In case y'all kittens were unaware, this here article is being published in the first annual Acid Logic "Blaxploitation Issue." (February 1, 2003, Year of Our Lord.) The noble purpose we are endeavoring to pursue with these yearly specials is to momentarily focus the reader's attention on the movies, actors, authors and musicians that summed up the Blaxploitation movement - a minor era of cinema in the mid seventies, best exemplified by films like "Shaft," "Foxy Brown" and "Cotton Comes to Harlem." An age when every lady had a 'fro, every pimp was a mac daddy, and every honkey was a "no-good jive turkey!"
Right of that bat, I can sense that some of our readers are getting restless. "But, Wil," you snivel, "If you intend to focus on Blaxploitation films, why are you reviewing, 'Dead Presidents'? Directed the precocious brothers, Albert and Alan Hughes, (brothers in every sense of the word) 'Dead Presidents' was a somber look at the lives of several minority youths in the late 60's/early 70's who experience the chaos of the Viet Nam war and return home to urban streets just as cutthroat as the jungles they had been fighting in. But it is certainly not a Blaxploitation film. It carries none of the overdone attitude or vernacular of such cinema, and was released in 1995, many years after the Blaxploitation era officially ended."
Well, maybe you're right Charlie Chuckleshorse. maybe "Dead Presidents" can't be discarded in the Blaxploitation ghetto. But I think it can be held up as the logical evolution of such a movement. Up until to the sixties, black folk were little more than caricatures on screen ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies, Miss Scarlett!") - apron-wearing darkies with as much charisma as cardboard rocks. When the civil rights movement kicked into high gear, cinema started to acknowledge Blacks as three dimensional people, primarily through a young upstart named Sidney Poitier. (You know, the guy Julia Roberts went gaga over at the last Oscars.) But it wasn't until the 70's that Black Americans started to take control of the camera and make their own films, on their own terms, and created the movement called Blaxploitation. Of course, the term itself reflected the controversy that raged both inside and outside the Black community about these films. Were such masterpieces asá "Blacula," "Hell Up in Harlem," and "Boss Nigger" attempts by African American filmakers to define their own vision, or were they merely the machinations white producers attempting to milk the wallets of Black Americans by dangling an aggrandized version of their street image in front of them? The Blaxploitation movement was hardly around long enough to answer that question, and trickled out as the 70's faded. In the 80's everything turned lame. Hip films featuring Antonio Fargas in six inch heels were replaced with Whoopie Goldberg mewing through "The Color Purple." But that all changed in 1991 with the release of "Boyz in the Hood." A hard hitting and financially successful look at ghetto living (and loving!), the movie launched the career of director John Singleton, as well as boosting the credibility of gangsta rapper cum actor, Ice Cube. The film was followed by an onslaught of similarly themed flicks, one of the more successful being "Menace II Society," the first offering from the Hughes brothers.
"Who are the Hughes brothers?" you ask. What the Wright brothers were to flying airplanes, what the Ringling Brothers were to dancing poodles, the Hughes brothers have been to the modern African American crime drama. "Menace II Society" starred Tyrin Turner and Lorenz Tate, and essentially retold the same story as "Boys in the Hood": Young brothers caught up in the urban tribalism known as "gangbanging" spend all their time killing each other when they should be killing "the man." (e.g. Honkeys like me - Thank God the themes of these films never caught on.) What kept "M II S" from sinking, despite its lack of originality, was the undeniable skill Albert and Alan, then a mere 21 years of age, brought to the camera. The film had a distinct look and feel, and its individual sequences were carried off with the same high speed aplomb of a jet pilot who never loses control.
"Menace II Society" garnered the lads enough attention that the studios backed their next effort, "Dead Presidents." While their first film focused on black youth in the early 90's. "Dead Presidents" had a much broader scope. Starting in the middle 60's we meet our protagonist, Anthony, (extremely well played by Lorenz Tate - what happened to that guy?!) and his two buddies Skip (Chris Tucker in the only role where I don't want to kill him) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez.) the trio of friends chase girls, sneak shots of liquor and pal around in their native Brooklyn. After graduation, each of them, for different reasons, ends up in Viet Nam. All make it out alive and end up on the streets of New York in the 70's. A host of pressures close in on Anthony, leading him to formulate a plan to rob a armored truck. As can be predicted, the plan goes horribly awry, many people die, and the system enacts its vengeance on Anthony and his remaining friends.
That's it in a nutshell, but as always, the beauty is in the details. (That's one of those meaningless phrases that can always be counted to make an otherwise unsubstantiated point.) Though the film is only a minute over two hours, it has the feel of an epic, since it covers close to a decade and sees its characters through numerous tumultuous experiences. In the first 30 minutes or so, Tate, Tucker and Rodriguez do a stellar job of imbuing their characters with the appropriate bravado to cover up their naivetÚ. To call Anthony's first sexual experience "clunky," is to be merciful. None of the young men has any real understanding of the politics o the Viet Nam war when they ship out. Its fascinating to see the transition America made from the upbeat optimism of the middle 60's to the nihilism of the Viet Nam era, played out in the individual lives of three characters.
But it's the Viet Nam sequence that really made me realize that "Dead Presidents" was more than a run of the mill Hollywood flick. By the 90's, you'd think that there would be little that cinema could add to the Viet Nam experience. 70's movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" gave the first celluloid portrayal of life in bush. 80's films like "Platoon," "Full-Metal Jacket" and the underrated "Hamburger Hill" appeared to be the epoch of America's wrestling with the war legacy. Butá Viet Nam sequences in "Dead Presidents" brought in something new. Perhaps it was simply war from the Black man's perspective, though the film seems to argue that a good cure for racial disharmony is being caught in a crossfire while isá Charlie unloading his ammunition at you, with no regards to your skin color. But there's more. "Platoon" portrayed Viet Nam as tragic, but also as a landscape for artistic symbolism, as exemplified by Willem Dafoe's Christ-like death. Viet Nam in "Dead Presidents" offers no room for artistry; it's simply a "kill or be killed" backdrop where soldiers become intimately familiar with the sight of a man's twigs and berries cut off and stuffed in his mouth, (while he's still alive!) Anthony, Skip and Jose all survive (though Skip makes references to having been effected by Agent Orange) and return home.
Upon arrival, Anthony's endures the resentment (sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit) America felt towards troops from America's first failed war. His parents are more concerned with whether Anthony has picked up a drug habit then the trauma he's endured. (Leading Anthony to rebuff them with the classic line, "No bad habits, ma. Except for a little killing.")á Some Blacks demean Anthony for fighting the white man's war. Work is scarce for a veteran. He also discovers that his one sexual experience before shipping out resulted in a daughter. He moves in with her mother and makes a concerted effort to provide for himself and his family.
It's at this point in the film where the surroundings switch into the 70's. The atmosphere is right out of the classic Blaxploitation films from the same era (though rendered more realistically.) While Black dress and manner in the pre Viet Nam scenes was more like that of white folk, now the scenes are alive with Afros, leather jackets and tribal headgear. Anthony, who's missed the "Black Revolution" is a bit out of place amongst his own people. But he finds a friend in his old street mentor, Kirby, played by Keith David.
Can I pause for a minute and say Keith David kicks ass? Homeslice has been around the movie business for several decades, and is neck and neck with Delroy Lindo for the "Black Guy Whom You know You've Seen Before Like in That One Movie What Was It Called?" Award. Some people recall him from "John Carpenter's The Thing." A surprising amount of people mention him in reference to the Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estivez "comedy," "Men At Work." I thought he really shone as the serpentine drug dealer/pimp in the screen recreation of Hubert Selby's "Requiem for a Dream." But my hands down favorite Keith David role is that of Kirby in "Dead Presidents." A numbers runner with a prosthetic leg, Kirby manages to find a place in every sentence for the word "motherfucker." He's street smart, weathered, but also contains certain nobility - he's only done what he's done in order to survive.
The world continues to close its grip on Anthony. He discovers his girlfriend had a seedy sugar daddy to support her while he was away, a challenger who mocks Anthony's financial impotence. He loses his already low paying job. His relationship starts to falter and he starts drinking. Then he's pulled into a Black power meeting by Delilah (N'Bushe Wright), the sister of his girlfriend. While he has little interest in the politics of the meeting, Delilah does make clear that some sort of radical action could help pull Anthony from his spiraling descent. It lays the seed in Anthony's head for a heist - a plan to pull together a team for that mythical "one last job" (which in this case is also their first.) A group in constructed consisting mostly of war veterans: Skip, Jose, Kirby (a Korean war vet), a Viet-Nam cohort turned preacher named Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) and Delilah. On a cool Sunday morning, they make their move.
I'm reticent to provide much detail about the heist sequence. For one thing, "I've also felt "Dead Presidents" was misrepresented to the public as a heist picture (like Steve McQueen's "Getaway.") and I don't want to affirm that impression. "Dead Presidents" is much grander in scale than a caper movie, and to focus soley on the main action sequence is unfair. There's also not much I can say about the scene without ruining the movie for you so I'll keep it brief. It starts out with Anthony, Jose and Delilah disguised in black leather and chalky whiteface. (A camouflage numerous reviewers have accuratly accused of being ridiculous; it only make its wearer easier to see.) hiding near the loading docks of a commercial district as an armored truck loads up its stash. Skip, Cleon and Kirby are stationed at nearby points in plainclothes. A black cop approaches Cleon, who appears to be waiting for bus, eager to help out a fellow vet by calling in to see whether the line is running. Such a tension building device is right out of the toolbox of Hitchcock, and the cop's color is a masterstroke. It might not be that hard to kill a white cop who interferes with the team's plans, but can they take out a fellow brother? Suddenly all hell breaks loose - the team attacks the truck, gunfire is exchanged, casualties occur on both sides and police arrive. What's left of the group escapes with serious losses to their numbers and morality.
The rest of the film carries itself out in a tragically predictable manner. There's a final courtroom scene in which one of the protagonists pleads his case with a decidedly unliberal judge, (played, with knowing irony, by Martin Sheen.) I've seen some reviewers take this moment to task, as they allege that the Hughes brothers are using the exchange to justify the actions of the characters in the film. But I've never viewed it as such. There is a clear line between explanation and justification, and "Dead Presidents" never crosses it. The film never argues that it's right to murder, or that it's right to steal, it merely explains, in a refreshingly unrighteous way, the motives of some who would commit such acts.
I find myself arriving at the end of this piece, reluctantly having to admit that maybe "Dead Presidents" doesn't have much to do with Blaxploitation. Most Blaxploitation films would have justified the action of their protagonists with some sort of Robin Hood level of morality. Most Blaxploitation films would have carried out their thesis in a comic book role reversal - all Black characters are "good," all white character's "bad." And most Blaxploitation films wouldn't have ended on such a downer. But "Dead Presidents" never betrays its path of taking a look at the issues of crime, war and race against the background of reality. A background where there's plenty of guilt to go around. So maybe you're right - maybe "Dead Presidents" doesn't have any business being in a blaxploitaion issue.
Eh, blow me.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at email@example.com
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