Cushioned by money and blunted by convention, Dead Presidents lacks the raw thrill that catapulted the Hughes brothers' first film, Menace II Society, onto critics' Best Ten lists and into the consciousness of an America obsessed with race and violence. Like many filmmakers on their second outing, Allen and Albert Hughes, still only 22, seem to have lost some of their edge. The go-to-hell spirit that energized Menace, a riveting look at gang warfare and black rage that cost just $3 million, has dissipated--likely in the backwash of public approval and industry acclaim that greeted their startling debut.
Does that mean Dead Presidents is a failure? Not quite. The twins, who have been making movies (more or less) since they were twelve, have as much natural talent for visual storytelling and genuine dialogue as any filmmakers in the country. So there are some unforgettable moments in their new movie--a 1969 graduation-night party in a Bronx tenement, tinted in sensual, dangerous red light and sent soaring by Stevie Wonder; another Vietnam horror show, in which a battle-numb black grunt hacks off the head of a slain enemy and stuffs it in his knapsack; an ominous planning session for a robbery, where disaster seems etched into every conspirator's face.
But the movie's pieces don't quite fit. The protagonist of Dead Presidents, a smart, sensitive, ghetto-bred kid named Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) is an African-American Everyman in the fashion of Native Son's Bigger Thomas, but he doesn't have the same kind of tragic heroism. He's supposedly handcuffed by society, but he turns down the chance his middle-class parents give him at college. He's buffeted by cruel chance, but he blithely ignores the mechanics of birth control. He's brutalized and disillusioned by war, but he doesn't hesitate to make war on himself.
The strength of the film is the way we can feel all the bright ambition seeping out of the likable, good-hearted Anthony, until he's pushed over the edge into an ill-advised scheme to knock over an armored car stuffed with millions in worn-out U.S. currency. The weakness lies in the familiarity of the story (clunk, clunk, clunk goes the plot) and the Hugheses' reliance on New Jack shootouts and explosions whenever they get in a tight spot in terms of character.
Menace II Society, which seems even more a miracle in retrospect, unfolded on the streets of L.A., but its real locales were the overheated psyches of its desperate young gangbangers. By contrast, Dead Presidents, which takes its title from the likenesses of Washington, Franklin, Grant et al. on the purloined money, seems largely externalized: We look at Anthony far more often than we look out from him.
Significantly, the movie is set in the late Sixties, when political tumult ruled the land, and in the early 1970s, when Superfly and Shaft were afoot in the first wave of blaxploitation movies. The Hughes brothers are obviously fascinated by the whole period, and their hero's hazardous passage through it--high school, the horror of Vietnam, early fatherhood, a brush with Black Power, tragic desperation about the future--is clearly meant to represent the passage of many young black Americans through that time, although the vast majority of them, obviously, didn't kill bank guards or smash pool cues over the faces of old enemies.
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Problem is, the filmmakers' expression of the period is not only fictionalized, it feels processed and synthetic. The Hugheses have laid a lot of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield tunes on the soundtrack, and the actors walk around in enough Seventies leather and polyester to stock a thrift shop, but many of the things they say and do seem forced and schematic. Michael Henry Brown's screenplay could have used a polish job.
Tate, who made a memorable movie debut as O-Dog in Menace II Society, has the kind of open, expectant face that immediately connects with audiences, and Anthony's seething uncertainties as he battles through trauma after trauma evoke huge empathy. He's in good company. As the life-hardened pool-hall proprietor who introduces the film's then-teenaged hero to the temptations of guns, power and money, Keith David is perfect, and he bears an uncanny resemblance to the dangerous street-corner mentor Delroy Lindo plays in Spike Lee's latest, Clockers. Comedian Chris Tucker plays a doom-bound kid who dreams of carrying on the family tradition in pimpdom, and Bokeem Woodbine is scary and moving as a preacher's son who loses his mind in Vietnam and returns to the pulpit with his war demons still inside him. The two women in Dead Presidents--young mother Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) and her radicalized sister Delilah (N'Bushe Wright)--don't get enough to do, but that's nothing new.
The turning point in Anthony's life might be Vietnam, or the low-paying job he takes in a butcher shop (still dealing in blood) when he gets home to the Bronx. But have a look instead at what may be the Hughes brothers' most powerful scene--a crucial showdown with Cutty (Clifton Powell), the cold, menacing sugar daddy who's been seeing to Juanita's needs in Anthony's long absence. When Cutty draws his chrome nine-millimeter and sticks it in Anthony's face, all of the film's muddied themes grow crystal-clear for a moment: The hero's manhood is challenged; his powerlessness becomes painfully obvious; the reality of his lowly prospects suddenly stings him like a wound.
It's unfortunate that more of the film doesn't come across with such disturbing intensity. Allen and Albert Hughes set a high standard in their debut, and this sophomore slump is a little surprising. But it is by no means fatal to a joint career that promises to be one of most exciting in American moviemaking.