a decent human being than him as an African-American.”

At the same time, Fishburne said “Deep Cover” still managed to address many issues of relevance to the black community--drugs, fatherless families, violence--but with a new spin. “The drug problem has a brown face in this country,” he said, “but we don’t run the cartels, we don’t own the means of production. We’re just the mules who move it through the system or the victims who are caught up in it. The movie points this out at the same time it offers what I hope can be a role model for black youth who have been bombarded with negative images for so long. Here is one guy who’s tempted and who has to confront the past, but who is also aware, like Furious Styles, of all the wasted lives.”

Fishburne added that the authenticity of the script for “Deep Cover” was never a problem--"Bill and I didn’t hesitate to let our feelings be known when things sounded wrong but that wasn’t often the case.” Nor did the actor ever get a sense that the black experience was ever being unfairly appropriated. “Appropriation,” he said, “is a fact of life in a multiracial culture. But we should be fair about it. If whites are going to write about the black experience, then I think African-American actors should more often be considered for roles not specifically written from a racial point of view. I think it can only help improve things all around.”

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Like Fishburne, Duke believes that multiracial collaborations like “Deep Cover” represent one avenue of consolidating and building on the gains made by black filmmakers recently. “I think it’s Norman Mailer who often talks about the incredible intensity in race relations in America,” said the director. “There’s a tremendous power, an almost erotic release, to be leashed in blacks and whites working together. It’s sometimes so facilely evoked in today’s society that it loses its power. But when you can genuinely tap into it, there are few things better able to instruct or teach or entertain.”

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Clarification

The MPAA reports that blacks account for 12.6% of the American movie audience as a whole.

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