Thursday, June 21, 2018

In short: Dead Presidents (1995)

The film follows young, black New Yorker Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) from shortly before he volunteers for the Marine Corps in 1969, through his time in a recon unit in the Vietnam War, his return to the USA, the social and financial dead end he finds himself in there, and finally his pretty damn amateurish and bloody attempt at a banking van heist. I’d go into more detail, but frankly, everything you imagine will happen does happen here in the way you expect.

And of course, at least in part, that is part of the point of this film by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, for our protagonist is supposed to stand in for the experience of the black Vietnam vet as a whole. Unfortunately, this also leads to a film whose protagonist lacks actual specificity, missing the details that would bring him to life. For example, we never learn much about what he’s actually thinking about the world, what he enjoys, what he dislikes apart from the things needed to keep the plot moving, which in turn robs the film of the feeling of having an actual person at its core instead of a representation of ideas about a type of person. The film’s historical specificity suffers in a comparable way. There is certainly the right music playing on the radio (there’s particularly a lot of Curtis Mayfield, which is never a bad choice), the people wear sort of the right clothes, the historical dates fit, but there’s no real life to the presentation of the late 60s/early 70s. The Vietnam sequences suffer from the same problem: they are a series of moments that feel abstracted and constructed to make an equally abstract point instead of lived experience for the protagonist and his peers.

It’s a shame, really, for the cast is fine – apart from the execrable Chris Tucker who hasn’t met a line of dialogue he isn’t going to slaughter – and the Hughes Brothers so clearly have the highest technical abilities and obviously very much care about the political meaning of the story they are telling. It’s just that Dead Presidents never seems to make much effort to make the audience care also.

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