Dead Presidents (1995): Hughes Brothers Follow-Up to Menace II Society

Relevant as both social history and film art, “Dead Presidents” is the Hughes brothers’ ambitious follow-up to their spectacular debut, “Menace II Society.”

Released after Spike Lee’s “Clockers” and Carl Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Dead Presidents” was the third significant African-American film to get released by a major studio within a month. Though the twins were the youngest of the three teams, their film was the most emotionally unsettling.

The title is a slang term for paper money. Set in the Bronx, the movie tells an epic story through one individual’s experience. “Dead Presidents” concerns the devastating effects of the Vietnam War on a black Marine.

Spanning five years in the life of Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), the movie depicts a generation which was shaped–and distorted–by Vietnam. Despite some gruesomely violent scenes, the commentary on American society is presented with restraint.

A high-school senior with plans for the future, Anthony is a numbers runner for a pool hall owner, Kirby (Keith David), who lost a leg in Korea. Kirby and his father were war vets, and now Anthony enlists in the Marines. He’s joined by his pals Skip (Chris Tucker) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez).

Fighting with mates like the psychotic Cleon, whose idea of souvenirs are severed heads, puts a permanent mark on Anthony. “No bad habits,” he later tells his mother about the experience, “except a little killing, for my country, of course.”

Like other Vietnam movies, “Dead Presidents” shows that the country does not return the favor: Drugs have become a force in the neighborhood and there are no legitimate jobs.
Sadly bu significantly, the Bronx has become a symbol of urban despair. But when the tale begins, in 1968, it’s a vibrant multi-racial area.

Anthony’s experience affects his relationship with his girlfriend Juanita, who in his absence gives birth to his daughter. Since his goal is to survive, he grabs the first opportunity for change, even if it involves crime.

Though gloomy and despairing, the film has no “convenient villains” and refuses to indulge in stereotypes. The whites in Anthony’s world are no villains; even a pimp turns out to be a bright and provocative guy.

No, the fault seems to reside with the bigger, impersonal forces of racism and political indifference. Racial issues loom large over the character, as Skip says, “Vietnam is not our war.” Anthony finds a similar pamphlet on the battlefield. But the question is whose war is it, since more minorities soldiers had served in Vietnam than in any other American war.

Like “Menace II Society,” the ending is pessimistic. By the time Anthony gets involved with Juanita’s radical sister Delilah and begins to gain a new awareness, it’s too late for him to survive.