In street slang, "Dead Presidents" means money. In Albert and Allen Hughes' first feature
after "Menace II Society", it may also mean lost ideals as the film, ranging from 1968 to
1974, follows a young man named Anthony from his black neighborhood in the Bronx to Vietnam
then back. An ambitious endeavor, DEAD PRESIDENTS perhaps bites more than it can chew,
trying to be at once a period piece, a war story, a coming-of-age tale, a comment on
education and family values, an indictment of a society that is never less than brutal on
black men and veterans, and a caper movie in its third act when, desperate to support his
family, Anthony sets up the robbery of a truck full of "dead presidents".
With no mean contribution from their cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, the Hughes brothers are
at their best when the film *moves*, viscerally, dynamically. They are sketchier when it
comes to characters and, suprisingly for the makers of "Menace II Society", dialogue. But
so be it: all directors experience a "second-movie slump", and as far as slumps go, this
one is more than honorable. The acting is generally superb (although one must single out
Bokeem Woodbine and, particularly, Larenz Tate--one dreads what a Mario van Peebles would
have done with, or to, the part).
Like Spike Lee, the Hughes twins balk when they feel it's asked of them to "represent all
African-Americans" and insist on being considered purely as filmmakers. When "Menace II
Society" came out, they referred to Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" in every single
interview. In "Menace", however, they did a better job at covering their tracks. At times,
DEAD PRESIDENTS feels like a baton is passed from "African-American Graffiti" to "Platoon"
to "First Blood" (the one meaningful "Rambo") to John Huston's "Asphalt Jungle"-cum-Stanley
Kubrick's "The Killing". Which is all the more disappointing since the Hughes brothers are