Wednesday October 4, 1995
Coming after Spike Lee's "Clockers" and Carl Franklin's "Devil in a Blue Dress," the Hughes brothers' "Dead Presidents" is the third significant work by an African American filmmaker to be released by a major studio within the last month. And though twins Allen and Albert Hughes are the youngest of the group, it is their film that is the most ambitious, the most unsettling and often the most powerful.
"Dead Presidents" (a slang term for paper money) is a film that is both expected and surprising, familiar and yet somehow different. Made with fluid skill and a passion for storytelling, its tale of how the Vietnam War and American society affect a black Marine remains accessible while confounding expectations. Set largely in a single neighborhood in the Bronx, this is an occasionally awkward film that still manages an epic feeling, one that has the ambition to tell a larger story through one individual's experience.
Given the critical and box-office success of their first effort, "Menace II Society," made when they were but 20 years old, it was inevitable that the Hughes brothers would be given carte blanche for their next project. But instead of the self-indulgence that usually results from this kind of free ticket, "Dead Presidents" is a film of unexpected heft and scope.
By focusing on just four or five years in the life of young Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), "Dead Presidents" (written by Michael Henry Brown of HBO's "Laurel Avenue") echoes the experience of a generation of men whose lives were distorted by Vietnam. And though there is as much violence as viewers of "Menace II" would expect, the film's strong comments on American society are made with restraint and noticeable lack of stereotyping, and are the more telling for it.
Though the northeast Bronx has become a symbol of urban wretchedness, when "Presidents" opens in 1968 (with a deliberately Andy Hardyesque scene of Anthony delivering milk) it was a multiracial area of tidy one-family houses. Anthony himself is a high school senior with a serious girlfriend named Juanita (Rose Jackson) but no definite plans for the future.
Responsible enough to work as a numbers runner for a pool hall owner named Kirby (another striking performance by "Clockers' " Keith David), he has difficulty focusing on a direction for his life. Because both Kirby, who lost part of a leg in Korea, and his own father are veterans, he opts to join the Marines and take his chances in Vietnam, where neighborhood pals Skip (Chris Tucker) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) soon join him.
Life in the combat zone takes up only 15 or 20 minutes of "Dead Presidents' " screen time, but it's long enough to demonstrate why soldiering in that charnel house with comrades like the psychotic Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), who prefers severed heads as souvenirs, puts a permanent mark on him. "No bad habits," he laconically tells his mother when he gets back to the Bronx, "except a little killing. For my country, of course."
His country, it turns out, does not return the favor. Drugs have become a force in the neighborhood but even worse, the jobs are disappearing, and what happened to Anthony overseas clouds all his relationships, especially that with girlfriend Juanita, who gave birth to his daughter while he was gone. All Anthony wants to do is to get over, to survive, and when an opportunity presents itself that is outside the law, his choice is inevitable.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of "Dead Presidents' " story is its refusal to indulge in stereotyping. Unlikely, even unsavory characters like a pimp named Cutty (strongly played by Clifton Powell) turn out to have provocative things to say. Though the feeling of despair that hovers around Anthony is inescapable, the film does without convenient villains to blame it on. The few white people that manage to penetrate into Anthony's world are more figures of indifference or even assistance than of malice.
What "Dead Presidents" is implicitly saying is that the fault lies with powerful but unseen forces of society-wide racism and indifference. Racial issues hover at the periphery, just outside of Anthony's consciousness for most of the film. His pal Skip says Vietnam "is not our war"; he finds a pamphlet saying the same thing on a bloody battlefield. By the time Anthony reacquaints himself with Juanita's radical sister Delilah (N'Bushe Wright) and begins to have a handle on the nature of the problem, it is too late.
Actor Larenz Tate galvanized "Menace II" with his performance as the thoughtlessly homicidal O-Dog, and his work here is equally impressive. While playing one or the other of Anthony's personalities would not be difficult, Tate is convincing both as the dreamy prewar innocent and the haunted Vietnam veteran. By making Anthony's terrible change believable, Tate gives the Hughes brothers' work an intimate, human quality it might not otherwise have.
"Dead Presidents" is marred by such sins of youth as the occasional awkward or obvious sequence and moments of excess. But working with their "Menace II" cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, the Hughes brothers manage visual nods to Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone while making the material completely their own. By taking a step back and looking at the world that came before, they've taken a major step ahead in their own filmmaking careers.
Dead Presidents, 1995. R, for strong graphic violence, language, a sex scene and some drug use. An Underworld Entertainment production, in association with Caravan Pictures, released by Hollywood Pictures. Directed by the Hughes brothers. Produced by the Hughes brothers. Executive producer Darryl Porter. Screenplay Michael Henry Brown. Story Allen & Albert Hughes and Michael Henry Brown. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler. Editor Dan Lebental. Costumes Paul A. Simmons. Music Danny Elfman. Production design David Brisbin. Art director Kenneth A. Hardy. Set decorator Karin Wiesel. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute. Larenz Tate as Anthony Curtis. Keith David as Kirby. Chris Tucker as Skip. Freddy Rodriguez as Jose. Rose Jackson as Juanita Benson. N'Bushe Wright as Delilah Benson. Bokeem Woodbine as Cleon.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times