Dead Presidents (1995)

Rated R

Starring: Larenz Tate, Keith David, N’Bushe Wright and Chris Tucker

Rated: R Action/Crime/Drama

On the heels of their first blockbuster film, Menace II Society, Albert and Allen Hughes co-wrote, directed and produced the crime drama, Dead Presidents (1993).  The film, primarily set in the Bronx borough of New York City, centers around the protagonist, Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate).  The plot spans from 1969 to 1974 and themes of the Vietnam War as well as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements are prominent. 

Dead Presidents opens with Anthony, several months away from graduating high school, deciding to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps instead of attending college.  This is disappointing and frightening to his family in which he was born and the one he has created, as his girlfriend, Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson), is expecting their first child.  He views his enlistment, which will most likely send him to combat in the Vietnam War, as a way for him to support his future family.  However, his mentor and local hood, Kirby (Keith David), warns him about his naivete and the treachery of the others, from the U.S. government to White military personnel, who will make his life, as a Black man, even more hellish.

True to the fears of his loved ones, Anthony is sent to active combat in Vietnam.  However, he does have support, as his best friend, Skip (Chris Tucker) and friend, Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) are in his squad; both ended up serving because Skip flunked out of college and Jose was drafted.  Leading their squad is Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), who is their sergeant.  During their time of combat in Vietnam, the young men experience and commit heinous acts, mostly for survival, though Cleon takes “trophies” of ears and, even a head, of his victims. 

When his four-year term ends, Anthony returns to the Bronx; however, his attempts for a “normal” life are practically nonexistent.  He discovers that soldiers who served in Vietnam are discriminated against for their service.  This discrimination is even greater and more pervasive against “Bloods”, Black military personnel who served in Vietnam.  He is unable to attain a position that would allow him to provide, let alone, offer the middle-class upbringing he had, for Juanita and their daughter. 

Difficult times are suffered by members from his squad, as the vestiges of war has forever altered them in the most negative ways: Jose’s skills as a demolitions expert during wartime has surfaced via pyromania; Skip, infected with Agent Orange, is addicted to heroin; and Cleon, though a minister, has ghosts of his past deeds haunting him.  Adding to the downward spiral for Anthony is knowledge that Juanita has been cheating on him with a local, and highly successful, hustler and pimp.

Upon arguing with Juanita, he leaves her to cool down in a bar, where he becomes re-acquainted with Delilah Benson, Juanita’s sister.  She, as an active member of the Nat Turner Cadre, is speaking about a militant Black revolution.  Anthony can relate to her rhetoric and before long, Anthony and Delilah, supported by Kirby, Jose, Skip and Cleon, devise a robbery scheme to get what the American government and the United States owes them … will they be successful?  You must view this to see how it turns out for them all!!

Although this film received mixed reviews from film critics, Dead Presidents did well at the box office and gained a strong cult following.  The film also influenced aspects of contemporary hip-hop culture.  The source of some of the film content is from the mind-blowing Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans authored by Wallace Terry, a Black Vietnam veteran himself.  Figures and organizations of Black power and armed rebellion, such as Nat Turner as well as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, informed the plot.  

Dead Presidents illustrated for many of its audience members the double struggle that Black veterans suffered upon returning home after serving in Vietnam.  These Black men served during the Peace Movement that occurred in the United States.  Thus, not only were Vietnam veterans discriminated against due to the changing sentiment regarding the country’s purposes for being involved in the Vietnam War but Black veterans of this war also were still denied equal access to benefits, compensation and recognition, despite recent gains attained from the Civil Rights movement.

Adding to the success of The Hughes Brothers’ Dead Presidents was the soundtrack.  Released in 1995, it contained soul as well as R&B music, featuring tracks such as “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below” by Curtis Mayfield; “Walk on By” by Isaac Hayes; “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” by Aretha Franklin; “I’ll Be Around” by The Spinners and “If You Want Me to Stay” by Sly and The Family Stone.  The Dead Presidents soundtrack peaked at “#1” on the “Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums” chart and was certified “Gold”.  

Because of the soundtrack’s success, in mid-Spring the following year, Dead Presidents, Vol. II, was released.  It did not garner the success of the first volume but it was well received. Like its predecessor, this follow-up soundtrack also contained soul and R&B classics such as “We People, Who are Darker Than Blue” by Curtis Mayfield; “Just My Imagination” by The Temptations; “Cowboys to Girls” by The Intruders; “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder and “I Got the Feelin’” by James Brown.

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