They don’t get much harsher or more confrontational than “Dead Presidents,” an assured - though belated and sometimes garbled - follow-through by brothers Allen and Albert Hughes to their filmmaking debut, “Menace II Society” (1993).
Where their point in “Menace” was to challenge and perhaps explain the present day’s gang-warfare mentality, the Hugheses use “Dead Presidents” to examine where that mentality might have come from. The new film is an excruciating odyssey through a particularly troubled time for African-Americans - the late 1960s into the middle ‘70s - and only in the last few reels does screenwriter Michael Henry Brown lapse from thoughtful social commentary into bloodthirsty shoot-‘em-up business.
It could be argued that such unreasoning violence is the only appropriate response to a society that denies one opportunity after another to some of its citizens. And of course, on a pure gut-instinct level, the wild finale works as shocking entertainment.
But ultimately, “Dead Presidents” proves too ambitious for its own good: So many grave social issues are raised that can’t be adequately dealt with in two hours.
Saving graces include many sharp character roles enacted by the likes of Clifton Powell as a temperamental pimp, David as a grimly determined entrepreneur, Bokeem Woodbine as a disappointed do-gooder and N’Bushe Wright as an Angela Davis-type.
Danny Elfman’s musical score, reminiscent of classic mobster films, contributes powerfully to the suspense, and Lisa Rinzler’s wide-screen Panavision camerawork is visually arresting - though darker and grittier than the sparkling images usually associated with that vast format.
The title, incidentally, is a slang expression for U.S. currency.
xxxx “Dead Presidents” Location:Lincoln Heights and Lyons cinemas Credits: Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, starring Larenz Tate, Keith David, N’Bushe Wright Running time: 2 hours Rating: R