Movie Review: Dead Presidents (1995)
“They’ll risk everything for the ultimate score.”
Dead Presidents (1995)
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Cast: Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker
Synopsis: A Vietnam vet plans a robbery after struggling to adjust to civilian life upon his return from the war.
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When viewing Dead Presidents, the Hughes Brothers’ follow-up to Menace II Society, you could be forgiven for believing you were watching a gritty Blaxploitation movie from the 1970s, so closely does it adhere to that genre’s punchy, fast-moving style. Apart from a 20-minute trip to the torrid jungles of Vietnam, Dead Presidents takes place in the same ghetto world stalked by Shaft and Superfly, the boundaries of which are breached only by journeys to war or prison. But there’s a message at its heart which transcends the era in which it’s set, and which is unfortunately likely to remain relevant as long as there are wars.
The film’s episodic opening act, set in the late 1960s, plays like a routine teenage coming of age saga as it introduces us to Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), a likable young man earning a few dollars on a milk round with his friends, Skip (Chris Tucker – Friday, Rush Hour) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez). As school graduation draws near, and Anthony begins dating sweet girl-next-door Juanita (Rose Jackson), he decides to join the marines as a means of escaping from the future that appears to be mapped out for him. In Vietnam, each soldier finds his own way of coping with the horrors they witness: Skip gets high and screws whores, while Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine – Panther, Devil), another resident of Anthony’s neighbourhood, veers towards madness, taking gruesome souvenirs of his kills. For Chris, the only way to make it through is by insulating himself from the world beyond the confines of the jungle, which means shutting out all thoughts of Juanita and their baby girl, whom he’s never seen. Naturally, he returns from the conflict a changed man, to a largely uncaring world and a girlfriend who began seeing another man when he stopped replying to her letters.
Although the armed robbery (complete with robbers wearing distinctive white face make-up which is useful for concealing identities, but also makes it kind of difficult to blend in with the crowd when they’re pursued) featured heavily in Dead Presidents’ promotional material, the film is more concerned about the pressures and prejudices faced by poor young black men returning from what many considered to be a white man’s war. In the same way that these men found different ways to cope with the rigours of war, so they do with life in a disinterested and unthankful community. Skip descends into drug addiction, Cleon finds religion, and Anthony suffers from terrifying nightmares which leave him unable to satisfy Juanita sexually. Even worse, he discovers that, while he was away, the local pimp Juanita was seeing became something of a surrogate father to their little girl, and sees no reason for Anthony’s return to change that.
Movies about the legacy of the Vietnam War were nothing new by 1995, but Dead Presidents contributed something fresh to the subject by focusing on the lower-class black perspective – and provided a far more caustic treatment as a result. Veterans not only returned to a world far removed from the conflict in which they’d fought, but to one that failed to understand the deep psychological scars inflicted upon them, and Dead Presidents does a terrific job of subtly recording the cumulative damage caused by unthinking comments that serve only to demean everything veterans like Anthony had been through. And Michael Henry Brown’s screenplay takes care to avoid defining Anthony through a single life-decision or character trait, instead making him a fully-rounded character born with the misfortune of having the odds stacked against him.
It seems unjust that films like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter enjoy exaggerated reputations while Dead Presidents is largely overlooked or mistakenly classified as a heist movie. The Hughes Brothers have managed to deliver a powerful indictment of the way that the psychologically frail or damaged can be pushed into committing criminal acts of desperation by an uncaring and ungrateful society, and incarcerated by the government that taught them the skills to commit the crimes in the first place.
(Reviewed 3rd August 2016)
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