Dead Presidents (1995)

Director: Albert Hughes/Allan Hughes

Starring: Larenz Tate, Keith David, Rose Jackson, N'Bushe Wright, Chris Tucker, Bokeem Woodbine

Cinematography: Lisa Rinsler

Original Music: Danny Elfman

Story: Michael Henry Brown

FACT: Dead Presidents is based partly on the real life experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland, whose story is detailed in the book in Bloods: an Oral History of Black Veterans in the Vietnam War by Wallace Terry. Kirkland took part in a far less violent 'face paint robbery' to the one depicted in the film.

In one line: Ex-servicemen join a radical black activist to pull off a daring heist.  


Anthony Curtis (Tate) returns home from Vietnam after a grueling, nightmarish tour of duty. His neighbourhood has changed for the worse, he cannot find a decent job and his girlfriend Juanita has been sleeping with a local gangster while he has been away. Anthony loses his job as an assistant to a kindly Jewish butcher and Juanita mocks him for his inability to provide for her or their daughter (who may or may not be Anthony’s).

Anthony hooks up with pool hall owner/Korean war veteran Kirkby (David) and Juanita's sister, the Black Panther-style radical Delilah (Wright) to pull off the heist of a security van filled with bank notes destined for the incinerator.

Things go wrong, things go right, and things go wrong again. 


Dead Presidents is an OK film which could have been a great film.

Reminiscent of the old Warner Brothers gangster/social injustice films (especially The Roaring Twenties) and a strange and often uncomfortable mix of a Vietnam/70s heist film, Dead Presidents has much to commend about it, but is (perhaps) too ambitious in scope and (definitely) too lazily/clumsily written to find its way amongst anybody's top ten favourite films.

The Hughes Brothers' vision of the late sixties/early seventies Bronx is a triumph of set design and artistic direction. The soundtrack, featuring Al Green, Harold Melvin, Barry White and Curtis Mayfield is fabulous and there are numerous nods to Taxi DriverGodfather 2 and Across 110th Street for film buffs. There is, however, the feeling that this is a film made by movie buffs (the Hughes Brothers were born in 1972) rather than anyone with a genuine feel for time and place, and it's obvious that all sense of period is derived from watching a load of relevant films.

Mind you, as this is the film of two 23 year olds it's still mighty impressive.

The iconography of the heist is particularly impressive. The white face-painted robbers were just made for Film 4-style montages extolling the power of FILM, and the curious, plaintive face of the doomed Anthony looking up from a grid in the pavement is one of my favourite shots from any film.

Some of the Vietnam material is pretty juvenile, and the tedious, mother-fuckathon 'bad language' shovelled into the script instead of well-considered dialogue also highlights the youth and inexperience of the film makers.

Keith David is great (as ever) and and there's a good cameo from Martin Sheen as a slimy judge at the end of the film. Other than that, the acting is OK, but nothing to write home about.

A film of great images, and the hint of great things to come from the Brothers Hughes. (Emlyn and John 'Yogi'.)

It hasn't happened yet, though.