Before 1993 Albert and Allen Hughes were young and talented film makers. Following great success of their feature film debut Menace II Society, they were viewed as very promising film makers. Part of that promise was kept two years later in Dead Presidents, their period drama exploring many of the same issues as Menace II Society.
Hughes Brothers script, co-written with Michael Henry Brown, is inspired by true story and tells all-too-familiar story of many young black Americans who grew up in late 1960s. The plot is set in Bronx, in a time when that particular part of America still had to earn its sad inner-city reputation. Anthony Curtis (played by Larenz Tate) is young black man who recently graduated from high school. Despite poverty and business association with Kirby (played by Keith David), illegal lottery operator, Anthony still has promising future - he could either try to go to college or enlist in Marines. Taking the example of Kirby, and to utmost horror of his family, he opts for the latter and goes to Vietnam War. Following few horrible years in the jungle he returns to his old neighbourhood only to see it changed for the worse. His best friends became drug addicts; his girlfriend Juanita (played by Rose Jackson), with whom he had a child, had to be supported by local pimp Cutty (played by Clifton Powell); relative prosperity of past years was replaced by unemployment, hopelessness and crime; even Kirby got squeezed out of business in such circumstances. Anthony still tries to do the right thing and works in butcher shop, but when he loses that job, there seems to be only one way for him to survive - attack on a truck carrying "dead presidents", old banknotes which are about to be burned by the government. He gathers his friends and associates, gets help from Juanita's radical sister Delilah (played by N'Bushe Wright) and plans the robbery.
Plot of Dead Presidents in some ways resembles plot of Menace II Society - in both films protagonist is young man who succumbs to the pressures of the environment and makes wrong choices. But Dead Presidents has more of an epic scope and the forces that lead the protagonist to his doom are more visible, with protagonist succumbing to temptation at the very end. Period setting makes Dead Presidents more interesting, because Hughes Brothers have opportunity not only to recreate past with exotic clothes, hairstyles or pop music, but also to explore the ways in which cryptoracist policies, Vietnam War and bleak economic realities of 1970s transformed black inner cities of America, creating some problems that are relevant even today. All those forces and their impact on the protagonist and his surrounding are embodied in various characters, each of them portrayed with great skill by many talented actors. Larenz Tate, who made impressive job as young inner-city sociopath in Menace II Society, is here even more convincing as confused, young man whose innocence and integrity is going to be tested by dark forces beyond his control and comprehension.
Realistic approach of Hughes brothers also manifested itself in very graphic and naturalistic display of violence. In case of Menace II Society, even those critics uncomfortable with realistic displays of man's inhumanity to man had to agree that shocking the audience with blood and gore was legitimate. In case of Dead Presidents, Hughes brothers weren't that lucky - many proclaimed the violence in this film to be gratuitous and claimed that the segment showing the Vietnam hell had to be left on cutting floor. The real problem of Dead Presidents is the ending, which also has a lot of graphic violence, but, on the other hand, doesn't seem realistic. The robbery at the end looks like it belongs more to more surreal Hong Kong action film than serious social drama. Viewer's suspension of disbelief suffers for it, and the irony of the very final scenes is lost. Dead Presidents perhaps failed to become another The Deer Hunter, but talent of Hughes brothers deserves viewer's attention even when their results don't meet such high standards.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on September 23rd 2003)
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