20 Years Later, Dead Presidents’ Depiction About Life for War Veterans Still Resonates
20 years ago today (October 6, 1995) Dead Presidents was released in theaters and with it arrived one of the most powerful depictions of Black Veterans in the history of American cinema. Starring Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate, Chris Tucker, and Bookeem Woodbine among others, the film was directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who had previously directed Menace II Society, and while Dead Presidents was not as commercially successful as the 1993 drama, it nevertheless contributed some searing imagery to the canon of African-American film. The Vietnam War plays the lead role, providing a backdrop for the film’s characters that inevitably affects their lives, sometimes gravely. Plagues often met by veterans upon returning home – addiction, crime, psychological debilitation – are the punctuating elements of the film’s plot, dictating what obstacles the characters face and in this movie’s case, do not overcome. Dead Presidents tragically depicts the sick irony faced by too many members of the Armed Forces, that of risking one’s life for a country only to be abandoned by it upon returning to American soil, an issue that continues to reverberate in this country, 40 years since the Vietnam War ended.
Much of the film’s inspiration was drawn from Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, a 1984 book by Wallace Terry, who at only 29-years-old landed a Time magazine cover story in 1967 called “The Negro in Vietnam.” The Indianapolis native had already amassed impressive career touchstones, including becoming the first African-American editor-in-chief of an Ivy League newspaper at Brown University. He went on to continue his studies as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Chicago and then at Harvard University, where he became a Nieman Fellow. At only 19, the Washington Post hired him and 7 years later he was in Vietnam, serving as the first Black war correspondent on permanent duty. His experiences there, including time spent alongside assault troops, inspired him to write the oral history that would one day serve as the foundation for Dead Presidents; the book became a national bestseller and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
It was the testimony of a man named Haywood T. Kirkland, a Vietnam War veteran who shared his experiences during and after the war in Terry’s book, that would stand out to the filmmakers. It was Kirkland who, unbeknownst to him, set in motion the vision for one of Dead Presidents‘ most memorable scenes by divulging the story behind one fateful day, when he and some comrades decided to rob a postal truck in 1969 Washington, D.C. According to a 1995 Post story, Kirkland (who would go on to change his name to Ari Sesu Merretazon) and two other men were armed and discovered a bag containing more than $300,000 in worn out, nearly tattered currency. According to Merretazon, “He instructed the driver to tell the police that the robbers were white; then he reconsidered and told the driver to say ‘Some brothers robbed [me] and they all look alike.'” Merretazon spoke with the Post after a screening of Dead Presidents, where he shared with reporter Kim Masters that while much of the film’s trajectory rang true to his own life (Larenz Tate’s character is loosely based on Merretazon), what was omitted was “how his decision to rob the truck was born of political rage. It didn’t show how he became an inmate leader while serving time at the Lorton Correctional Facility, how he testified before Congress about the problems confronting incarcerated veterans, how President Carter invited him to the White House.”
Nevertheless, for the countless movie-goers who watched the tragic tale of many men and women affected by a horrific war only a generation earlier, a stark reality was echoed. Just as Chris Tucker’s character suffered from a heroin addiction that would eventually end his life, the mid-’90s were, for a lot of Americans, an era during which crack cocaine’s stranglehold during the 1980s was still very much real and an epidemic that disproportionately affected communities of color. Contemporary conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti were collectively killing thousands of American service members, many of them men and women of color. And the fallout from 1992’s Rodney King riots had once again magnified the discussion of equality and civil rights that would contribute to the 1995 Million Man March, which took place only 10 days after the film’s release. For many who saw the film at that time, watching the plight many of their own parents faced rang eerily true for their own lives, an unfortunate reality that allows the film’s relevance to remain as powerfully resonant in 1995 as it does today.
In recent years, the affairs of veterans have taken a prominent seat at the table of American political discourse, particularly as they relate to healthcare. Many argue that veterans have been consistently neglected since before the Vietnam war, often ending up homeless, unemployed, incarcerated and both physically and psychologically ill. For many veterans of color, those problems are exacerbated by poverty and socio-economic factors that once again disproportionately affect minorities, but there is one category in which African-American veterans fare better. According to a report published by the Los Angeles Times in September, “a new analysis of nearly 3.1 million patients in the VA system has found a different kind of racial divide…researchers found that the adjusted mortality rate of African-Americans was 24% lower than that of whites.” While certainly not indicative of racial equality on a large scale, those statistics offer up a piece of rare good news for a community too often found on the unjust side of history.
Two decades after its release, Dead Presidents continues its legacy of being a brave, pioneering look at the lives of America’s disenfranchised. The film’s most direct legacy, however, is its serving as a metaphor for the state of human relations and the commonalities between how both people and money are treated. As Keith David’s character Kirby succinctly puts it in the film, “that’s Uncle Sam for you, son. Money to burn.”