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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Retro Review: Dead Presidents (1995)

Dead Presidents
Cast: Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, Freddy Rodriguez, Terrence Howard, Jenifer Lewis, James Pickens. Jr
Genre: Crime Thriller
U.S Box Office Gross: over $24 million

Plot: A Vietnam vet adjusts to life after the war while trying to support his family, but the chance of a better life may involve crime and war shed

'Vicious & Brutal, Dead Presidents Is A Dark & Tense Transformation From Protagonist To Antagonist'

1995 has been a great year for movies; it's especially one of my high points in terms of favourite films that have been released: from Jumanji to underrated and overlooked gems in Strange Days directed by Kathryn Bigelow and The Basketball Diaries, as well as erm, Showgirls (!). & with that, I'd add Dead Presidents to that growing list from this particular year.  

A dark coming-of-age heist crime drama, the film follows the life of Anthony: a youth from the South Bronx who after graduation, heads off to Vietnam to fight in the war with his comrades. When he returns from the war, 4 years later, he assumes that life would get easier and he'd be a much happier and better person after that. In fact, it is the complete opposite: disillusioned with life on the streets of New York, it turns out that not only is he the father of a young baby girl, he has financial problems to contend with. And to further compound his misery, his friend is a heroin junkie who shoots up and his girlfriend, Juanita hasn't been completely faithful to him. Plagued by PTSD that he has accumulated during his time fighting in Vietnam, Anthony & with the help of his friends later attempt a heist by robbing a van containing millions of dollars of old bills, known as the so-called ''dead presidents''. As the heist situation unfolds, the repercussions of it become just as deadly and costly. 

The premise of Dead Presidents is how the psychological effects and experiences of war can seriously impact a person's state of mind. The main character is an all-round good guy Samaritan & easy-going, but when he returns from the war, he carries over some of those experiences over and with that, he completely changes. & it's not for the greater good. It's more in the veins of a character study, where the audience sees the progression, or in this case the regression of this character, who we end up loathing and feeling sorry for.

The casting is mostly made up of a who's who in African-American cinema, along with Ugly Betty's support player, Freddy Rodriguez. Comedic actor Chris Tucker turns in an unexpected and nuanced performance and treads down the darker path as he plays it straight. Laurenz Tate does a sterling job in Anthony's demise and as he teeters closer to the edge, he displays a narcissistic and less contemptuous side. 

What I'd call ''Dead Presidents To Society'', this is a fresh and innovative look at the horrors of the Vietnam conflict from a lower-class Black perspective and rather for it to be looked at as another heist crime movie, this is, in fact, a very engaging and powerful - yet unflinching drama that seeps into the mindset of those affected and left traumatised by the war. But also that no crime goes unpunished and that by doing evil deeds and being a more evil person, that doesn't make you any less off and if you do the crime, you'd have to be prepared to face the consequences and to do the time as well.   

The war battle scenes are realistic and the heist, as action-orientated as it is and is the main centrepiece of the movie and complete with distinctive White face make-up, is not what this film is all about. Rather it's more about the depiction of war itself and its consequences: the Black African-American men who strive to serve and represent the USA in the Vietnam conflict and who fought for what their Black friends told them as ''the White man's war'', as they returned to New York. Rather than making a movie about the war, the Hughes brothers use this as a foreground for the breakdown in relations between ex-soldiers who feel betrayed by their own country, and of American society, of whom the likes of Anthony choose to target and vent their actions towards. 

And the movie did an excellent job in explaining and conveying those sentiments, feelings and frustrations. 

Over 20 years later, Dead Presidents still remains to this day as one of the most underrated and underappreciated African-American movies that got lost in the shuffle amongst Boyz In Da Hood, Menace II Society, sadly & it isn't as highly regarded because it deserves to be. 

Final Verdict:

Highly ambitious and bold in places with a no-nonsense attitude, Dead Presidents is one '90s overlooked gem and after Menace 2 Society, the Hughes brothers have delivered yet another one of the quintessential African- American movies of the 20th century. 

With terrific performances across the board and a nitty-gritty and bleak story, Dead Presidents is a movie that manages to tell it so well and yet also, it never lets up for a single minute. It is a few steps away from being a masterpiece, yet nonetheless, it still gave it everything it had. 


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