Directors/Coscreenwriters: Albert and Allen Hughes
By Roderick Heath
In the 1990s, following the lead of Spike Lee, a small wave of black filmmaking talents, including Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Bill Duke, Mario Van Peebles, and the Hughes Brothers, edged their way into Hollywood. Their careers have proven for the most part patchy and their works uneven, but all managed a few strong and significant movies to the extent that the period now looks like something of a renaissance nobody noticed that endured through dogged appreciation and fandom on video. Although many of these filmmakers would resist being pigeonholed to a great extent, all of them to an equal extent tried at times to describe realms of black experience that hadn’t been studied much in the movies. If a film like Van Peebles’ Panther (1995) wasn’t really very good, at least it was a desperately needed study of a vital moment in modern American life. Some of these directors leaned towards the ragged glories of genre film, particularly Duke’s loping, waggish crime flicks and Franklin’s cool and well-honed entries in the same genre, and Singleton’s punchy melodramas like Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) that recalled Warner Bros. issue dramas of the ’30s. The Detroit-born brothers Albert and Allen Hughes made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society, a film some preferred to Singleton’s more widely lauded Boyz N the Hood (1992), and its follow-up three years later, Dead Presidents. The brothers’ career has moved in fits and starts since, with only their sadly defanged adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell (2000) and the biblical scifi parable The Book of Eli (2011), whilst Allen went solo in making the initially compelling but overplotted political corruption drama Broken City (2013). Dead Presidents, however, still stands as one of the best, most interesting and coherent films from this period for the scope of its ambitions and the visceral portrayal of things often left out of other takes on its chosen era and milieu.
Dead Presidents’ title conflates street argot for cash and a sense of history in flux and revision. The opening title sequence concentrates on images of cash burning, all those patrician faces and elegant scripts ablaze and drifting on the wind. The film encompasses a common narrative portrayed or alluded to in a lot of ’70s blaxploitation films, and the Hughes reference that mode of filmmaking throughout at a time when it wasn’t yet cool to reference: indeed, Dead Presidents is not just an homage to the blaxploitation creed, but an update of it, looking to the sociopolitical reality of the moment rather than merely its tropes. The scope of the narrative can be described as The Deer Hunter (1978) meets The Killing (1956), although for a real likeness of a narrative that encompasses the experience of a complete epoch, you have to look back even farther to the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). The focus is on a returned black Vietnam War veteran confronted by a changed social scene at home—an idea that recalls not just blaxploitation films like Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972) and Fred Williamson’s Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), but also Marvin Gaye’s classic statement album What’s Going On.
The Hugheses start off in a key of funny-melancholy portrait of youth before going off to war: black teens Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and Skip (Chris Tucker), and their Latino pal Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), have just finished high school and are looking at a leap in adulthood with different ambitions. Gabby, cynical Skip wants to be a pimp, whilst Anthony is being steered toward college like his older brother (Isaiah Washington). But Anthony chafes in the embrace of his relatively middle-class family and craves action, the kind of military action his father (James Pickens Jr.) and his employer, Kirby (Keith David), once saw. Kirby, who runs a pool hall and operates a low-grade numbers operation on the side, clearly favours Anthony like a surrogate son. Kirby employs him as a runner and lets him hang around the pool hall even though he’s underage.
The film’s first third has a loose, nostalgic feel and a quality reminiscent of many a coming-of-age tale, laced with the grittiness of a very urban life demanding quick learning skills and a witty gift for adaptation and a tone often verging on black comedy, like Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979). Anthony loses his virginity with his girlfriend Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) in a sequence of wry, bawdy honesty, and defies his parents as he announces his intention to join the Marines. Juanita lives with her nurse mother (Alvaleta Guess) and her plucky, flirty younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), who has put up with the sounds of the teens’ lovemaking when their mother’s on the night shift. Anthony’s education also includes a scary encounter with Cowboy (Terrence Howard), one of the sharpies who hangs around Kirby’s pool joint, who mocks Anthony for his age but then accepts Kirby’s suggestion they go head-to-head for a game. Anthony wins the game, but Cowboy refuses to pay the whole stake; when Anthony complains, Cowboy assaults him and cuts his face with a knife before Kirby and a pal can intervene. Kirby enlists Anthony as a driver when he goes to shake down a guy who owes him money, and standover violence takes on a slapstick edge: Kirby tosses his mark out a window whilst the man’s wife waves a gun at him. Kirby snatches the gun and knocks her out, whilst her husband tries to trip up Kirby by grabbing his leg, only to have Kirby’s prosthetic leg come off in his hands. Kirby finishes up rolling on the ground with the gun stuck up his quarry’s nose, and later stows his false leg on the dashboard and groans that he ought to go back and kill the guy because he made him lose his pack of cigarettes.
The brothers pull off a few terrific stylistic pirouettes through these early scenes. A tracking shot through an apartment where all the young graduates party, glimpsed in vignettes of passion, dancing, drinking, smoking, vomiting—all the follies and pleasures of young adulthood—is aestheticized to an extreme in hues of red and blue. There’s a strong Scorsesean influence here, but also an identifiable quality as a survey blending panorama and enlarged human detail of black artists like Archibald Motley. Later, trying to flee the Bensons’ house before being caught by their mother, Anthony makes a dash through neighbouring yards, leaping over fences and dodging barking dogs, filmed on the fly by the Hughes’ dashing camera, and then suddenly cutting to Anthony again on the run, but this time through the jungle in Vietnam surrounded by fellow soldiers in the midst of battle. This touch recalls the great smash cut that separates the homeland and ’Nam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but given a clever, kinetic makeover, and jarringly describes the distance between the comedy of Anthony’s arrival into manhood and the cruel reality of surviving the version of it his aspirations have plunged him into.
Vietnam movies had all but expended their moment of cultural status by 1995, but the Hughes actually managed to bring something new to the well-worn clichés of the subgenre here by pure dint of both their grittiness and their impassive approach to it. Far from the delirious atavism of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the operatic moralism of Platoon (1986), the Hughes war zone is a place of ferocious, devolving violence that its characters merely treat as a shitstorm to be survived, in whatever fashion they deem fit. With Jose drafted into the Army, Skip joined up with Anthony, and now the two watch each other’s backs in a rough-and-ready force recon outfit, skippered by Lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and including Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), the son of a minister who’s turned himself into a rampaging devil for the duration of the war, and the ill-fated D’Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli).
The visions of the war zone, including Cleon hacking off the head of a VC and keeping it as a steadily decomposing good luck charm and D’Ambrosio’s capture by the VC, who disembowel him, castrate him, and jam his penis in his mouth, but still manage to leave him alive, contemplate the most terrible aspects of the war with a kind of reportorial immediacy that eschews excess or self-congratulatory zest. Anthony and Skip lean on each other for sanity and support, but the unit has its own embracing camaraderie built around their status as the dudes who brave the hairiest situations under Dugan’s wily direction. Cleon only gets rid of his totem at the insistence of Dugan and the rest of the unit when its stink gets too much, but warns them all that they’ve just thrown away their luck. Anthony passes another, awful hurdle in his education as he obeys D’Ambrosio’s begging to kill him by injecting him with a morphine overdose. Later, the unit is ambushed in a firefight. Skip freezes up and is badly injured, whilst Dugan is killed trying to grab him, forcing Anthony and Cleon to save Skip and fight a rear-guard action before they escape.
A year later, Anthony returns to a home that looks familiar, but soon finds the magnetic pole has shifted. Skip is now an addict living on benefits and suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange. Cowboy is now a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Jose, who was drafted and served in demolitions, lost a hand during the war. Delilah has become a leading figure in a Black Panther-like revolutionary group called the Nat Turner Cadre: she greets Anthony’s arrival with “Welcome to the Revolution,” which, by the way she kisses him, includes the sexual as well as the political kind. But Anthony already has a role mapped out for him as father and provider, because Juanita gave birth to his daughter whilst he was away. He lands a steady job as assistant to a kindly old Jewish butcher, Saul (Seymour Cassel), who strikes up a rapport with Anthony over his name’s ironic similarity to actor Tony Curtis, who, as Saul points out, was another young American busy hiding his roots. But when Saul retires, Anthony finds himself jobless and quickly running out of options. Rubbing his increasingly raw nerves even sorer, Anthony learns that during his absence, Juanita was a part-time girlfriend to a gangster, Cutty (Clifton Powell), who displays outright contempt for Anthony and continues to slip cash to Juanita. When Anthony insists he stop, Cutty sucker-punches him and jams a gun in his face, taunting him in the same way Cowboy once did, except with an even scarier weapon. As Anthony’s feelings of entrapment and castration escalate, he soon begins to think seriously about a robbery plan Jose has proposed, targeting a federal shipment of worn-out currency destined to be burnt.
The Hugheses confirm allegiances with several visual and thematic references to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although whereas that film was concerned with an individual veteran completely adrift in his society who sees himself strangely plugged into its moral fate, here the Hughes concentrate on Anthony as an avatar of a common experience who maintains connections with other similarly damaged people but is dogged by his inability or refusal to become radicalised. Delilah offers Anthony the chance to find a place amongst the Cadre and the nascent possibility of black brotherhood. But Anthony insists on maintaining an allegiance to ideals of manhood and country that prove illusory, one setting him up to try to live a life that the other can’t or won’t give him. Twisting the usual screen portraits of ’Nam vets as nobly pained or bugfuck crazy, the Hughes brothers offer this motley crew of vets simply as guys trying to endure whatever landscape they’re placed in, facing constantly shrinking options that fit the ways they’ve been trained to survive. The narrative’s inspiration came from a book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, compiled by Wallace Terry, and specifically, the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland and his recollections of people he knew. Indeed, in spite of its moments of melodrama and conflation, Dead Presidents maintains a feeling throughout of memoir, something the brothers underline with gruesome piquancy in their war sequences and episodic structuring—the various passages of time are denoted through fades to black and back again and titles giving time and place—and their refusal of any kind of catharsis at the very end.
The Hugheses capture the atmosphere inscribed in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” whilst remembering the time when it seemed the revolution might or might not be televised. Dead Presidents’ willingness to study both the milieu of black radicalism and its context in the Vietnam era, and to ponder the relationship between crime and such extremism, is certainly one of its important aspects. Rather than actually present Anthony with an alternative politicised path, Delilah readily signs up with his intended criminal enterprise, lending the operation the faint lustre of a revolutionary act even as it devolves, once again, into mere disastrous bloodletting. Perhaps it’s as good a mission of social anarchy as any other, as well as a play for riches and a focus for violent impulses. Delilah is perhaps the most original character in the film, the character who marks both the disorientating social shift Anthony is faced with once he comes back from the war even as the link between Delilah’s sassy, tomboyish disdain as a kid and her hard, radicalised intent is also signalled: she’s the one who greets him when we first see him go to the Benson house, and the first again when he comes back from war. Her status as the one real militant amidst all these clapped-out soldiers in the narrative suggests an element of dilettante posing found in much of the radical movement, although she proves her willingness to actually use deadly force. Delilah’s downfall is her unreciprocated crush on Anthony, an emotional attachment that, like Anthony’s to Juanita and his other loved ones, dooms him to a course of action that seems inevitable. When Anthony and his cadre actually embark on their robbery mission, they do so pointedly done up in dramatic, visually striking whiteface make-up that evokes Baron Samedi of voodoo lore, the embodiment of the perverse dichotomy of the slave society, the dualistic mix of black and white, owner and owned, command and slavery, eternity and death.
Similarly surreal in his mix of impulses is Cleon, who, since his return from war, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher, the head-hacking shaman he was in the bush seemingly cast off like a second skin. Nonetheless, Anthony and company approach him to join in their operation: Cleon, to their surprise, readily signs up with vague altruistic hopes for the cash he can net, although he worries Skip might freeze up again and go useless in a tight situation. The robbery, when it comes, is a ferocious sequence of pummelling Peckinpah-esque violence where nothing goes right, except for shedding blood. This climax is particularly good not just in the concussive, gory intensity of the action, but also in the Hughes’ sense of character as fate, which finds precise expression here: Delilah springing out of a dumpster with .45s in each hand blasting away cops with an expression that blends warrior rage and anguish just before getting iced herself; Cleon proving the one who’s unreliable when he can’t shoot down a fellow black veteran turned cop, forcing Skip to shoot the poor guy in the head; Anthony, stung by loss and releasing his rage on the coppers who insist on fighting back, eventually reduced to beating one with his gun when he runs out of bullets; Joe howling with laughter after his explosive device made to blow open the armoured car instead turns the vehicle into a giant ball of fire. There’s a touch of absurdism to this last moment, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of The Italian Job (1969), capping a robbery staged by people more used to violence than they are to planning and executing such a difficult mission. The Hughes present horror and comedy as two sides of the same coin, the result of things spinning far out of anyone’s control, and chaos, as on the battlefield, grips everyone in a ruthless logic.
Dead Presidents finally falls a few rungs short of real greatness, if for relatively subtle reasons. The Hugheses display more discipline here than Spike Lee often has, but lack his and Scorsese’s gift for turning anxiety into an aesthetic key, and the result doesn’t quite annex the realms of truly savage urban warfare in the way a precursor like Across 110th Street (1973) manages. Casting is a bit of a problem, with the supporting players generally more convincing than the leads. Tate is a very likeable actor, and he’s fairly good here, but often seems too lightweight and boyish to inhabit a figure as prematurely grave and seething as Anthony after he returns home, whilst Jackson never quite feels convincing when trying to put across Juanita’s blend of ardour and anger, which means scenes depicting the disintegration of Anthony and Juanita’s relationship don’t blaze with a sufficient sense of mad and inchoate emotion. David is as sourly marvellous as always. The sight of young Howard blazing with mean charisma and punkish swagger in his scenes as Cowboy tantalises with what the film might have been if he had played Anthony, whilst Wright shows real poise and potency in her scenes: in some alternative universe she might have become a real star. Tucker did start on his way towards becoming something of a star, and here his gift for zippy verbal comedy is tethered effectively to his portrayal, as Skip’s confidence in his breezy humour before war and his jittery attempts to maintain it after depict concisely how ruined he is.
In spite of its flaws, Dead Presidents stands as a fascinating, intermittently powerful journey that treads into territory I wish more filmmakers would take up. The disaster of the robbery sets the scene for the steady collapse and defeat of the crew, who manage, in spite of Joe turning the van into a fireball, to get away with a decent haul. But Joe is quickly chased down by police and killed when he shoots the driver of a cop car dead, but the vehicle slams into him. A crumbling Cleon brings down the heat when he starts handing out his cut of the loot to random beggars and people in the street, and squeals when he’s inevitably arrested. The police crash into Skip’s apartment only to find him dead from an overdose, his fish-eyed corpse lying grotesquely before his TV, which broadcasts a jaunty Soul Train performance. Dead Presidents was criticised upon release for its ending, as Anthony is sentenced to a long prison term by a white judge (a cameo by Martin Sheen), a fellow veteran who rejects the idea that the man in the docks deserves clemency for his service and brands him a disgrace instead. Anthony goes berserk in court and is shipped off to prison. This conclusion does have a peculiarly offhand quality, although I suspect that effect is deliberate, as the Hughes brothers fade to black as they have after each episode, only this time there are no more consequential chapters in Anthony’s life. Anthony isn’t granted the kind of glory a shootout like Raoul Walsh’s allowed to his antiheroic gangsters, or the sort of tragic stature filmmakers sometimes choose to extend to the likes of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Blow’s (2001) George Jung. He is instead doomed, like another modern Prometheus, to be gnawed at by the decimation of his community and the ambiguity of his own lot, the question of whether he really was a man without choices or the agent of his own destruction. Shit happens, and it just happened to Anthony Curtis.