Dead Presidents Makes a Case for the Vets Left Behind

By Bradford William Davis

The Hughes Brothers' period drama digs into the iniquities of military service.


In Nas’ debut album Illmatic, the pioneering rapper laid his aims bare in “The World Is Yours”:

I can't call it; the beats make me fallin' asleep/I keep fallin', but never fallin' six feet deep...I'm out for dead presidents to represent me

The “dead presidents” are George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons, and Andrew Jacksons — money that Nas, a teenager from Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses, had yet to accrue. In context, a line is drawn between artistic ambition, and the cynicism of a young black man who knows his country and its leaders don’t work on the behalf of Americans like himself.

In 1995, one year after Illmatic dropped, directors Albert and Allen Hughes released Dead Presidents. The movie starts in 1969, years before Nasir Jones was born, and its action takes place in a working-class Bronx neighborhood, not a Queens housing project. But the connective tissue is evident as it examines, through the lens of the Vietnam War, the unique struggles experienced by young black men from Nas’ generation and the era before his.

Dead Presidents stars Larenz Tate (Girls Trip) as Anthony Curtis, a bright and optimistic teen from a stable family who surprises his parents and his college-educated brother by enlisting in the Marine Corps. Curtis is flanked by his childhood friends: college dropout Skip (Chris Tucker), and Jose (Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriguez), a teenager drafted straight from high school.

Though their Vietnam tours don’t end with them “fallin’ six feet deep,” trauma follows the three through the entirety of the film. Jose returns to the Bronx with a damaged hand and a taste for pyromania. When we meet Skip, he’s only thirsty for two things: weed and women. By the end of his tour, he’s a jaded heroin addict. Anthony, meanwhile, is so scarred by his gritty war experience, he lacks the emotional ability to care for his girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson) and child. His problems are exacerbated by his limited skillset, forcing him to work for a local meat butcher. Anthony goes on to have nightmares that blend his gruesome day job and his wartime memories.

Their jobs — when they even have them — don’t pay the bills, leading Anthony to deploy his wartime training in an ill-begotten heist. In dramatic slow motion, dollar bills waft through the air during their heist, allowing the audience to get a close look at the green and white faces Anthony and his gang were desperate to collect.

The mistreatment and neglect of American servicemen is well-tread ground. But where the Hughes brothers succeed is their special attention to the compounded problems of black and brown men who died fighting for the freedom of a land uninterested in theirs. Anthony’s story is a fiction with a tragically authentic heartbeat: He was willing to represent his country. The Hughes brothers turn that on its head to ask a rhetorical question: Has his country ever represented him?