The Hughes Brothers’ sophomore film is as powerful as it was twenty-five years prior. Even more so now. The film plays as a part of a free screening and Q&A at this year’s Festival.
I still remember that shell shocked feeling after the first time I saw Dead Presidents. It was the same hallowed out feeling I felt watching Menace II Society. Young men’s lives thrown away because of the systems in place. Could I articulate that at the time? No. I was a teenager at the time. Watching those final moments in the theater as Anthony (Larenz Tate) lost his mind as a white man (played very pointedly by Martin Sheen) gave him his sentence, I did too. The power of Dead Presidents is in how Anthony and his friends got to where they had.
Writer/Director team Allen and Albert Hughes smartly chose to look at the past with their second film rather than take on a more modern subject. Dead Presidents is first and foremost an Epic. An Epic told on a huge canvas spanning a decade. We begin in 1968 with Anthony just shy of his 18th birthday with his friends Skip (Chris Tucker) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) talking about the war. We see them in their lives and their dreams. Anthony showing a sense of pride and spirit of patriotism wanting to join the Marines to prove himself.
It is that pride and patriotism that will be battered and bruised out Anthony not only by his Vietnam experience but as a Veteran coming home. A Veteran coming home to a country that hates him and doesn’t understand what he has been through. The Hughes Brothers’ film excels at showing us the indignities and lack of understanding Anthony goes through not just at the hands of a system that doesn’t care but a community that doesn’t understand. Though the Dead Presidentsnever absolves Anthony of his actions. Which many will not see and think the film glorifies everything he does.
Much like their first film Menace II Society critics have often said that the filmmaking duo glorified the actions of their characters. Never seeing that this powerful one-two combo of films is not glorifications but mirrors of life and times they have seen. Young Black men with no other avenue, no other resources at their disposal. Dead Presidents widens the circle of complicity beyond the systems of a city, but to the government systems.
25-years later Dead Presidents stands as an even greater achievement than it was at the time. One that cineastes should revisit as they will find a film as powerful as anything released in 2020.