×

Dead Presidents

In all respects an extremely ambitious follow-up to their crackling debut, "Menace II Society," the Hughes Brothers' mordant "Dead Presidents" may eventually box itself into a narrative dead end, but its muscular engagement of weighty themes and explosive situations makes it a powerful drama.

With:
Anthony Curtis - Larenz Tate
Kirby - Keith David
Skip - Chris Tucker
Delilah Benson - N'Bushe Wright
Jose - Freddy Rodriguez
Juanita Benson - Rose Jackson
D'Ambrosio - Michael Imperioli
Devaughn - David Barry Gray
Lt. Dugan - Jaimz Woolvett
Mrs. Curtis - Jenifer Lewis
Mr. Curtis - James Pickens Jr.
Cutty - Clifton Powell
Betancourt - Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez
Cowboy - Terrence Howard
Ramsuer - Jean Claude La Marre
Cleon - Bokeem Woodbine

In all respects an extremely ambitious follow-up to their crackling debut, “Menace II Society,” the Hughes Brothers’ mordant “Dead Presidents” may eventually box itself into a narrative dead end, but its muscular engagement of weighty themes and explosive situations makes it a powerful drama. A potent social panorama from a black perspective spanning the convulsive transitional years of 1968-74, this thoughtful, often grisly and depressing pic could almost serve as a gritty, sobering riposte to the merry political obliviousness of “Forrest Gump,” which traversed some of the same territory from a distinctly different perspective.

Story’s downward spiral and despairing blacks-as-victims framework may prove a turnoff for some younger ethnic viewers, but meaty reviews and film’s undeniable quality should draw a good mix of serious audiences from across the racial spectrum. Pic bowed at the New York Film Festival Sept. 30.

Surprising in the amount of territory it covers and concerns it addresses, this large-canvas, highly episodic saga spews out so many ideas that it arguably bites off more than it can chew. Building momentum as it sends its young protagonist through an ever-growing number of unexpected and harrowing experiences, the film ends up having to simplify or toss away many of the issues it presents, and finally lets itself down by cramming its outstandingly diverse characters and notions into a rigid genre format in the final half-hour. Aftergenerating so much electricity and promise through most of the running time , feeling at fade-out is, unfortunately, one of unsettled disappointment and smothering hopelessness.

Explicitly revealing the meaning of its title in a credit sequence featuring burning U.S. currency, pic begins unfurling in leisurely, almost jocular fashion. In a relatively proper, lower middle-class Bronx neighborhood of 1968, the good-natured, somewhat naive 18-year-old Anthony (Larenz Tate) is just finishing high school. While he may run numbers for tough but fair-minded pool hall operator Kirby (Keith David) on the side, and isn’t inclined to follow his studious brother Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) to college, the well-reared Anthony is far from likely criminal material.

His best buddies are the somewhat crazy, life-of-the-party Skip (Chris Tucker) and the unpredictable Jose (Freddy Rodriguez). As for the ladies, Anthony’s girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), takes him to bed for the first time on graduation night, but all her imploring can’t sway him from his surprising decision to enlist in the Marines and go to Vietnam.

A half-hour in, action jumps to the war, and for 20 intense minutes, pic chronicles Anthony’s coming-of-age under fire as he, in the company of Skip and Jose, operates with great efficiency as part of an elite unit. Most grotesque incidents involve the obsessive blood lust of a maniacal corpsman who carries around the chopped-off head of an enemy forgood luck, and Anthony’s agonized decision over what to do with an injured fellow Marine whose guts are spilling out of his body.

Once back home in 1973, Anthony faces the sad legacy of many Vietnam vets: relative scorn for what he’s done, no attractive prospects and, in his specific case, a more dangerous, drug-ridden neighborhood and a little girl to support, along with Juanita. Somewhat surprising, the latter has waited for Anthony and welcomes him back, but her interim involvement with a rich pimp has left Anthony intimidated and Juanita impatient with Anthony’s meager income.

Ultimately jobless and desperate, Anthony decides to pull off a big heist in cahoots with Kirby, Jose, Skip, Juanita’s revolutionary sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright) and, most unlikely of all, his brother, who’s now a neighborhood preacher. This final section, a sort of mini-“Asphalt Jungle,” feels partly like a different movie, and the low tension level, overdone violence and sudden swing into unnuanced nihilism fail to satisfactorily resolve the many possibilities earlier inherent in the material.

In the largest sense, Allen and Albert Hughes, who worked out the story with scenarist Michael Henry Brown, are concerned with the deterioration of both conditions and attitudes within the black community that paralleled the raising of political consciousness during the same period. With the political assassinations of 1968 not even mentioned, the relatively happy-go-lucky mind-sets and music of that period gradually grow darker and more dissonant until there seems to be no way out. All the same, an ending offering some ambiguity and diversity for the different characters might have been more appropriate than the blanket of bleakness served up.

Tate, who appeared in the Hughes’ first film, carries this one ably, moving convincingly from youthful cheerfulness to grim anger. Of the large supporting cast, standouts include David as the short-tempered Kirby, the riotous Tucker as the sassy sidekick and the powerful Clifton Powell as the hair-triggered pimp.

Although the use of widescreen gives the picture a welcome size, visual style is a distinct disappointment, with murky lighting and lackluster compositions giving the images an indistinct look. Danny Elfman’s eerie score, with a big boost from the extensive period song list, is a plus on the aural side.

Dead Presidents

Production: A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation in association with Caravan Pictures of an Underworld Entertainment production. Produced, directed by the Hughes Brothers. Executive producer, Darryl Porter. Co-producer, Michael Bennett. Screenplay, Michael Henry Brown, story by Allen and Albert Hughes, Brown.

Crew: Camera (Techniolor, Panavision widescreen), Lisa Rinzler; editor, Dan Lebental; music, Danny Elfman; music supervision, Bonnie Greenberg; production design, David Brisbin; set decoration, Karin Wiesel; costume design, Paul A. Simmons; sound (Dolby SR), Frank Stettner; special makeup effects, Lance Anderson; assistant directors, H.H. Cooper, Joseph Ray; second unit director, Jeff Ward; second unit camera, David Waterston; casting, Risa Bramon Garcia, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Cinerama Dome, L.A., Sept. 27, 1995. (In New York Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

With: Anthony Curtis - Larenz Tate
Kirby - Keith David
Skip - Chris Tucker
Delilah Benson - N'Bushe Wright
Jose - Freddy Rodriguez
Juanita Benson - Rose Jackson
D'Ambrosio - Michael Imperioli
Devaughn - David Barry Gray
Lt. Dugan - Jaimz Woolvett
Mrs. Curtis - Jenifer Lewis
Mr. Curtis - James Pickens Jr.
Cutty - Clifton Powell
Betancourt - Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez
Cowboy - Terrence Howard
Ramsuer - Jean Claude La Marre
Cleon - Bokeem Woodbine

More Film

  • Don Edkins, documentary filmmaker

    Documentary Filmmaker Don Edkins on ‘Creating an African Voice’ 

    DURBAN–For the 10th Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, a new strand was created to look at the unique challenges and opportunities facing documentary filmmakers in Africa. The two-day program, Durban Does Docs, offers a series of conversations, seminars and workshops with an intensive focus on the aesthetics, funding, distribution [...]

  • A Faithful Man

    Film Review: 'A Faithful Man'

    French actor Louis Garrel has been married twice, first to Iranian talent Golshifteh Farahani, and now to model-cum-actress Laetitia Casta. He has also directed two features, the first a free-wheeling love-triangle comedy called “Two Friends” in which Garrel plays the cad who comes between his best friend and the object of his obsession (played by [...]

  • LGBTQ Film Festival Outfest Opens With

    LGBTQ Film Festival Outfest Opens With Documentary About Gay Porn Shops Circus of Books

    Granted, the red carpet at the opening night of Outfest in DTLA may not have been the most star-studded but it was without a doubt the most diverse, inclusive and, yes, fabulous. “I’ve never been here before,” admitted “RuPaul’s Drag Race” vet Trixie Mattel, who stars in the documentary “Moving Parts.” “It’s supposed to be [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Russ Tamblyn's Career Had Legs After Childhood

    With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart Director

    Film News Roundup: Olivia Wilde to Direct Holiday Comedy for Universal

    In today’s film news roundup, Olivia Wilde has landed another directing gig following “Booksmart” and revenge thriller “Seaside” and “Woodstock: The Directors Cut” get August release dates. PROJECT LAUNCH Olivia Wilde will direct and produce an untitled holiday comedy project for Universal Pictures with her “Booksmart” partner Katie Silberman. Universal outbid five other studios for [...]

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content