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The Black Neo-noirs of the ’90s

One of noir’s primary characteristics is its skewering of society’s ills. But not until films like ‘Deep Cover’ and ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ did the genre turn its eye toward race and racism.

Brent Schoonover

There were dead bodies, stolen goods, knotty plots, amoral protagonists, and irredeemable villains. And no—we’re not talking about the film noir era of the 1940s and ’50s. From late 1989 to early 2001, noir made a stunning return to Hollywood, splitting off into different subgenres and producing some of the most compelling films of the era—from The Usual Suspects to L.A. Confidential, from Devil in a Blue Dress to Basic Instinct. Join The Ringer as we revisit the surprising reemergence, unexpected fracturing, and profound impact of the neo-noir movement in the ’90s.

Because of its identifying characteristics—antiheroes, shady figures oozing with duplicity, massive conspiracies—noir is one of film’s most incisive genres, eternally striving to hold a light up to society and expose how ugly it can be. The noirs of the genre’s prime often featured specific archetypes: hard-boiled private dicks seeking the truth, cunning dames with ulterior motives, and power brokers pulling strings from the shadows. Think Eddie Mars, an enterprising goon with his hands in all of the dirt in 1946’s The Big Sleep, or the villainous Noah Cross, hoarding resources and dark secrets in 1974’s Chinatown. But even as noir established itself as an effective vehicle for examining the sociopolitical zeitgeist of the time, the genre largely avoided race and racism, two core elements of American society no matter the era. That changed in the 1990s.

After the Blaxploitation film bubble burst toward the end of the 1970s, Black cinema was scarce until the middle of the 1980s, when Spike Lee’s success sparked new interest from studio executives and gave rise to a new generation of Black filmmakers. New opportunities (however short-lived) arrived with the 1990s, as Hollywood slowly began acknowledging the financial viability of films about Black people helmed by Black directors. That led to a wide variety of approaches and results, especially as it concerns noir. “I see it as a broader awareness around Black film and Black filmmakers specifically to that time, even though [the Black noirs] don’t necessarily reflect the same thing that, say, some of the more popular movies like Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City would have represented,” says Todd Boyd, who studies the intersection of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California. “By the time you get to the early ’90s, I think there’s an awareness and these neo-noir films benefit from that awareness. But, at least in hindsight, they don’t seem like a cohesive set of films.”

Still, each of the Black neo-noirs of the ’90s have the unavoidable subject of race at their core. 1992’s Deep Cover and One False Move, along with 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress, do exceptional jobs of highlighting how race and racism function in society. Each adheres closely to the noir format, while race colors how characters are perceived, the obstructions they face, and how they navigate their worlds as a result. Meanwhile, 1995’s Dead Presidents uses noir, among other genres and styles, to depict the extremes a group of Black veterans resorted to after being neglected by a country they risked their lives for.

The topic of race makes many uncomfortable; it often goes unacknowledged due to a purposeful lack of range or a debilitating defensiveness. But the neo-noirs of the ’90s revealed how race affects everything—from interpersonal dynamics all the way up the ladder to criminal conspiracies.

Bill Duke didn’t want Deep Cover to be seen as a “Black film.” He simply wanted to make a straightforward movie centering race in a tale about law enforcement, the drug trade, and identity. The film was loosely based on Michael Levine’s 1990 book of the same name, in which the former DEA agent detailed how politics and discord within the agency thwarted an undercover operation into Latin American drug trafficking in the United States. Deep Cover was originally conceived with a white lead in mind, but an executive at Paramount, the film’s distributor before it landed at New Line Cinema, suggested that the role be rewritten for a Black actor. That decision dramatically shifted the film’s perspective, which is made apparent in the second scene of the movie, in which a white DEA agent (Charles Martin Smith) asks Officer Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) whether he knows “the difference between a Black man and a nigger?” He responds without so much as flinching: “The nigger’s the one that would even answer that question.”

Fishburne brings profound layers to Stevens, a cop who, as a child, sees his small-time-criminal father killed in front of him and naively vows to improve the world from inside a racist institution. The DEA recruits him to go undercover as a drug dealer in Los Angeles, where he wrestles with his own morals as he advances within the business. The most fascinating relationship in the film is the dynamic between him and David Jason (Jeff Goldblum, cranked up to 11), a power-hungry lawyer employed by the same drug syndicate Stevens infiltrated. When they become partners, it becomes clear that Jason enjoys dangling his white privilege over Stevens as much as he enjoys his proximity to Stevens. “The reality is that he could get into doors that we can’t, and to assume that he doesn’t understand and appreciate that fact is a major error,” Duke says. “Because he’s not saying he’s better than [Stevens], he’s saying that he has access to things we’ll never have access to.”

Deep Cover has a plethora of stylistic flourishes that signal its noir leanings—shadowy backstreet conversations; scenes illuminated by blue, red, and green light; voice-over to add context—but it’s the use of race in the film’s institutional critique that truly anchors it in the genre. Not only is Stevens poisoning the very communities he wanted to improve, he discovers that the DEA’s efforts are being compromised by the State Department’s attempts to protect the U.S. government’s political interests. Hector Guzman (René Assa), an ambassador who goes fishing with George H.W. Bush, is at the top of the chain that’s flooding the streets with drugs. Low-level street dealers—Black people, to be explicit—are the ones demonized, but they aren’t the architects. “I really wanted to make the film based upon that, because it got behind the scenes of this,” Duke says. “We’re sometimes seen as these monstrous people who are simply self-destructive, but a lot of money is dumped into drugs and all kinds of things in our neighborhoods. It’s not us.”

Made three years after Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress goes back in time to the halcyon days of noir, telling a vintage mystery tale from the vantage point of the people whom the genre historically overlooked. The film, which bears the same title as the 1990 Walter Mosley novel that it was based on, follows Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington), a veteran looking to make an honest living in 1948 Los Angeles. His goal is simple: respectability, equality, the American Dream. He’s approached by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a menacing presence who pays him to locate Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), the missing fiancée of Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), a mayoral candidate who recently dropped out of the race. Operating as a private detective purely out of necessity, Rawlins uncovers murder, double-crossing, and the ties between the underworld and high society in post–World War II Los Angeles. “When you’re mixed up in somethin’, you better be mixed up to the top,” he says. “And I believed somehow that I could live through this bad dream I was having about pretty girls, and gangsters, and standing face-to-face with the richest man in town.”

Race underlines every situation Rawlins finds himself in. He lost his job at the aircraft factory under prejudiced circumstances. He’s hired by Albright because of the places he can go as a Black man: Monet has what Albright calls “a predilection for the company of negroes,” and Rawlins can easily access the juke joints where she’s been seen. However, Rawlins is still impeded by the racist realities of 1940s Los Angeles: He’s beaten and harassed by the LAPD, confronted by a group of white teens at a pier in Malibu for being somewhere he “doesn’t belong,” and forced to tolerate Albright’s racist threats and smug sense of entitlement. Everything is considerably more difficult because he lives in a world that doesn’t value his service or recognize his humanity. “Noir focuses on unearthing the hypocrisy and one of the great hypocrisies in this country is the concept of ‘the land of the free’ or the idea that everybody has equal rights,” says Carl Franklin, who wrote and directed Devil in a Blue Dress. To Franklin, racism is “just another layer of opposition” that Rawlins has to wade through.

This rings even truer when Rawlins discovers the truth about Monet. Whatever unease he has about searching for and being seen with a white aristocrat turns to shock when she later reveals that she’s half-Creole and that Carter’s opponent, Matthew Terell (Maury Chaykin), discovered this, forcing Carter to drop out of the race and pay her to leave town. She obtained photos exposing Terell’s pedophilia to use as blackmail, which prompted Albright’s search for her, but Carter still rejects her in the end because love doesn’t trump his racism. Monet thought passing for white would ensure a better life, but her fate emphasizes the film’s underlying point: Whatever freedoms the American Dream promises are unattainable for Black people. Any incremental progress will always come with obstacles and restrictions, even if you can conceal your Blackness. Monet was a marginalized Black woman who traveled west in pursuit of something ultimately impossible.

One False Move opens with Fantasia (Cynda Williams) luring friends to their deaths at the hands of her volatile boyfriend, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), and the calculated, sadistic Pluto (Michael Beach). The trio flees Los Angeles, stolen money and cocaine in tow, after the LAPD gets intel that they’re headed to Star City, Arkansas. The decision to travel there was made by Fantasia, who went by Lila Walker while she was growing up there. After a troubled youth in which she was abandoned by her white father, she fled to Los Angeles to become an actress and got trapped in the city’s underbelly. Her entire motivation for returning to Star City is to reunite with her son, who was born after an affair with the town’s sheriff, Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton). Similar to Monet, Fantasia’s complexities mean she doesn’t fit into the tragic mulatta trope of biracial women cast aside by society and doomed to horrible fates. Both are victims of circumstance, but victimhood isn’t the extent of their existence. Both are catalysts for the actions in their respective films, but neither is the classic femme fatale, a noir staple Franklin describes as “a misogynistic attitude that we have about women.”

“In One False Move, she does make the decision to go to Arkansas and steal the money. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Jennifer Beals’s character is out there trying to find evidence she can use against Matthew Terell so her guy can run for mayor and they can live happily ever after,” he says. “In some ways they are active femme fatales, but I do think what’s good about them is that we did look under the hood and see the mechanism that caused those women to be in those situations. And in both cases, it revolved around race.”

Fantasia ultimately leads the criminal trio to its demise in Star City after trying to negotiate her safe exit from her hometown in exchange for serving up Ray and Pluto for arrest. These controversial choices fuel the polarity in response to her character. “I looked at her as a flawed human being who was desperate and got mixed in with the wrong type because of her original circumstances,” Williams says. “That happens to a lot of people; they don’t go out looking for trouble, it finds them. Then it’s just about survival.”

One False Move may not register as a “Black film” the same way Devil in a Blue Dress does, and Franklin notes that critics didn’t even know he is Black. “I guess they weren’t associating me with the same guy who was an actor,” he says with a laugh. But race is undeniably important to its subtext. Dixon, a small-town cop who’s overjoyed to be collaborating with the LAPD, is so unsophisticated and set in his ways that he doesn’t even realize he’s made a racist joke in the presence of a Black man who he’s invited into his home until his wife kicks him under the table. “My favorite line in the movie is his wife saying: ‘He watches TV, but I read nonfiction,’” Williams says. “Because she’s a reader and educated, she knows that you don’t do that.”

It all adds up to one of the best neo-noir films of the ’90s—one that took a genre that was traditionally very white and gave it more depth by considering the role of race in society, even in the most subtle ways. But as Franklin points out, other films incorporated noir traits during the ’90s and were categorized as such even though they didn’t fit the traditional definition perfectly. “I think that sometimes, people kind of stretch the definition to allow certain films to qualify as noir,” he says. However, films like One False Move, Deep Cover, and Devil in a Blue Dress were the result of greater interest in Black film and Black filmmakers that also cracked the door open for a new generation of directors, who then took their own creative liberties with a classic, once-predominantly white genre.

Allen Hughes is still amused when recalling reviews that referred to his and his twin brother Albert’s 1993 debut, Menace II Society, as “a classic noir film.” The bleak coming-of-age drama uses voice-over to relay the ill-fated Caine’s (Tyrin Turner) inner thoughts and utilizes some of noir’s stylistic attitudes. (Caine’s father—played by Samuel L. Jackson, in all of his motherfuckerly glory—kills an associate who owed him money during a card game beneath sinister red lighting.) But it doesn’t perfectly fit the genre’s mold. “It wasn’t a classic noir film in the Chinatown sense,” says Hughes. “Only in the way that it was shot, how it moved, and some of the characters in it.” The Hughes brothers used classic noir as a loose guide for their own work. “We studied that shit, whether it was The Asphalt Jungle all the way up to Chinatown,” Hughes says. “So they made their way into movies like Menace II Society and Dead Presidents.”

“Too ambitious” is how Hughes remembers some critics describing Dead Presidents, the follow-up to Menace II Society. “It’s a coming-of-age tale, then you have a little war movie in there, then you have this noir-heist caper flick,” Hughes says. Dead Presidents is three movies in one, and the third act is where the crime-noir element delves deeper into race. That’s when Anthony (Larenz Tate), racked by PTSD, struggling to provide for his family, and feeling neglected by the U.S. government after multiple tours in Vietnam, resolves to rob the Bronx’s Federal Reserve Bank along with his friends and fellow veterans (Chris Tucker, Freddy Rodríguez, Keith David, and Bokeem Woodbine), as well as his girlfriend’s militant younger sister (N’Bushe Wright). “If we were wiser,” Hughes says, “we probably would’ve centered it on the heist and maybe flashed back to Vietnam at certain points.”

Even if their movies didn’t always stick the landing, the Hughes brothers’ spirit of experimentation was a result of not being classically trained. “Even though my brother and I had studied film, we were operating off instinct. We were self-taught for the most part,” Hughes says. He also notes that he and his brother, who were just 20 when they directed Menace II Society, were among the first crop of directors born directly from hip-hop culture. “A lot of the other guys were a generation ahead of us and were still making great films, but with a different attitude than what we were bringing in the early ’90s—which, on the heels of hip-hop’s rise, was: ‘I’m not taking any shit from the man,’” he says. The brothers felt empowered to mold the look, feel, and direction of their work as a Generation X middle finger to the system, à la N.W.A and Tupac. And as part of one of the first generations to grow up on hip-hop, Hughes says their approach was inspired by its innovation and edge. “You’re chopping, you’re screwing, you’re DJing,” he says. “It’s coming from the streets, it’s not coming from academia.”

In addition to their willingness to push technical boundaries, the filmmakers chose to focus on structural inequality. Both Menace II Society and Dead Presidents feature noir’s inherent social commentary. “The dual existence that Black people have to live with in society lends itself to noir narratives because of the subculture aspect of it,” Hughes says. “That doesn’t mean all Black experiences, but when you talk about inner cities, there’s going to be a criminal element: prostitution, drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, speakeasies, or whatever. And that’s what noir is.”

For the sake of precision, not all crime dramas should be classified as noir. New Jack City may feature Nino Brown explaining that the crack epidemic is bigger than him, but it has stronger pro–War on Drugs overtones than ire for the bigger systemic issues that led to crack ravaging communities across the nation. Even if it was unintentional, it punched down where Deep Cover and Devil in a Blue Dress punched up. Many of these films made during the ’90s bear stylistic touches that led to a broadening of how noir was defined. They’re also the result of Hollywood’s realization that there was a market for Black stories told by Black people—even if some of them skewered traditional power structures. But the films that stuck closest to the traditional noir model stood out because, on top of their flair, they were brutally honest about race. And when it comes to matters of race in America, the truth is always ugly. “We know that the elephant in the room is always lurking,” Franklin says. “Let’s just say it’s hard to avoid it.”

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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