According to its movie poster, Dead Presidents, the latest Hughes brothers film, is about "getting paid." Truer to fact, the second outing by the brothered ones is as flat and senseless as the white faces printed on that poster's pile of greenbacks.
And when you read the film's slogan, "Dead Presidents: The only color that counts is green," take it literally. These brothers, who brought us the long-running, surprise hit Menace II Society, are out to turn a dollar--even if it means employing the same insidious stereotypes of the 'hood seen on the evening news. The moral: they're "getting paid" because we're too dumb to recognize crappy filmmaking masked as a message from the 'hood.
Dead Presidents stars Larenz Tate as Anthony Curtis, a middle-class black kid from the Bronx who's struggling to find a direction for his life after high school in the Vietnam-era 1960s and '70s. Anthony rejects his mother's proddings and forgoes entering college for the glamorous life of what he calls "something different": a stint as a reconnaissance Marine.
Anthony is a different kind of kid, and the Hugheses' script leaves too many questions about his decision to go to war instead of college. Once in Vietnam, he's followed by two of his high-school buddies--Skip, played to a fine point by comedian Chris Tucker, and Jose, portrayed by a relative newcomer, Freddy Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a small role in A Walk in the Clouds, and Tucker is a Richard Pryor-styled natural from this summer's Friday. Another Vietnam/neighborhood connection is Cleon, a preacher's kid who's played to a sickening halt by the overexposed Bokeem Woodbine (Jason's Lyric).
The young men's experiences at war both solidify and damn the prospects for their lives beyond Vietnam. And by the end of the film--an exposition on abject despair--this group of relative innocents is transformed into a hodgepodge of either stereotypes or hard-life realities.
Which raises more than a few questions. Why, for example, does the middle-class Anthony constantly reject the obviously right decisions for his life? And why, when he's in some hellish predicament, does he never turn to his parents or brother for help? (His family more or less disappears until Anthony needs a meal or moral support.)
The Hughes brothers, of course, write from the gang mentality, which says that, once born, we are all alone and misunderstood. In a fire, these brothers would rather rally a gasoline bucket brigade than dial 911 for help.
Dead Presidents opens to a domestic scene at Anthony's home in the Bronx. His mother is so domineering that his father can be silenced with little more than a stare across the dining-room table. Anthony's trouble finding a purpose for his life, post-high school, leads him to the streets and Kirby, a one-legged pool hall owner and numbers runner. Kirby enlists Anthony to run the numbers, and in short order you see Anthony's manhood building through the actions and pleasures of the pool hall. In Kirby's world, the young man's separation from his loving, caring family is sealed with the flick of a knife.
Anthony soon succumbs to street life, coming of age in a familiar ritual for black males in the movies. He witnesses Kirby, his mentor, controlling the numbers trade through violence. Kirby, kicking asses with one leg, is the kind of man Anthony wants to be. So instead of moving on to college, with all the promise it's brought his older brother, Anthony goes to Vietnam to find his manhood.
It is here, in Dead Presidents' Vietnam segment, that it becomes clear the Hughes brothers have fallen victim to the sophomore jinx. Like those of their contemporaries, John Singleton and Matty Rich, Allen and Albert Hughes' second film lacks a clear identity. Dead Presidents, on the surface, is a coming-of-age film, but underneath, and at the end, it screams the scream of being denied the American dream. But the brothers fail themselves by assuming the audience will fill in the movie's blanks. There are relationship blanks, and blanks about Anthony's family and how easily they let him run with ne'er-do-wells. There are war-time blanks, and the silly coincidence of all his neighborhood cronies appearing in the same elite reconnaissance troop.
Furthermore, the Hugheses fail to define what are supposed to be Anthony's defining moments--such as when he loses a member of his unit. The racial twist that the Hughes brothers introduce in Anthony's moment isn't given the proper treatment to justify its impact in bringing about his ultimate feelings of despair when he returns home. The same is true for Skip, whose fate is sealed when he falters at a crucial moment in battle. The Hugheses try to flesh out the origins of the black soldiers' despair through comic drug scenes and empty references to Agent Orange, but they just don't cut it here.
It turns out that Anthony is the last to return to his neighborhood after Vietnam. He comes home physically intact, and a decorated hero. His friend Jose, a weapons expert in the war, emerges with a damaged hand and a serious speed addiction. Skip comes back in a straitjacket, hooked on heroin, and Cleon, who commits some of the film's most heinous acts of war, becomes the preacher of a small church.
With each of its characters firmly in place, Dead Presidents takes as stereotypical a turn as you might expect from the video-era talents of the brothers Hughes. Anthony--having turned to alcohol to soothe his woes--and his drugged-out cronies and Kirby are caught in a vortex of insurmountable despair. Post-Vietnam, they all suffer from various injustices, and are wading chest-high in a morass of bad luck and hard times. To alleviate their despair, this herky-jerky clan, along with the militant sister of Anthony's girlfriend, concoct a Shaft's Big Score-like scheme to rob an armored truck for a million dollars in discontinued currency. What the audience sees, despite the cinematically stereotyped staging of the heist, complete with spotlit faces and crudely drawn map, is that these characters' flaws will obviously sink the whole scheme. It backfires, so to speak, leaving the pack of drugged-out desperadoes to rely on each other's silence. Yeah, right.
The brightest aspects of Dead Presidents are the acting of Keith David as Kirby and Chris Tucker as Skip. What the movie lacks in plot, it gives back in Tucker's humorous yet poignant portrayal of a young man caught on the fence of personal change. Like Richard Pryor in his string of 1970s hits, Tucker gives you reason to laugh, then turns the mirror of his actions back on you. The same is true of David, who also appears in Spike Lee's Clockers. David's turn as the World War II veteran-turned-necessary-hustler sets up the neighborhood's descent into despair. His rantings about losing his leg in the war and being passed over by the government for help are the constant beat to the boys' heading off to Vietnam. Despite the world outside the neighborhood, this group sticks to what it knows, and what it knows is Kirby's despair. Watching this group of neighborhood cronies over time is to watch a disconnected body come slowly together. Kirby is the head and torso; Jose and Skip are the arms; Anthony and the militant girl, Delilah (N'Bushe Wright) are the legs. Delilah is the bum leg.
Trying to encapsulate a film by Albert and Allen Hughes is an exercise in absolute denial of any positive human condition. The inhabitants of their films would have you believe that the brothers Hughes had been alternately wet-nursed on the breast milk of Jason the ax-murderer and the street culture of Nigger Charlie fame. Their cinematic tales are filled with crazed characters along the lines of a knife-wielding beggar who's had it with asking for handouts. Quietly, you ask yourself, do people like this really exist in the real world--at all, or in such abundance? Maybe on the covers of Newsweek or Time. Maybe they're that shirtless bunch that show up greased and muscled in music videos, with their gold teeth and pants slung around the calves. I'm from the 'hood and frequent what some call the ghetto, and have never seen the characters that inhabit the Hughes brothers' films.
Wading through Dead Presidents, I wondered if maybe the Hugheses' vision of the world simply demonstrates our worst suspicions about the effects of too much television. Bullets and guilt are the staples of these brothers' world, followed closely by abject despair. When you consider today's youth culture, where blame is as familiar as breathing, you'll quickly have grasped all there is to know about the brothers' long-awaited second major release.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Given the darkened corridors that double as creative wit for the filmmaking Hughes brothers, it's hard to imagine that anyone would look forward to their next menacing cinematic offering. Considering how these two young African-American--make that Black--men view the world through a haze of smoke-filled rooms and devil-may-care despair, you could ruin a Friday or Saturday night watching the world through their eyes.
Despite it all, Dead Presidents is sure to have as historic a life in the cinema as its predecessor, Menace II Society. In Dallas and other cities, that film ran for more than 12 months; its box-office receipts continued to grow even after it was released on videotape. At last count, Menace had grossed nearly $30 million. When a film runs that long, it's obviously developed some cult appeal.
Dead Presidents may be around just as long, but don't delay seeing it. Go now and purge yourself with an overdose of despair. Then, on Monday, rinse out the bad taste of feeling sorry for yourself and get on with your life.
Dead Presidents. Hollywood Pictures. Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker. Written by Michael Henry Brown. Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes. Now showing.