Did You Know: Dead Presidents was Loosely Based on a True Story of a Daring Heist?

(c)Buena Vista Pictures

With entertainment, storytelling often takes inspiration from real-life events to create compelling narratives. One such film that drew upon true events is “Dead Presidents,” a 1995 American crime movie directed by the Hughes Brothers. While the film weaves a gritty and dramatic tale, did you know Dead Presidents was loosely based on a true story

The film primarily focuses on the life of Anthony Curtis, portrayed by Larenz Tate, as he navigates the challenges of growing up in The Bronx, serves as a Recon Marine during the Vietnam War, and eventually turns to a life of crime upon his return home. The character of Curtis is loosely based on the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland, known as Ari S. Merretazon.

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The real-life events that inspired “Dead Presidents” center around a daring mail truck heist that took place in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Three masked men, including Kirkland, approached a mail truck, with faces smeared with ash and one disguised as a postal worker. Their objective: to make off with $382,000 of worn-out currency en route to the Treasury Department for destruction.

What makes this heist even more intriguing is the motive behind it. During the robbery, one of the robbers claimed that the stolen money was “for needy black kids.” They instructed the mail truck driver to tell the police that the culprits were white, and later, they changed their instructions to describe them as “some brothers” who all looked alike.

Ari S. Merretazon’s journey from embittered Vietnam veteran to a participant in this audacious heist is a the making of a good film. However, it’s important to note that while “Dead Presidents” draws inspiration from these events, it takes creative liberties to craft a dramatic narrative for the silver screen.

According to Merretazon’s interview with The Washington Post, “at the screening, the twins warned Merretazon that the movie was based only loosely on his life. And for 120 minutes, he watched a film that includes scenes as grim and blood-spattered as anything that Hollywood can deliver.

“I was expecting to see something I could recognize and say, That’s me,’ ” says Merretazon, 48, from his home in Arkansas. But the tale on the screen wasn’t familiar at all. “I never killed anybody,” he says. “I never got into violence or anything like that.”

The movie depicts horrific sequences of the Vietnam War. But it didn’t show how Merretazon got radicalized there, 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.

At the end of “Dead Presidents,” the main character is headed for prison. “The movie ends,” Merretazon says, “where my life begins.””

However certain characters in the film are based on real acquaintances of Kirkland who also served time in prison after committing robbery while donning facepaint.

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The real-life events surrounding the heist and Kirkland’s experiences during and after the Vietnam War were chronicled in the book “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans” by Wallace Terry. This book served as a significant source of inspiration for the film.

As with many Hollywood adaptations, “Dead Presidents” transformed the true story into a cinematic narrative, emphasizing dramatic elements and character development. While the film is gripping in its own right, it’s fascinating to explore the intersection of reality and fiction in the world of cinema.

So, the next time you watch “Dead Presidents,” remember that it has its roots in a real-life heist and the experiences of a Vietnam veteran turned activist.

(Originally read from archived Washington Post article)

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