Someone cue “Anniversary” by Tony! Toni! Toné!
On August 25, 1999, the now cult classic movie In Too Deep made its cinematic debut. The film follows the journey of a recent cadet graduate from the police academy, Jeffrey Cole (Omar Epps), who has aspirations of going undercover to help take down high-profile career criminals. After stints with busting low-to mid-level criminals, he gets to go after the big fish, Dwayne Gittens, AKA God (LL Cool J). This is when the brilliance of the film ensues.
To be Black in America often means that one exists within the intersection of multiple identities. In the case of Jeff, he is a Black man, a police officer, someone who grew up in the projects, and a righteous person, with righteousness perhaps being the most significant to the storyline.
Though there are many perspectives from which the film can be viewed, it is the psychological lens that is the most intriguing and for which the film doesn’t get enough credit. Sure, we can focus on the internal struggle that occurs when Jeff is torn between his duty as a police officer and loyalty to his race as a Black man, especially when considering the injustices that have been forced upon the Black community at the hands of the judicial system, but what is more interesting is the connection and bond that develops between God and J. Reid, Jeffrey’s undercover moniker.
J. Reid and God first encounter each other during God’s annual Thanksgiving dinner for those in the community. This scene is intended to humanize God who up until this point has been depicted as a ruthless drug lord. But what it actually does is allow the two to view each other as equals in both strength and duplicity when Jeff spots for God during his boxing exercise after saying that he only knew a little bit about the sport. It is during this moment that God first acknowledges that there may be more than meets the eyes with J. Reid and God takes a slight interest in the man and potential worker before him.
What becomes apparent throughout the film is that God has built himself into a giant amongst those around him–hence the name–and while this is beneficial to instill the fear he needs for control, it has also left him alone and vulnerable, especially after the betrayal of his childhood best friend, Frisco, who tried to make a pass at the mother of God’s child.
This is the golden opportunity J. Reid needs to move close enough to God to become second in command. God admits that he likes and admires J. Reid because he has never seen him back down from anyone or anything, including him. It is also apparent to him that these same character traits are why one of the two will have to destroy the other in the end. Even though the progression of their friendship seems forced to meet the pace of the film, it is still clear to see why God would be so willing to allow someone like J. Reid into his intimate and inner circle. Power by brute force can be a lonely road, but humans form and thrive off true connections with others. God responded to Frisco’s betrayal by becoming even more solitary, but the lost friendship created a void in his life. J. Reid was able to understand this facet of the human condition and used it to his advantage.
In time, Jeffrey crosses the line and not only internalizes the character of J. Reid but develops a true friendship with God.
There are moments in the film when Jeff’s commanding officers grow concerned that he is in too deep and needs to be pulled from undercover work, but J. Reid convinces those in the highest positions of power that it is his ability to appear so authentic that has allowed him to get close to God, something that is unprecedented and cannot be done by anyone but him. Though there is no physical violence, these are some of the scenes in the film that are the hardest to watch. Other than his immediate commanding officer, it is apparent that none of the other officials in positions of power are concerned about the well-being of Jeff. Instead, it is apparent that they are willing to go to whatever means it takes to bring down God, even if it means that a Black police officer’s mental wellbeing is fractured in the process.
While the film does make it clear that no one has been able to infiltrate God’s operation prior to J. Reid, what it only hints at is that it is Jeff’s background that allows him to understand the crime world of God, but is also nearly his undoing in maintaining a grasp on the man and policing career that he has created.
Jeff grew up in the projects similar to the ones that God now controls, which is what inspired him to want to become a cop and put away criminals who caused R.I.P. to be placed before the names of many kids in his communities. Jeff never fully expounds on why he decided to follow the career path of a police officer to bring about change, but understanding the complex and often tenuous relationships of police officers and Black communities, both then and now, it would have been worth exploring. While this is only brushed over in the film to provide context to the idea of purpose and righteousness that Jeff now possesses in his current work, what’s even more interesting to assess is how a man like God might have seemed like a hero to Jeff at one point in time.
It’s no surprise that the first revered and mythological beings kids encounter in their lives could be the men in their communities who have achieved a degree of local celebrity status, a level of power and control in a world of chaos–even if they’ve attained that power by existing on the outskirts of the law. Even if these men held occupations that were illegal and damaging to the community, their charitable acts and grand gestures for those in need could easily create an internal conflict, or even a cognitive dissonance, in the minds of the recipients when these acts are empowering them and the community. This is the exact scenario in which Jeff first encounters God–at his annual Thanksgiving feast for the community.
Furthermore, for a rookie who was intent upon proving himself and his value to an organization, God offered J. Reid just that. When you juxtapose the desires of Jeff, to what God offered J. Reid, it isn’t hard to conceptualize how a true bond could have formed between the two. Jeff desired a brotherhood and a cause, which is what lead him to pursue a career as a police officer. God offered J. Reid that same thing. Jeff had to show and prove his dedication and ability to the force before he was allowed to tackle larger operations for the force. God required the same thing, but he also quickly saw J. Reid as an equal, which is something that he wasn’t readily offered from his fellow officers in blue. Jeff grew up to have a strong internal compass of right and wrong, just and unjust, which requires rules and discipline. God, with his own set of rules and requirements, offers J. Reid a different rule book to play by but which still commands commitment and an integral standard of right and wrong, permissible versus inexcusable. Though many would say he lost himself, the reality may actually be he found a part of himself that he didn’t know existed.
When the task force finally has enough evidence to arrest God, it is apparent that J. Reid is uncertain of whether or not he actually wants to allow this to happen. He appears to be in such a state of uncertainty that he points his gun at the arresting officer and has to be coerced into dropping his weapon. Then, when he is offered the opportunity to do the honor of reading God his rights, he is frozen in his own mind and unable to move. Both God and J. Reid appear to be horrorstricken by what is occurring. God is so aghast by the realization that J. Reid is a cop that he yells from the window of the police car that J. Reid isn’t a cop but a sellout. Had he made the right decision? Was he a sellout? Had he committed a deep racial betrayal by choosing the brotherhood of police to the bond and brotherhood that he had fostered with God and those under his command? It is at this moment that J. Reid storms aways and he appears most distrustful of the choice he made.
But one of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience is free will and the ability to choose who we are and who we desire to be. Somewhere within himself his ideals of what is righteous and just eventually lead him back to stability and oneness within himself. Once J. Reid was able to reconcile all that had occurred during his time undercover he eventually found his way back to Jeff and used his experiences to train future generations of cadets.
Criticism of the sophistication of the script has ensued over the years. One significant criticism is that the plot doesn’t delve deep enough. On this stance, I have to agree. Given that Jeff is a Black police officer, the prospect and coverage of what this might mean in terms of identity are never fully covered in the film. However, there is one scene when Jeff attempts to tell two police officers who see him having a misunderstanding on a city street that he is an undercover police officer and that he is willing to show them his badge. When the officers don’t seem to believe him the situation escalates on both ends and Jeff is arrested. While there is an undertone here of racial profiling, it is never unpacked, which may be the greatest disservice of the movie.
One thing that is not to be questioned however is the stellar performances of the actors. In addition to Epps and LL, there are supporting and cameo roles from many film and cultural icons, such as Nia Long, who plays the love interest who helps to anchor Jeff back in reality, Pam Grier, who was sorely underused as a detective in the film, but has a moment to shine during the final arrest scene, Mya, Jermaine Dupri, Hill Harper, Aunjanue Ellis, Veronica Webb and many more who help to bring depth and humanity to this classic film.
Here’s to celebrating twenty years!
Porscheoy Brice is an editor at Shadow And Act. She is also the editor-in-chief of msmalcolmhughes.com. She is a Chicago, IL native. In the words of the genius Jay-Z, she is “Pretty, Witty, Girly, Worldly; One who likes to party, but comes home early.” You can follow her on social media @msmalcolmhughes.
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