American History X
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Edward Norton (Derek Vinyard), Edward Furlong (Danny Vinyard), Fairuza Balk (Stacey), Beverly D'Angelo (Doris Vinyard), Avery Brooks (Bob Sweeney), Stacy Keach (Cameron Alexander), Jennifer Lien (Davina Vinyard), Elliott Gould (Murray), Ethan Suplee (Seth), Guy Torry (Lamont), William Russ (Dennis Vinyard)
"American History X" is about people who hate. To a certain extent, it is about why they hate, but most of all, it is about the damage their hatred does to the world around them.
At one point in the film, Derek Vinyard, a violent and brilliant young neo-Nazi skinhead played with glaring intensity by Edward Norton, is spending his second year in jail for having killed two blacks trying to steal his car. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the African American principal of his old Southern California high school, comes to visit him after he has been attacked by a group of skinhead prisoners he thought were his allies. In this pivotal scene, Sweeney asks Derek a question that gets to the heart of the pointlessness of racism and its incarnation in virulent hate groups: "Has anything you've done made your life better?"
Derek wants to answer "yes," but he can't because all of his racist actions--his forming a gang of skinheads, raiding a Korean-owned grocery store, complaining bitterly about immigrants, killing the two black men outside his house--have only made his life and the lives of those around him more miserable. And, worst of all, he has begun leading his impressionable younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), down the exact same road.
"American History X" tells the story of Derek's descent into the madness of racist hatred and his slow ascension out of it, most of which is told from Danny's point-of-view. The actual narrative of the film takes place during a single day, the day Derek is released from prison after three years. However, a good half of the film is told in black-and-white flashbacks, showing Derek's gradual development from an upset teenager whose father, a working-class firefighter, was killed by drug addicts in a burning crackhouse, to the much-lauded leader of a gang of skinheads in Venice Beach, California.
Of all the flashbacks, the most compelling is the extensive recounting of Derek's time in jail--how he at first aligns himself with a group of skinheads, but through a series of subtle and not-so-subtle events, begins to understand the wrongness of the life he has led. One of the major factors in his recovery is his being paired on laundry duty with a young African American named Lamont (Guy Torry), who was sentenced to six years for trying to steal a TV and accidentally dropping it on a policeman's foot ("They say I threw it at him--aggravated assault, six years").
Lamont is an easy-going, humorous guy who isn't afraid to punch Derek's buttons, especially in a dead-on hilarious impression of a Ku Klux Klan member. Norton does a superb job of conveying Derek's primary reluctance to even see Lamont as a human being; but, as they spend more time together, he can't help but see Lamont as a person of feelings, emotion, and humor, instead of merely another black face he can hate. It is this that gets to the heart of racism because racist propaganda cannot allow one to see blacks and Asians and Jews as individuals--they can only be seen as part of a larger group, which makes them easier to hate.
However, the film does have some weak points, especially in some of the character development. Derek's mother, Doris (Beverly D'Angelo), is a confusing and ill-defined character. We're never sure whether to think of her as being incredibly strong for putting up with two hateful, skinhead sons, or think of her as weak and ineffective for having allowed them to go so far. Plus, when Derek returns from jail, she is conveniently sick, which adds an unneeded melodramatic touch.
The most problematic, though, is Derek's father, Dennis (William Russ), who appears in only one flashback scene. The scene takes place at the dinner table when Derek is still early in high school, long before he had any inkling of becoming a skinhead. The point of the scene is to show that Derek's hatred is the twisted growth of seeds planted by his father, and at first the scene works exceptionally well.
Derek is talking about how his black history teacher, Bob Sweeney, is having the class read "Native Son." His father begins to complain about affirmative action and how African Americans are sometimes given jobs even when they're less qualified than whites, in order to "make everything equal." At this point, his dialogue rings true--the things he says are often uttered by frustrated, but still decent people who just aren't thinking their thoughts all the way through. This, in and of itself, should be enough for the scene. But, it pushes on, and next thing we know, Dennis is complaining about "niggers." It's an unfortunate turn because it makes Dennis into an obvious racist, and the film doesn't need that. It's too simplistic to think: father was a racist, now son is a racist. It was better to imagine that a multitude of small things helped form Derek's mindset, instead of something so blatant as his father openly using the "n-word" at the dinner table.
Otherwise, "American History X" does a searing job of portraying the neo-Nazi community and what makes them tick. The gang formed by Derek and followed by Danny is actually under the control of an older man, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who recognizes Derek's charisma and enthusiasm and how useful it is in attracting frustrated young losers who are looking to belong to something, anything. Cameron is probably the most insidious of all the characters, even though he looks like someone you would pass in a grocery store and not give a second glance. Cameron is a user--he recruits others to do the ugliest aspects of his business, and then hides when they get caught.
First-time director Tony Kaye, an eccentric Englishman whose only experience is directing European television commercials, does a fine job of dealing with hot-button issues and not letting them get out of hand. Through both action and dialogue, he conveys how racist propaganda is irrational and illogical, but at the same time, it has a certain appeal, almost logical in its own way, especially if you are a white person looking for someone to blame for your troubles. Kaye, who worked as his own cinematographer, reportedly hated the final cut of the film and wanted his name removed from it. I'm not sure exactly what he didn't like about it. The movie certainly has flaws, but overall, it's a powerful story well-told. It would be interesting, however, to see what he would have done differently.
As it stands now, "American History X" is a timely film, one that uses current social problems to illuminate basic flaws in the human character that have existed since the beginning of time. The film is both hopeful and sharply cynical, and it's not surprising that its ends on a scene of great, horrific violence contrasted against a voice-over narration that is filled with words of hope and learning. If anything, the movie shows that some paths are so deep and so dangerous, once you start down them, it may be impossible to get all the way back.
©1998 James Kendrick