15 March 2008
DEAD PRESIDENTS (Dir. The Hughes Brothers, 1995, US) - Overlooked and underrated; is this a key film of the 90s?
The Hughes Brothers shot to fame with their blistering and hugely controversial African American gangland debut feature, Menace II society in the early nineties, making many to prematurely label the pair as potentially brilliant film makers. Unfortunately, their career did not unfold in logical and predictable Hollywood fashion instead charting a very strange journey that perhaps suggests more about how problematic it is for African American film makers to find financing for projects. I had watched Dead Presidents when it was first released on VHS in 1996 but was left with mixed feelings about the shape of the film but having returned to the film on DVD last week, I was amazed by how wrong I had been about a film which should rank as one of the key films of the nineties. The Hughes Brothers filmography is quite poor in terms of output, having only made 3 films to date plus one documentary. Their most recent directorial venture was From Hell, a big screen adaptation of Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel but that was 2001! Will somebody please give these guys some money to make another movie before they get totally disillusioned with film making! The Dead Presidents features one of the best soundtracks you are likely to come across for a Hollywood film and also contains a notable Danny Elfman original score. The story itself focuses on the difficulties faced by African American soldiers returning from the Vietnam war after having been duped into fighting a grossly unjust and deeply unpopular war; a white man's war. Beginning in 1969, the film moves through different phases in the life of an ordinary but intelligent young black man called Anthony, played brilliantly by Larenz Tate who's career like the Hughes brothers has not lived up to the hype of his early promise. The narrative moves from Anthony's adolescence in the Bronx, to the horrors of Vietnam and comes full circle back to the Bronx where he plans the heist of an armoured truck that goes terribly wrong, resulting in the death of his wife's sister who is a black militant. It comes of no suprise whatsoever that Dead Presidents did reasonably well at the box office, especially when you consider the film only cost an estimated $15 million. However whenever critics compile a list of the key films of the nineties, Dead Presidents is overlooked and continues to be dismissed as an important film of that decade. Dead Presidents deals with the issue of how the African American community was brainwashed and used as a political tool by the American military in order to justify a war which no sensible white middle class American teenager wanted no part of. When Anthony arrives back in the Bronx after serving his country he is criminally neglected by society and the establishment, and after his low paid working class job which involves slicing up meat for the local butcher falls through, he is forced to turn to crime. Anthony's reward for his service to his country is a life sentence and imprisonment - he is a victim of deep political and social inequality but not even his family seem to understand the price which he is made to pay for youthful idealism. Dead Presidents is one of the few films made in Hollywood which looks at the Vietnam war through the perspective of the African American veteran and this in itself is a triumph and represents for the time being the best of the Hughes brothers and what potential they once had as film makers. Will they rise again and articulate the frustrations of the black community like they did in the nineties? Or have they compromised any artistic integrity they did have when they made From Hell? For now the black voices which made Hollywood cinema so vibrant and relevant in the 90s continue to remain silent.