American History X Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Edward Norton

I'm not scared... I'm through with it... I'm done.

"American History X" is an unflattering and often disturbing look at the roots and consequences of racism. And like the hard reality that it attempts to mirror, there are no easy answers or simple solutions offered in this cautionary tale. Instead, it portrays the scourge of racism as an endemic and self-propagating problem, festering and feeding upon itself, resulting in distant consequences both unexpected and tragic.

Are we going to stand here quietly on the sidelines while our country gets raped?!

In his heyday, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton of "Rounders") was one of the most outspoken members of the Venice Beach White Supremacist movement. A menacing figure, with his head shaved and a swastika tattooed across his breast, Derek was singlehandedly responsible for recruiting and organizing the disaffected white youth of his neighborhood, and then turning their anger and hostility against non-whites. A protege of Cameron (Stacy Keach), who pulls the strings of the VBWS from a safe distance, Derek led his followers on a series of heinous hate crimes against the visible minorities of the Venice Beach community, including an appalling attack on a Korean-owned grocery store. Among his most loyal followers are his rhetoric-spouting girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk of "The Craft"), an overweight exterminator (Ethan Suplee) who finds empowerment through his affiliation with the VBWS, and Danny (Edward Furlong of "Terminator 2"), his younger brother.

That's why Derek started the DOC. He said that white kids shouldn't be scared to walk in their own neighborhoods.

However, one fateful night, Derek shoots and summarily executes some black youths attempting to steal his car, and he winds up serving a three-year sentence for manslaughter. While in prison, Derek's notoriety and fame grow among his fervent followers on the outside as they eagerly await his release so that he can lead them to greater glory. However, on the inside, Derek undergoes quite a different transformation, thanks to his friendship with a black inmate (Guy Torry) and the interest of his former high school principal (Avery Brooks of "The Big Hit" and "Deep Space Nine").

Has anything you've done made your life better?
Edward Furlong and Norton

When he is finally paroled, Derek's transformation is complete, and he is ready to put his intolerant ways behind him. However, he soon realizes that finding such reprieve is much more difficult that first thought. Cameron and the VBWS have been busy in his absence, organizing white supremacist groups along the West Coast, and they want Derek to lead them onto greater glory. On the other hand, the peers of the black youths that Derek executed three years prior have not forgotten, and are on an active lookout for him. Meanwhile, his mother (Beverly D'Angelo) is ill, and Derek must take over as primary breadwinner to look after his two sisters, one of whom is in college (Jennifer Lien, formerly of "Star Trek: Voyager"). Most troublesome of all, his younger brother Daniel has been seduced by the inflammatory rhetoric of Cameron and Derek's former peers, even to the point of handing in a favorable book report for school on Hitler's "Mein Kampf", and making enemies with a gang of black youths in his school. Caught between white supremacists who want to glorify him, black gang members who want to vilify him, his family, and a brother who is blindly following in the same tragic footsteps, Derek finds his predicament precarious at best.

I'm out... and I'm taking Danny with me.

"American History X" was already mired in controversy even before it was released, and it had nothing to do with the unfaltering look at a difficult subject matter. Director Tony Kaye, a veteran of television commercials, got into a dispute with New Line Cinema executives over the film's 'final cut'. Unhappy with how the film was edited, New Line allegedly re-cut to Kaye's dismay, resulting in Kaye's unsuccessful bid to have his name removed from the film.

Who do you hate Danny?
Anyone who isn't a White Protestant.

Looking at the final product that was released theatrically, it is easy to see the reason for the accusations and dissension. David McKenna's script tries to cover a lot of material in the film's two-hour running time, and the fact that much of the action is framed within the twenty-four hour period following Derek's parole doesn't help either. As a result, several narrative shortcuts are taken to compress the story, mostly at the front end, with the most notable being the treatment of how Derek became a skinhead, and how he came to be recruited by Cameron. Fortunately though, no attention to detail was spared in the portrayal of Derek's moment of clarity, or his post-prison dealings with his former brethren.

Lincoln freed the slaves 130 years ago... how long does it take to get your act together?
American History X Poster

Narrative structure aside, Kaye and McKenna have crafted a very thought-provoking film, full of powerful scenes and dialogue. What some viewers may find most disquieting about "American History X" are not the images of the brutal savagery that Derek and his cronies inflict on their victims, but instead the racist rhetoric uttered by the characters. The ultra-right wing ideas upheld by the white supremacists are presented in an almost palatable manner, and in the absence of the images of swastikas and hate-filled violence, seem almost reasonable. In the face of insecurity and fear, these are the very words that can galvanize ordinary people to commit unspeakable acts of intolerance. Two powerful scenes convey the sense that these arguments are both alluring and not easily dismissed. The first is Derek getting into a heated discussion on race relations with his mother's Jewish boyfriend (Elliot Gould of "The Big Hit"), and the second features Derek using his intelligence and eloquence to organize a group of skinheads to one common purpose.

The state spent $3 billion last year on services for people who don't even have a right to be here!

In addition to the excellent dialogue, Kaye, in the role of the film's cinematographer, uses a number of interesting camera techniques to give the film a sense of an increasingly ominous sense of 'heightened reality', such as the judicious use of slow motion in conjunction with unconventional orchestrations, a similar technique that Spike Lee used in "He Got Game". While some critics may dismiss Kaye's prosaic use of color versus black-and-white film to distinguish between the present and the past, the monochrome images of Derek's skinhead days and unrelenting sense of foreboding seem an appropriate match.

People look at me and see my brother.

Finally, with the film focusing primarily on Derek's transformation, much of the film's strength falls squarely on the abilities of the actor playing him. Fortunately, Norton shows an excellent range in his portrayal of a racist seeking redemption, and his portrayal comes across as very genuine and very human. Decked in his neo-nazi tattoos and goatee, Norton is fearsome and villainous; after his parole, with a crop of hair and a gentler demeanor, he is a very likable and sympathetic figure. The rest of the actors, Furlong in particular, do a reasonable job, though the shortcomings do not stem from lack of ability. Instead, the ambitious script, attempting to cover so much ground in so little time, gives the supporting characters a short shrift.

Every problem in this country is race-related.

Stylish, emotionally resonant, and unflinchingly gritty, "American History X" is clearly one of the year's best films. Creative disputes notwithstanding, Tony Kaye has crafted a superb look at a difficult subject, and Edward Norton has skillfully brought to life one of the most engaging character studies in recent years.

Images courtesy of New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.

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