By Kevin Howell
One of my favorite movies of all-time is Dead Presidents. I remember seeing it with my brother in a theater in some urban area — which means the audience was talking and telling jokes throughout the film, making the experience 10 times better. Seriously, you need to watch one movie a year in the hood; it’s worth the price of admission.
Anyway, the movie is set during the late 1960s and early 70s in the Vietnam era. The main character, Anthony, is a young guy just trying to find himself. After high school he enlists in the Army, fights in Vietnam, then returns home to a neighborhood slightly different than he recalls. He has a child and baby’s momma to take care of, and he’s struggling to get by. At one point, all hell breaks loose in his life. He suspects his woman is cheating on him with a pimp, he’s got another baby on the way, he gets laid off from his job, plus he’s battling post-traumatic stress disorder from his war experience. So he and his other struggling friends try to pull off a bank heist, which almost works. But, after a few days or so on the run, Anthony gets apprehended, stands trial, and gets sent to prison for life. The end. No one lives happily ever after.
I’m not sure why this is one of my favorite movies, but I used to watch it all the time in college. It was like my escape from reality. Anytime I was stressed about life, I’d pop Dead Presidents in the VCR (yes, I said VCR, kids), and live vicariously through Anthony’s life for 150 minutes. Maybe I found Anthony’s life much crazier than mine, so it would ease my worries. But I think I just liked the reality of the screenplay. For the first time, there was a movie with no happy ending for the main character. Anthony never got what he wanted.
I’ve been learning a lot about the elements of a story lately. In essence, every story boils down to one structure: a character that wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. Dead Presidents fits that structure, but the character never got what he wanted. There’s nothing inspiring about that. And maybe that’s why I identified with it — because it was different. It was a switch from the normal Hollywood storyline. And in my stress and pain, I needed someone who I could relate to, because I didn’t always get what I wanted. Other pictures didn’t do the trick. In my room, I felt like I was sitting next to Anthony, explaining my issues as he smoked a cigarette, nodding his head and saying: “Yeah, man. I feel you. I feel your pain.”
Dead Presidents was like my drug to numb the pain of life. To numb me enough to get through it that day. I haven’t watched Dead Presidents in a while. Not since those early years in college have I watched it in order to relieve stress. Maybe because I learned to lean on Christ for that. I learned to trust Jesus with the stress. He, too, is someone who can relate to me and my pain. I could sit in my room, lying on my bed, explaining my problems, and Jesus was sitting there nodding His head saying: “Yeah, bro. I feel you. I feel your pain.”