Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) is bright-eyed and optimistic, despite growing up in the Bronx in the 60s, and in the spring of 1969, he decides to join the Marines during the Vietnam War and be a “hero” rather than go to college. He leaves behind his pregnant girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), imagining that, upon his return, life will be bright and easy for their family.
Anthony’s friend, Skip (Chris Tucker), later joins Anthony when he flunks out of college and together, the two are wholly stripped of any childish delusions about war and the lie of murder in uniform being heroism. They are traumatized, and also participate in visiting trauma upon others as they work as one of the many cogs in the wheel of American imperialism. Anthony’s friend, Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) who was drafted into the Army, experiences his fair share of violence and grief as well.
Coming home four years later, Black, poor, and veteran to a country which looks down on the poor, is violently anti-Black, and couldn’t care less about those who fight to make their rich richer is not an easy adjustment for Anthony. Between untreated PTSD, realizing that he can barely keep his family fed, and discovering that Juanita is having an affair with a wealthier man, his discontent with his life spirals deeper.
Jose is just as poor, Skip is a heroin addict, and the only person who seems to have it together besides his friend and father-figure, Kirby (Keith David), is Anthony’s former staff sergeant, the deeply religious Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine).
When Anthony runs into Juanita’s “militant” sister, Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), the pair soon join heads with Skip, Jose, Cleon, and Kirby in a plan to rob an armoured car on its way to the Federal Bank. What follows is both unforeseen yet inevitable, as the group reacts more than they act, and work from a place of desperation and naivety rather than calculated strategy.
Now, fun fact about me: I love capers. I almost always root for the “villains”, too, and Dead Presidents is no exception. During the draft, the same young Black men who were systemically oppressed were always the first to be drafted, Black bodies (which are already seen as expendable) being used as U.S. property and discarded once their usefulness had run its course.
This film eloquently highlights the pitfalls of both working outside the system, and working within it. Anthony thought that choosing to fight for his oppressor would give him a reprieve from being a target, that going overseas to help them oppress other people of colour would be the ticket to assimilating into the “American Dream”, but he was wrong. In uniform, he was a body fighting an enemy whom he had no personal issues with. Outside it, he was just another disenfranchised Black man. The lesson learned here is thoroughly bitter, sweetness derived only when Anthony had been young and foolish. In Dead Presidents, we glimpse the tragedy that befalls those with even the best-laid plans, and watch how quickly a promising future can spiral out of control.
I give his one 4.5 stars.