'Dead Presidents" comes from the Hughes Brothers, the young black filmmakers who burst into prominence with "Menace II Society" two years ago. They are now achieving a rare measure of acclaim by having their new picture bow at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters.
Again their subject is the difficulty of living, loving, and surviving in the mean streets of an African-American ghetto. But this time they broaden their canvas and deepen their analysis by pursuing an angle that few movies have explored: the relationship between inner-city violence and military indoctrination, which can be just as deadly even though it's sanctioned by society and promoted as a pathway to a respectable career.
The story begins in the late 1960s, as young Anthony ponders the options available to him as a young black man from a South Bronx neighborhood. He gets no shortage of advice from friends and relatives - his parents, who hope he'll go to college; his girlfriend, who wishes he'd stay with her; and his mentor, a local thug who urges him to stick around the 'hood to see what criminal opportunities come along.
Bypassing all of them, Anthony joins the Marines and heads for Vietnam, where his thick-skinned attitudes help him stay alive longer than many of his fellow soldiers. Returning to New York in the early '70s, he finds his circumstances somewhat changed, but the basic facts of life are the same as ever. Jobs are scarce, finances are low, and the future looks as uninviting as the present.
The only major difference is that he's now a seasoned fighter, stalker, and killer, courtesy of the Marine Corps training and a lot of practice in the Vietnam jungle. Driven by need and tempted by greed, he joins a scheme to steal a truckload of outdated cash - the "dead presidents" of the title, worn-out bills on their way to a Treasury incinerator.
Much of "Dead Presidents" plays like a regular inner-city melodrama. Aspects of the story recall such pictures as "Boyz N the Hood" and "New Jack City," and the plot culminates in a holdup and chase scene that combines effective suspense with more violence than the filmmakers need to make their point.
What gives the film unusual interest is its probing of the link between Anthony's experiences and the environments that shape them: his poor Bronx community burdened with harsh social realities, and the battlefields of Vietnam overflowing with mayhem.
While the movie doesn't try to equate these very different places and situations, it shows how inseparable they become in Anthony's evolving consciousness: He returns home and tries to establish a decent life on the strength of his record as a brave young man who risked his life for his country - only to discover that the community at large couldn't care less, but expects him to lead the same hand-to-mouth existence that would have been his lot if he'd never left home.
At its most thoughtful moments, "Dead Presidents" poses a question so troubling that Hollywood normally steers away from it. What are the rewards for a person who starts off playing by society's rules but finds the game skewed by racial, economic, and cultural handicaps? The movie offers no easy answers, but deserves credit for raising the issue loudly and clearly.
Larenz Tate, who made his debut in "Menace II Society," gives the picture a solid center of gravity as the troubled main character. Skillful support comes from Keith David as his low-life mentor, Rose Jackson and N'Bushe Wright as his girlfriend and her politically active sister, and Chris Tucker and Freddy Rodriguez as his best friends. Michael Henry Brown wrote the uneven but powerful screenplay. Lisa Rinzler did the crisp cinematography.
*'Dead Presidents' has an R rating. It contains a graphic sex scene and episodes of awful violence, especially in a Vietnam battlefield sequence.