From the Vault: Dead Presidents

For Yerevan Magazine’s Summer 2010 cover story, we extensively detailed the Hughes brothers in a feature that hailed their films “genre-defying.”

Their second feature film, Dead Presidents, is a prime instance where the directing duo merges together a number of genres. The film, as a result, feels like five films rolled into one.

Allen and Albert Hughes were born in Detroit, Michigan to an African-American father and an Armenian-American mother. Their mother, Aida, was left alone with the boys after her husband left their family. The family of three soon left Michigan for California when the brothers were nine years old.

The half-Armenian background of the Hughes brothers was emphasized now that the boys were being raised in the hands of their Armenian mother. Their mother reconnected with her family while in California and the Hughes brothers were introduced to the Armenian culture during this time period. In 1984, at the age of 12, the brothers received a video camera for their birthday and stepped into the real world. 

The brothers eventually dropped out of high school, while Albert Hughes enrolled in Los Angeles City College from 1990-1991. The brothers soon began directing music videos for notable rappers, which included KRS-One and Tupac Shakur. The brothers sold their first screenplay at the age of 19, directed their first feature film, Menace II Society, at the age of 20, and became overseers of a production company and record company at the age of 21.

Dead Presidents is a film that is difficult to categorize; calling the film a war picture or a coming of age story wouldn’t do justice to the scope of the film. In this sense, the film is an epic. It’s conglomeration of stories and genres, turning in its elements of the war film in favor of a caper film. It’s a balance of genres that seems almost impossible to have been pulled off by the 22-year-old filmmakers. 

The opening credits of the film show us money being burned. The phrase “dead presidents” has to do with the fact that the images on currency are of deceased presidents. The particular irony is that the United States literally has money to be burned. In the film, Kirby (Keith David) remarks that the United States has money to burn, but these specific characters cannot find a way to make a living, further emphasizing their irony. 

Dead Presidents is a love letter to the 1970s. The film takes elements from that specific era, such as music, style and themes, and recycles them for the 1990s, which demonstrates how significant the 1970s were in informing future generations. This is seen through the use of the film’s soundtrack, for instance, which includes music from Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Barry White, and Al Green. In addition to its music, it’s also evidenced through its characters, such as the character of Cutty (Clifton Powell), a pimp that is a direct nod to the blaxploitation films of the time period.

In addition to being a film that admires the 1970s, it’s also interesting to note that the film ends in the mind-1970s, and therefore, can be seen as a prequel to the world of hip-hop. The film is indicative of the way in which hip-hop had started to influence other areas of culture, such as cinema, and although there are no overt references to hip-hop in this film, the film was released during the era of hip-hop cinema serving as a prequel to the hip-hop world.

In being a war picture, the film is concerned with the role of African-Americans in the Vietnam War. In the history of cinema, wars have been represented in hundreds of films, but there had never been a representation of the experiences of black Vietnam vets until Dead Presidents. The film subverts elements of previous Vietnam War films. In the climax of this film, the presiding judge is none other than Martin Sheen, the star of the penultimate Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now.

The Hughes brothers use Martin Sheen’s character as a way of comparing the white man and the black man. In this point of the film, the main character of the film, Anthony (Larenz Tate), has been on a downward spiral; after coming home from the war and having difficulties in adapting to the changing world, he unsuccessfully tries to rob a bank. In sentencing him, Martin Sheen’s character makes a comparison between both worlds; World War II and Vietnam, as well as the white man and the black man, as he remarks, “This young man has obviously forgotten some very fundamental things like decency and dedication and honor… everything the corps taught us… he is a disgrace to everyone that ever put on that uniform.” This becomes a direct comparison of the ongoing struggles that the black youth faces. 

Dead Presidents is a bold film that covers a lot of ground. The film is a combination of genres and is handled with delicate care in the hands of skilled filmmakers. The Hughes brothers make no references to their Armenian culture with this film, or any of their other films, but instead they focus on a general theme that applies to the culture in a much broader manner. Dead Presidents is concerned with the difficulties of everyday life, particularly during a time of historical transformation in the 1970s as witnessed through the eyes of several African-Americans.

The influence, for all we know, could have come when the boys first moved to California and faced difficulties adapting because of their background.