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Dead Presidents [Movie Review]

Summary

Dead Presidents is a 1995 Hughes Brothers film about Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), a young man who serves in Vietnam with hopes of charting his path in the world but is instead scarred by the atrocities of war. Drawing on the blaxploitation genre, the movie follows Anthony as he returns home to the Bronx in the early 1970s and struggles to cope with what is likely undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As Anthony faces difficulties finding stable employment and supporting his young family, he is drawn into a heist that could provide him and his friends with life-changing money.

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Show Notes

Dead Presidents begins in the East Bronx in 1968 during the war in Vietnam and the latter part of the Civil Rights Movement. This would be the year that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and that would give way to the struggle for freedom becoming especially hot, heavy, and violent. It’s a transition period from the early nonviolent Civil Rights Movement towards the later more militant aspects of the movement and the rise of Black Power.

Anthony starts his day early working a milk delivery route with his friends Skip (Chris Tucker) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez). Later walking down the street, the neighborhood looks bright and cheery and everyone seems to know Anthony. The soundtrack is incredible from beginning to end but things get started with a little Curtis Mayfield helping to provide a 1960s vibe. I’d like to see more period Black movies like this that are about everyday people and the drama of their day-to-day lives.

The first thing I noticed about Dead Presidents was the visual presentation. I don’t think it was as much of an issue by the 1990s but good makeup and lighting for Black actors was a problem in earlier films. It’s certainly not the case here as overall everyone looked really good. I love these types of movies with Black people and other people of color where the lighting is just right, the wardrobe is on point, and style-wise everything comes together perfectly.

Anthony’s girlfriend Juanita (Rose Jackson) lives with her mom and younger sister, Delilah (N’Bushe Wright). They have a typical high school sweetheart-type relationship though Delilah has an obvious school girl crush on Anthony. As an aside, I was a bit thrown off by how old Delilah was supposed to be because she looked grown but her clothes and demeanor seemed very childish like she’d be way too young for Anthony. I also thought it was weird and a bit distracting that she was flirting with her older sister’s boyfriend.

Because of Black people’s history in America, there is often a discussion about whether or not Black people should be serving in the military of a country that treats us like second-class citizens. Going back to World War II (and possibly even World War I) there was a debate about whether or not it made sense for Black people to put their lives on the line. That conversation also takes place here. While Black people would end up volunteering and being drafted, you also had a lot of Black people, students, and other groups protesting against the draft and the war in general. Probably one of the most famous conscientious objectors was Muhammad Ali who openly opposed being drafted to serve in the military while Black people were still waging a decades-long fight to have America observe their humanity and rights as citizens.

Kirby (Keith David) runs numbers out of a local pool hall and Anthony earns pocket money running errands for him. Kirby served during the Korean War and lost his leg in some kind of accident or attack which has resulted in him wearing a prosthetic. Another regular at the pool hall is Cowboy (Terrence Howard) and from the very start, the guy is just unlikeable. He doesn’t immediately say anything rude to Anthony but he has a passive-aggressive vibe that thinly masks his hostility.

I first noticed Howard in a tv sitcom with James Avery where he played a rather buttoned-up lawyer but this might have come before that. Aside from that role, he seems to be otherwise typecast in these pimpish roles. Here he plays a character with curled hair and shiny manicured nails. I’ve kind of assumed but have never been able to truly figure out if that half crying country twang is his real speaking voice or just a voice he uses to be special.

For the most part, Anthony is a typical teen. He has a girl he likes and enjoys hanging around Kirby who is an older man that imparts bits of knowledge to him and gives him the means to live a little bit. He’s excited at the chance to drive Kirby’s car and during the drive, the two have a conversation. Anthony is relatively harmless and isn’t getting into too much trouble but he wants to see a bit of the world and do something a little different yet he has some misgivings about going to war. Being from the South and having fought in Korea, Kirby can understand some of Anthony’s feelings and talks to him like another adult rather than trying to tell him what to do.

There’s an unintentionally funny scene with Kirby and a guy that owes him money. Anthony is behind the wheel and they pull up to what appears to be a restaurant and Kirby goes inside. All of a sudden, there is the loud shattering of glass and a guy goes flying through the window. A woman comes out in defense of the man and Kirby punches her in the face which was dead wrong. But then the guy grabbed Kirby by his prosthetic leg, taking it off in the process.

I’m not proud of it but I always laugh at the look on the guy’s face when the leg comes off and then when Kirby drops to the ground and rolls up on him. Just imagine you get into a disagreement with someone which leads to a fight and their leg comes smooth off. It would be terrifying. People pull out and point guns at each other all the time in movies. But Kirby on the ground two inches from the guy and pointing a gun at him is probably one of the most memorable instances and one of my favorite scenes in Dead Presidents.

Back at home, the family is gathered for dinner and Anthony’s mother and brother are proudly anticipating his graduation with an eye towards the future. His brother is a bit older and has already gone off to college and graduated. They’re expecting him to also go off to college and are shocked when he meekly shares his plans to enlist in the Marines. I don’t think they’re disappointed but rather concerned for his safety and would prefer that he begin the path to an easier life and adulthood by going to school instead of war. Part of the problem is that he waits until seemingly the last minute to tell them when they were under the impression that he was going to college.

His father has a calmer reaction and offers some support as he listens to Anthony express his feelings and rationale. To a degree, Anthony is following in his father’s footsteps with him having joined the military and served during the Korean War. He’s heard stories from his dad about being in the military and how it helped to make him a man by providing discipline and guidance. It’s not that he simply doesn’t want to go to college but rather that he’s tired of school and wants to do something different. He doesn’t want to follow this set path that everyone else seems to be taking and he sees the military as a good alternative.

There’s a graduation party that Anthony attends with his friends Skip and Jose along with Juanita and Jose’s girlfriend Marisol. They’re all quite young and have visions of their future after graduation. Jose has been drafted while Anthony has volunteered to serve on his own. Skip seems to want no parts of the military and is incredulous that Anthony has volunteered. He envisions himself as a burgeoning pimp but seems to lack direction or any real plans for the future.

As the time for training gets closer, Jose decides to marry his girlfriend before leaving. To be quite honest he sounds like a nut job as he makes jealous threats about what will happen if she dates anyone else while he’s gone. Anthony doesn’t relish the idea of Juanita being with someone else but doesn’t think it would be fair to ask her to wait for him. He accepts the possibility that he might get injured or never come back. It’s at this point that she realizes the danger that lays ahead and that the situation might not end well for him. Yet, they share a sweet moment the next morning as Anthony escapes from Juanita’s house when her mother returns home from work earlier than expected.

Anthony runs through the neighbors’ backyards and the scene gives way to a cool transition of him running through the jungle of Vietnam while bullets fly and explosions go off all around him. It’s quite symbolic as one minute it’s the morning after he experiences a fairly significant moment in a young person’s life and the next moment he’s in the thick of a man’s game. He goes from running away from Juanita’s mom to running to avoid certain death. Anthony would have undergone at least some type of basic training but we don’t see it. Instead, from the viewer’s perspective, he’s just dropped into battle. He’s not old enough to buy alcohol or cigarettes but can enlist in the military despite having experienced and knowing very little about life.

Often when people speak about war, in the present or past, going into battle is glamorized as brave and honorable. But Dead Presidents and some other recent films present a more honest depiction of the true carnage of war. I think it was General Sherman who described war as being hell and despite never having been in battle but having studied history, it seems to be an accurate description.

I remember the warmongering that followed 9/11 as various interests pushed for wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq. The call for war ramped up and there was an increase in nationalistic pride along with a call for brave young men and women to go off and fight for their country. As has occurred at other points in history, the general public was passionately interested and supportive for the first few years. In the beginning, many were pro-military and supported the troops. That is until it turned out to not be the expected cakewalk and American soldiers were dying, while the news cycle adjusted and moved on to new topics.

But there was little conversation about the reality that some of these soldiers would give their lives for the effort as they would not return home. Even less discussed was the reality that many of those who did return home after risking their lives would not receive the support they deserved. Many came home to their families physically and/or mentally injured, disabled, or traumatized. Attempting to re-enter civilian life with lingering physical and/or mental health issues. Unless we have close family members who are deployed in these war efforts, we support the troops at the start of wars but life moves on whenever the news cycle does.

As recent as 2014, there was a bit of a scandal with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA). On a basic level, the VA was operating so inefficiently that it was making it difficult for veterans to obtain access to resources such as medical care. Veterans were waiting far beyond the target number of days for an appointment and some were receiving substandard care.

And that’s before we even get to discussing that it seems like there’s a greater push for people from low and middle-income backgrounds to serve in the military. It’s in keeping with the historical trend where people of means would pay for others to serve in their place. To be clear, I support the troops because they’re human beings and I value their lives. But I do not endorse the idea of frivolously sending people into danger, especially when many of those who promote war shield their children and loved ones from serving.

When things settle down, we see that despite his commentary to the contrary, Skip has also enlisted and is serving with Anthony. The fighting is hard on them both but Skip is openly having a hard time coping with the stress of the environment. It’s not just the people they kill but also seeing the people serving with them being killed. As a result of his night of passion with Juanita, Anthony is now the father of a baby girl. But to mentally survive Vietnam he’s ceased communication with everyone back home including Juanita to the point of not even looking at the pictures of his daughter that Juanita has sent.

Skip is on edge and freezes during a firefight with the stress causing him to later get high and indulge in the services of sex workers. Early on in the film, Anthony explained why he volunteered. Skip pooh-poohed his actions but here he is after having also volunteered to serve. Throughout the film, I felt like there were several moments where Skip came across as posturing though it might have been a coping mechanism. At the graduation party, he bragged about his future career plan to be a pimp though it was unclear if he intended to peddle in flesh or was joking. But there is no explanation offered as to why he changed his mind and enlisted.

Rounding out the crew is Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) who hails from Mount Vernon and is the son of a preacher. We don’t get any real background on this young man but describing him as “troubled” is putting it mildly. Unlike the others, Cleon goes off the deep end and relishes killing to the extent of keeping body parts as trophies. It’s interesting that Cleon is a preacher’s son but can so easily become a killing machine. Some of the guys’ actions make you wonder what they would have been doing with their lives if they hadn’t joined the military.

When Dead Presidents begins, it’s 1968 and Anthony is a high school senior preparing to graduate. Returning from Vietnam in 1973, it’s about four years later which is around when he would have been graduating from college. Like most young adults, he’s matured and changed during that time. But undergoing this transformation during a war has had quite the effect.

The same is true for Skip, who Anthony finds sitting on a street corner nodding out as a result of being hooked on heroin. Skip claims to be doing fine because he’s getting money from the government but it’s because he’s suffering from a host of medical issues. He’s an absolute shell of his old self and we get a little peek into the reality of his situation.

We come to see that Anthony is also suffering though maybe not physically. ln some ways, he shares some similarities with the neighborhood. The neighborhood doesn’t quite look dilapidated or run down but it’s not quite as well maintained and has lost some of the shine it had before Anthony left. At first glance, on the surface, Anthony seems to be doing ok. But he’s still reluctant to see his daughter and things are awkward with his family. It’s like the distance he created to survive the war has returned home with him and is making it difficult to reconnect with his former life. Like Skip, he tries to pretend that everything is okay but it’s a front.

In need of some kind of work, Anthony seeks out Kirby, who used to run numbers and did quite well by paying off the police but has since been pushed out of the racket by the police. Fortunately, he’s able to eventually find a job at a local butcher shop that might not pay well but is honest work.

Anthony bumps into Cowboy on the street and then again at the pool hall and despite the passage of time he still has a smarmy passive-aggressive flair. Yet he’s gone from a curly relaxer-looking hairdo to a small afro. It’s a sign of the times as Black people were moving from processed to natural hairdos. But it’s telling that while everyone else has seen better days, Cowboy, a dope dealer, is the only one that is fairly unchanged and maybe even doing well financially.

When Anthony finally makes his way to see Juanita and his daughter, he bumps into Delilah. She’s all grown up (though she looks the same age) and possibly a bit more mentally mature with a 70s Black Panther vibe going. Yet things haven’t changed much with her as she immediately starts in on Anthony. It’s a bit cruddy that throughout Dead Presidents, Delilah constantly pushes up on this guy that was dating and now has a daughter with her sister.

The visual of Anthony seeing his little girl for the first time is heartwarming. It’s not immediately clear how he feels about Juanita but it’s obvious that she’s happy to see him. Yet time has passed and they’ve both grown up into different people now. It’s just a few years later but so much has happened to him in that time. And Juanita’s been living her life as well raising their little girl on her own. Anthony’s lack of communication certainly didn’t help as there’s now this awkward distance to overcome in addition to getting reacquainted.

And just when you thought the awkwardness couldn’t get any worse, Cutty (Clifton Powell) pulls alongside Juanita’s car and the mood turns ominous. His face is all smiles and sunshine but he has a bad vibe that comes across as concentrated passive aggression. He’s a bit patronizing to Juanita but his sickeningly sweet and overly nice words seem to be for Anthony to hear. It’s his way of rubbing the entanglement that he had going with Juanita in Anthony’s face without having to necessarily say a word to Anthony.

Anthony is down bad while Cutty, who is Cowboy’s boss, seems to be doing quite well. He’s described as being a drug dealer but has the look of a stereotypical 1970s blaxploitation pimp. In the middle of the conversation when no request for or mention of money had been made, Cutty offers Juanita a $100 bill. He’s talking to, or more accurately distractedly listening to, Juanita but looking past her at Anthony who is doing the same. The offer of $100 is meant to show off in front of Anthony and is a bit of a dig to indicate that he knows Anthony doesn’t have it like that. Pardon my language but it’s a shady pissing contest.

It’s a dope scene and the few times Anthony and Cutty meet and interact are some of my favorite scenes. The obvious choice in their first meeting would have been for Cutty to say something openly rude to Anthony and have the two get into a fight. But instead, the exchange is more nuanced and indirect which makes it cut even deeper because Anthony can’t openly respond as intensely as he might want.

To be clear, I had no issue with Juanita seeing someone else but Cutty was just gross. Why him of all people? But the reality is that she was likely struggling and he was giving her money. At this point, Juanita is in her early 20’s, raising her daughter alone, and based on her apartment, struggling. Granted, if things were really bad, it’s unclear why she didn’t live at home with her mom to make things a little easier at least with regards to rent. I do not buy the idea that she was dealing with Cutty solely because he was a nice man and she liked his personality. But either way, while unfortunate, she was doing what she felt she had to do to make ends meet.

I side-eyed Anthony for a bit as he seemed jealous about Juanita and Cutty despite telling her that he didn’t expect her to wait for him. Maybe Anthony wasn’t indulging in, let’s say, carnal pleasures like Skip. But he was still gone for four years and ceased contact with Juanita during that time. They’re both young people who were dating but not married, not that marital status would make a difference. It’s unreasonable for them to go several years with no kind of contact to sustain the relationship but still expect that one or both would not see someone else. It’s unclear if Anothony’s problem was with her dating Cutty in particular (which I can understand) or her dating anyone in general?

It was likely a bit of both. Anthony was posturing when he stated that she didn’t have to wait for him. He told her one thing but deep inside was likely hoping that she wouldn’t see anyone else. An unfortunate fact of going to war is that while soldiers are off fighting, their family and friends who are civilians are still living their regular lives. He didn’t reply to her letters, most importantly, the one about their daughter. Anthony didn’t seem to want to have a whole bunch of other women but he kind of brushed her off when she’d mentioned them getting married and building a life together.

There’s some tension in the home though he and Juanita have settled into a routine if not comfortable family life with them now expecting their second child. And while it’s unclear what her job situation might be, they’re still struggling despite him working at the butcher shop. Anthony is hurt and there are all kinds of pent-up emotions within him from the war and Juanita likely has some hurt feelings about their communication breakdown. They’re dealing with some serious issues but are lacking the maturity to address and resolve these problems maturely and productively.

Juanita states in passing that Anthony is drinking a lot which seems to be the case as he’s drinking beer in one scene and what appears to be white rum in another. Anthony is having nightmares that cause him to wake up screaming and shaking in the night with cold sweats. Juanita wants to help him through the problems he’s now having but his way of coping continues to put emotional distance between her and what he’s going through.

Anthony wants to provide himself and his young family with a better life, not necessarily fancy, just more comfortable. And then adding to his problems is the loss of his job. I felt for him because he wants to get a better job or at least talks about wanting to get a better job. Losing his job is still disappointing because regardless of what he was earning, it was an honest job and he was making a contribution to the household. But isn’t that how things happen in life? When it rains, it pours. You’re trying to hold things together and do the right thing and just when it seems like it can’t get any worse, some new problem crops up that you have to deal with.

And then here comes Cutty with his stupid fingernails to show just what a punk he is by mouthing off to Anthony and sucker punching him. Here Anthony is trying to be a good guy and take care of his family and this clown is being disrespectful. Cutty was passive-aggressive when Juanita was present for his first encounter with Anthony. But with her not being there, he’s more openly disrespectful to Anthony. He details his sexual exploits with Juanita and questions Anthony’s manhood by implying he’s an inadequate provider.

To be quite honest, some of the problems in Anthony’s and Juanita’s relationship stem from the fact that they jumped right back into things. So much time has passed and they’ve had difficult experiences, they needed to sit down and have honest and open conversations about some difficult topics. They needed to get to know each other in the present rather than assuming that they could just pick things up where they left them in the past.

Juanita was fairly harmless and the character was ok in my book though I didn’t agree with some of her actions. Clifton Powell did a great job portraying Cutty who was an interesting character that I thoroughly disliked but enjoyed seeing on screen. He added so much to the movie but I wanted Anthony to beat him up, put all that meat back in the bag, and then go upstairs to his apartment. Juanita should have stopped taking money from Cutty, even better she should have ceased contact, and failing that should have volunteered to give back the money after hearing about his exchange with Anthony. Cutty is openly hostile towards Anthony but he also has no respect for Juanita. The money was given with ill intentions and should have been returned.

It would have been different if Anthony was being a bum sitting around the house and complaining all day. But he’s going to work and earning an honest living and at this point isn’t mixed up in the streets anymore, unlike Cutty. Sure, encourage him to get a better job, and honestly, if things were difficult already, they should have held off on having another child. But the way Juanita went about addressing these things was just completely wrong. While Juanita welcomes Anthony back, it becomes clear that there’s also some pent-up hurt and anger within her about their relationship that needs to be addressed.

Cutty is a drama king in that he is messy. Fine, Juanita and Cutty had their thing going while Anthony was in Vietnam. He’s a bum and she can see other people if she wants, even if that person is a bum. But now that Anthony is back and especially because they’ve decided to get back together, that entanglement with Cutty should come to an end. Cutty and his fingernails refuse to play their position so he keeps popping up to stir up drama and Juanita is encouraging him.

Juanita could do whatever she was doing with bummy Cutty if she wasn’t in a relationship with Anthony or at least if they weren’t living together. If they just had a child together but weren’t otherwise romantically involved, her and Cutty’s situation would be their business. But that’s not the case as she and Anthony have essentially formed a family. Granted, Anthony is slipping as well because he didn’t marry Juanita but yet managed to impregnate her a second time. They’ve got enough going on in their relationship and problems to address, adding Cutty to the mix just further complicates their situation.

And while I understand that Anthony was upset and paranoid, that doesn’t excuse him physically attacking Juanita. At the same time, when Anthony was attempting to leave, especially after having been choked by him the first time, Juanita should have just let him go. With all of that drama, they’d be better off just co-parenting for at least the time being and working on themselves individually. But that sounds too much like right.

Instead, both of them add to the problems that already exist by bringing other people into their situation. Juanita is still holding court with Cutty and his fingernails and Anthony reconnects with Delilah who is still sending all kinds of come hither vibes. He seems to friend-zone her but enjoys the attention. At this point, Juanita and Anthony are seemingly done, or at least should be and under normal circumstances, it would be fine for him to see someone else. But again, this is Juanita’s younger sister and the whole vibe between them, especially from her, feels inappropriate.

With everything going on, the simple solution to many of Anthony’s problems is money. Realistically, he could benefit from very intense therapy to deal with what’s likely PTSD. But that’s logic speaking, not emotion. And thus the idea to rob a money truck became enticing from this position of not seeing any other alternatives to provide himself and his family with the life he wants.

A key element of any heist film is the time spent assembling the team. Jose has the idea and brings in Kirby and Anthony, who then brings in Skip and later Cleon and Delilah. Jose is a bit of a loose cannon but has to be included because it was his idea and info. Skip is a mess but gets pulled in because he’s Anthony’s boy. Delilah is pulled in because they need another body. But I could never quite understand the logic of selecting Cleon who was an absolute nut job in Vietnam and is now living the religious life in Mount Vernon. Cleon seems unstable. Given that Kirby with his one good leg and Anthony with his PTSD are the most solid of the bunch, this is a bunch of shenanigans waiting to happen.

I love thrillers and action movies, and I love a good heist flick. But the heist setup here looks sketchy. It’s set in a desolate area where there is nothing else going on. Yet here are these two random Black guys standing at bus stops directly across from each other. What are the odds? I never really understood why Anthony, Delilah, and Jose were wearing white face paint. It might have been to disguise their features but would attract attention and make it difficult to blend in if they needed to escape. The participants and plan seemed flawed from the beginning. And as expected everything goes wrong.

There’s this thing throughout the film about ill-gotten money. First with Juanita and Cutty and now with the heist. Cleon states that they’ve bought their way into hell which is a fairly accurate description as the money just brings more problems. As is to be expected with a heist film, they begin fighting and carrying on between themselves. And at least one person begins spending lavishly as though they’ve won the lottery but with no legit source of income for the lifestyle change. Instead of laying low, they do everything possible to bring all kinds of attention to themselves. And so things just continue to fall apart.

Another one of my favorite scenes in the film is Skip sitting alone in his apartment in front of the television while Al Green’s iconic “I’m So Tired of Being Alone” performance on Soul Train is playing. The song itself is perfectly fitting for the scene. And the visual of the performance is legendary as Green stands on stage in a halter top, hot pants, with a purse to match while somehow still managing to look incredibly masculine. It’s one of those scenes in movies I’ve watched multiple times but always hope that there’s a different outcome.

As the dominoes fall, only a few on the team are left standing. At the end of the film, we see that crime doesn’t pay but Anthony finally lets out all of the pent-up anger, despair, and other emotions that he’d been stifling since the war. Coming back from Vietnam and struggling, feeling desperate and traumatized made me sympathize with Anthony despite him doing wrong. He would have benefitted from resources to help him deal with his experience in war as well as reintegrating into civilian life which would include assistance with finding a job.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn there was an older man in my neighborhood who was a Vietnam veteran and walked around drunk as a skunk all the time. He never really bothered anyone but was just loud, your typical neighborhood drunk that is obnoxious but harmless. I remember that he always smelled very sweet, not as in nice but a sickening sugary smell that made me nauseous as a kid. He had a friend who was a crack addict and the two would stumble around arguing about random nonsense all the time.

One year on Veteran’s Day, he came out on the street dressed in military fatigues and went looking for all the other neighborhood vets to wish them a happy Veteran’s Day. He looked rough but was probably around the age to have served in Vietnam. Not that it mattered at that time but I had no idea that he was a veteran. There was another time when I stopped by the corner store on my way to school and he was there. It was early in the morning and he still looked a mess but was otherwise oddly normal. He was with a lady and three boys all of whom were neatly dressed. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen that man sober and I was thrown off by how normal he seemed and he had what appeared to be normal and quite respectable-looking family members.

I was awestruck because this guy was always drunk out on the street and being loud so the local store owners would usually kick him out after a few minutes. But here this man was standing quiet as a church mouse and seemingly a completely different person. As a child, drunk people were a source of amusement so I was enthralled by this encounter. I’d always seen him around but didn’t know him so I was shocked to learn that he had a life outside of being intoxicated. It made me curious about him and his life as far as how he came to be living this rough life.

The experience opened my eyes to the reality that regardless of how people are living in the present, we all have a backstory. People who are alcoholics or drug addicts were born and grew up like everyone else and despite their experiences, they are still human beings. I never spoke to the man so I don’t know his story and am not blaming his circumstances on having served in the military.

But since then I’ve been curious and somewhat sympathetic (though not always) about people who suffer from addiction issues. For many people, the use of addictive substances is an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with physical, emotional, and/or mental issues. I’ve heard, though I’m not sure how accurate it is, that a lot of Vietnam veterans, in particular, returned to America addicted to drugs. War is hell but the carnage of that war, in particular, was devastating for many soldiers.

I’ve seen Dead Presidents several times in the past but always viewed it simply as a heist movie and maybe secondarily as a war film. But watching more closely it’s more nuanced and I noticed more about Anthony’s experience as a returning veteran who was traumatized by his experience in war.

I picked up on more from the beginning of Dead Presidents where Anthony was yearning for a different life for himself. Being your average teenager who was looking to live a little and maybe see a bit of the world. Then having his life fall apart by deciding the best option available was to enlist and fight in the war. Looking at Skip with him being so against the war, why did he volunteer?

Having them both return shells of their former selves and struggle to reenter civilian life while having few options available. Skip is a bit of a mess before they leave but is very excited and doesn’t understand why Anthony isn’t beaming with pride at having a baby. We learn very little about Skip’s home life before or after the war but he seems to be living a lonely life.

Anthony doesn’t have grand dreams or visions but wants to provide his family with a comfortable place to live and to spoil them a little bit. Yet, he finds himself unable to establish the foundation needed to do those things. Feeling overwhelmed by his experience of war, tormented actually by the memory of the things that he saw and experienced is messing with his mind. His conscience bothers him, resulting in him waking up at night with nightmares.

All of these things combine and result in his inability to be consistently emotionally and physically intimate with Juanita. He recoils from her physical touch and sexual attention but then also abstains from intimacy with her on an emotional level. She mentions during their last argument that he doesn’t allow her to touch, hold, or be otherwise physically intimate with him in a non-sexual way. He doesn’t allow her to comfort him and is unwilling to show any vulnerability unless he’s woken up from a nightmare.

On the surface, this is a heist film but the heist only accounts for the last 20 minutes or so of Dead Presidents. I now think of this film as being more focused on the experiences of Black men, their communities, families, etc, and the related aftermath of serving in the Vietnam War. Viewing Dead Presidents through the lens of it being more of a commentary on war and its aftermath makes this an incredible film. The acting, wardrobe, and everything else delivers visually but the complexity of the story sets this film apart.

Where this might have just been a typical heist film, it’s flipped around with more of the film focusing on what would push someone to even attempt such an audacious robbery. And the desperation of these people feeling so out of options in their lives that they make this desperate attempt at obtaining what would be a large amount of life-changing money. The way that they rush into this is foolhardy and everything goes wrong but that speaks to their desperation.

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