We watched Dead Presidents as a somber commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (or as I’m starting to call it, “MLKJR”), to acknowledge how young black lives were ripped apart by the Vietnam War in the years following King’s assassination. A lot of people in this country seem a bit myopic in their understanding of King’s life, unaware of how he was waning in popularity late in his career as an activist because he spoke out vociferously against the Vietnam “police action” and in favor of structural changes to the US economy as the only realistic way to end poverty. When he was assassinated, King was radicalizing, out of frustration. If he had not been martyred, he would not have a legacy so akin to sainthood today. The story of Dead Presidents reminds the viewer of just how far from King’s legacy the US strayed, squandering his wisdom.
Dead Presidents is a movie with a heist in it, but it is not a heist movie. Interestingly enough, it is also a movie with a war in it, yet not really a war movie. At its heart, Dead Presidents is a character-driven drama much in the same vein as House of Sand and Fog, a story of how our lives are gripped by social forces and trends that are much bigger than us and of which most people only understand small facets. In the case of Anthony Curtis, the protagonist of Dead Presidents, the overriding forces that shape his life are racial prejudice (and the economic consequence of becoming a de facto second-class citizen) and gender roles. Curtis feels compelled to join the Marines, rather than attend college, primarily because his father has told him that time in the Marines during the Korean War made him a man. The accusation that turns Curtis against his love interest, Juanita, is that he is not living up to a man’s responsibility to provide for his family. This need to be a man traps Curtis against the hard wall of racism, and PTSD treated only through self-medication with alcohol ensures that Curtis remains caught in this crossfire, even when there are no literal bullets flying.
Initially, I really enjoyed the music accompanying Dead Presidents. The theme that drives the opening credits is compelling and tense, and I was sorry that it didn’t get much play again until the heist scenes (which don’t show up until the film is about 7/8ths done, giving Dead Presidents the slowest “build” of any film I’ve watched in years, certainly of all the films I have reviewed so far for this blog). Period music gets used very effectively to cement the story in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and to make clear the subculture to which these Bronx residents belong. Unfortunately, this good use of score and soundtrack did not remain consistent. Several of the music cues present in interactions between Curtis and Juanita made me wince, and the score for the Vietnam sequences was entirely forgettable.
Use of Color
The simulated blood in Dead Presidents is all wrong. It’s way too bright of a red. The simulation was obvious and it reminded me of paint. It discordantly clashed with the predominant earth tones and natural greens. Mind you, other bright, artificial colors were present, but unlike the blood, I didn’t mind the lurid red, orange, or yellow clothing and decorations because it meshed well with other examples I have seen of period fashion and decor. The costuming and set pieces looked realistic; the flesh special effects did not (with the exception of a certain hideous “good luck charm”, which was appallingly well-done).
Dead Presidents‘ title misleads the audience. Its obvious slang reference to the art adorning US currency would lead the viewer deciding whether or not to view the film to believe that it is about the hustle, the need to make money by any means necessary. This drive does push Curtis to the depths of his desperation. But Curtis’ ill-fated heist takes up so little of the runtime, and enters into the plot so abruptly, that it almost feels like it was pasted in from a different movie. In fact, there’s no real build up to it with rising action or very much foreshadowing. One minute Curtis is attending his first rally for the “Nat Turner Cadre” (why not use the term Black Panthers? It has more cultural cache), giving the reader every reason to think his character is finally going to develop a political consciousness instead of continuing to internalize failure… and this really is what the film has been leading up to; the next minute, Curtis and his friends are seriously diagramming an assault on an armored truck that had barely been discussed previously. It’s as if the story’s dramatic arc forms not a curve of rising action up to a climax, but rather trails along a bumpy downward path before making a direct vertical leap up to an unexpected plateau. If I hadn’t been taking sober pleasure in the downward path’s depiction of Curtis’ economic truth, I might have almost felt that my artistic sensibilities had been insulted by the script writer’s assumption that I would need the promise of a heist to get into my theater seat.
This review probably comes across as an indictment, but the truth is that I really liked Dead Presidents. I liked it much more upon this viewing than I did after watching it previously, approximately ten years ago. I had forgotten many, many details in that time, and misremembered others (for example, somehow in my mind the armored truck target became a much more conventional bank robbery). But I liked it despite the realization that its quality is best described as uneven. Its pace can get gruelingly slow at times, and its characters are painted in rather broad strokes. But it does a good job of bringing the struggle of Anthony Curtis and the rest of his Bronx to life, and makes it easy for even a white Midwestern woman to understand how a black East Coast man can feel like a victim of circumstance. This is a good film for anyone who cares about social justice.
Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.