I’ve heard people complain that Dead Presidents tries to do too many things. Some see it as an unsatisfying cross between a gangster flick and a war movie. Others see it as an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to chronicle the Black experience in America. Many people complain that it goes on too long and has no focus.
Personally I don’t feel like Dead Presidents falls into any one category. Though directors Allen and Albert Hughes have made genre films, this is one case where I think they were reaching for something different. And this may be part of the reason why some people don’t respond to it. Dead Presidents doesn’t follow the usual dramatic arc. It’s more open ended. The story follows a young Black man named Anthony Curtis as his life unfolds. We first see him as a young man from a comfortable, middle-class home in the Bronx, then as a soldier in Vietnam, and finally as a vet dealing with poverty and alcoholism.
The Hughes Brothers are talking about America here, and there’s no doubt they see the system as destructive. But this isn’t a social tract and they don’t make Anthony a helpless victim. It’s more complicated than that. We see that as a young man Anthony could have gone to college and he decided to enlist instead. We see how black men were used as fodder during the Vietnam War, but the film makes it clear that blacks weren’t the only ones who were traumatized and crippled by the violence. We see Anthony come back home to a family he’s totally unprepared for, and how instead of dealing with the situation he gradually shuts down.
No doubt the Hughes Brothers could have jacked up the drama by giving us a bad guy to blame. But that also would have simplified things, and in Dead Presidents the directors are aiming for something more complex. They give us a sweeping view of a society where the deck is stacked. The country is always fighting a war somewhere, poverty is a prison that few can escape, and drugs are readily available for those who want an easy way to kill the pain.
Larenz Tate gives a moving performance in the leading role. Anthony is an average guy, a decent guy. Even as he sinks deeper into depression and bitterness, Tate keeps us with him. We can see that this young man could have done so much better, which makes it even harder to watch his downhill slide. Keith David plays Kirby, who lost a leg in the Korean War and now runs a local bar. Kirby is kind of a father figure to Anthony, and David plays the role with a touching mix of toughness and affection. The older man wants to help his young friend, but he’s caught in the same trap. Juanita is the mother of Anthony’s child, and she knows she’s caught in a trap. Rose Jackson’s nuanced performance shows us that even though Juanita loves her man, she can’t hide her mounting frustration. She wants to build a better life, and she won’t wait around forever.
Desperation finally drives Anthony to desperate measures. He and Kirby plan to rob an armored car. The heist goes horribly wrong. In the end, Anthony, Kirby and their accomplices all end up under arrest or six feet under. When Anthony is in court waiting for sentencing, he’s given a chance to speak and mentions his service in Vietnam. The judge, a WWII vet, is outraged, and tells the prisoner that Vietnam wasn’t even a “real war”. Then he hands down a sentence of fifteen years to life.
And the last we see of Anthony, he’s on a bus heading for prison.