Wednesday, April 8, 2015
"Dead Presidents" Revisited
Who remembers the Hughes Brothers' motion picture “Dead Presidents”? (Someone told me it was on tell-a-vision recently.) Those who do, may recall a grim tale of blood, violence, anger, and desperation. It's a story that offers little hope or encouragement for anyone to walk away with. Granted, real life has its share of horrors and tragedies, but there's something wrong when filmmakers set out to tell a story of despair, despite it being inspired by real life events that, if depicted faithfully, could have presented a film that sent a ripple of encouragement and empowerment throughout its viewers... particularly, the viewers this film was meant to most represent, and make the strongest impression on: people of color.
Something many viewers may not have known: the plot was loosely based on the actual accounts of a Vietnam vet formerly known as Haywood T. Kirkland. Today, he is more commonly known as Ari Merretazon. His story saw its first public appearance in Wallace Terry's “Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History” (buy a copy; this is an important piece of our story that hasn't been told accurately on any screen to date). Merretazon's account is the seventh given in the book, and easily stands out as one of its most profound.
Beginning with a miraculous vision at age twelve, his tale takes us with him through the tragedy of senseless war, prejudice, and alienation among the very people he daily laid his life on the line for. From here, his struggle to help his community and make ends meet led to the infamous mail heist. This wasn't the first instance where Hollywood did some “touch-up” work on his story, but it's by far the most conspicuous.
The film's main character, as portrayed by Larenz Tate, does retain at least a few similarities with his source. They both were ace pool players. They both served in the war. They both helped with a mail-truck heist. They both went to prison. The similarities just about end there.
Whereas the man in the film offers an image of the stereotypical "angry young Black man", the real life hero presents a far more noble model worthy of emulation. Not only did him and his accomplices pull off the heist without even injuring a single person, they focused the bulk of the money towards bringing hope to their communities, in the form of medicine, toys, and clothing. There was a brief scene in the film where Tate and Chris Tucker's characters are handing out gifts at Christmas, but it comes across as more of an afterthought, rather than a glimpse into what these young men were actually about. All in all, Tate's character seems far less driven and sympathetic.
What makes such subtle, but significant alterations more unfortunate is this: the man who Tate's portrayal was based off of, changed his name in prison to Ari Sesu Merretazon, which is both African and Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian). Not only that, he cemented his transformation by donning full African attire. This is again, as he's bringing significant reforms for incarcerated veterans, and performing various charity work within the prison community, and beyond, after an early release for good behavior.
To this day, he continues to organize, teach, and assist those in need nationwide, through his ministry. Now compare that to the volatile character on film, who showed no hope for release or redemption, after receiving a life sentence. (Far more severe than the one handed down to the real man because again, in real life nobody was hurt or killed in the heist.) I'm sure I wasn't the only young person who left the experience feeling mad, frustrated, and with no place to channel these emotions properly. Now: compare that to the impression the film could have left, if more actual events had made it into the script - particularly for the young people who most likely saw it in greater numbers.
Some may argue that Hollywood is about entertaining and making money - not reporting history and making sense. And to be fair, this is the duo that directed “Menace 2 Society”, so perhaps I'm expecting too much looking back. Regardless, it's not about what I think. It's about personal responsibility, and our innate duty to one another. Moving forward: if one is going to take the time & task of presenting something as influential as media to their people, they can and must be held accountable for how - and what - they choose to present... for the effects of media and its imagery are both hard-to-predict, and hard-to-right. Rather than remain true to the living legacy of the man who gave, and continues to give, so much of himself to others, including the makers of “Dead Presidents”, the young filmmakers instead took the aspects of his life that could be twisted and bent to reflect their own perspectives, outlooks, and interests.
Instead of taking advantage of the chance to go against the same old cliches that depict people of color at their worst and least admirable, the directors opted to take the most often used road, to the lowest common denominator spiritually. What may have been an inspirational tale reminding us all of the potential & preciousness of life, was instead reduced to yet another confusion-inducing orgy of aggression & greed. And as a result – without the slightest awareness of it ever having taken place – every single person [particularly every young boy of color] who saw the film, was robbed of the rare opportunity to take in a true story that shared some of the best, brightest, and unbreakable power within each of us, to transform into something greater than the unfortunate events that sometimes surround us.
(You can read more about the man and the real story here)