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‘Dead Presidents’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1995


Allen Hughes;
Albert Hughes
Larenz Tate;
Keith David;
Chris Tucker;
N'Bushe Wright;
Freddy Rodriquez;
Bokeem Woodbine;
Clifton Powell;
Rose Jackson
Under 17 restricted

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"Dead Presidents" is like a shotgun blast in the face: It's that powerful, that lethal, that ugly.

Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes ("Menace II Society") from a script by Michael Henry Brown, this harrowing, hate-filled film is a kind of inner-city "Pilgrim's Progress." It begins in 1968 in the Bronx, where Anthony (Larenz Tate) and the other members of his class have graduated high school. For years, Anthony has been running numbers and doing odd jobs for his friend Kirby (Keith David), who oversees most of the neighborhood's illegal trade from his pool hall. But Anthony's mother has been putting pressure on him to be like his older brother and go to college.

Anthony isn't hearing that, though. He wants to see the world, so he joins the Marines for a hitch in Vietnam. If the streets of New York started the assault against Anthony's moral foundations, the war completes their destruction. Like many films dealing with that conflict, "Dead Presidents"—which is shot with a pyrotechnic flamboyance that recalls both Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola—presents the war as a psychedelic freak show in which American soldiers commit atrocious crimes. In the jungle, Anthony sees mankind at its lowest point, and his strategy for staying alive is to shut down the human side of himself.

While in country, Anthony doesn't become radicalized against the power structure that started what Vietcong propaganda has tagged "a white man's war." But when Anthony returns to the Bronx, few opportunities are awaiting him. He finally takes a job as a meat cutter, but, with one child by his girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), and another on the way, his wages are barely enough to make ends meet. If this weren't enough, the dulcet-voiced pimp (Clifton Powell) who had been taking care of Juanita while he was in the service has been sniffing around again, implying that Anthony isn't man enough to put food on the table.

When Anthony loses his job, he has already begun plans to knock off a Federal Reserve truck loaded with millions of dollars in old paper money that is being retired by the government. "Dead presidents" the bills are called, and in attempting to liberate a truckload of them, Anthony enlists the aid of Kirby, his old squad buddies Skip (Chris Tucker), Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) and Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), and Juanita's sister, Delilah (N'Bushe Wright), who joined the Black Panthers while he was away.

That Anthony's meticulously worked-out plan to knock over the truck goes tragically awry isn't the slightest bit unexpected. In fact, the Hughes brothers would have to completely reverse their despairing, deeply nihilistic view of the world for even the slightest ray of optimism.

As they did in "Menace II Society," the two look at black life in America and see little reason for hope. They emphasize the depravity and the gore, both in Vietnam and in the streets. And even though the filmmakers aren't required to offer a prescription to deal with their description of our problems, their message here seems facile and repetitive. Not to mention confused.

In "Dead Presidents," the Hughes brothers may want to indict the white power elite that sends black men off to do their fighting for them and then gives them nothing in return. But they don't make their case. Instead, they present a confused, disturbing film that paints African Americans in such a violent, antisocial light that you'd expect it was made by the worst sort of racist.

Dead Presidents, at area theaters, is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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