American History X (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Racism. It's almost impossible to turn on a news program, read a paper or magazine article, or engage in a political discussion without that word coming up at one time or another. White Rage has many forms - from the hoods of the KKK to the shaved heads and swastikas of today's apostles of Hitler - but only one terrible voice. This particular social problem is not limited to the United States. It is a worldwide phenomenon, with antecedents in every "civilized" country. To date, one of the most powerful films about modern-day race hatred has been the Australian offering, Romper Stomper. It's virtually impossible to watch that film and not leave the theater deeply affected. Although it treads similar paths, American History X does not offer the same overwhelming experience, but it has the capacity to disturb. Despite a tendency to become preachy, this film, the directorial debut of Tony Kaye, is no mere piece of propaganda. It recognizes that, when it comes to racial and ethnic hatred, no one has the answers and there are no safe harbors. And American History X does not easily dismiss the rhetoric of pro-white groups. Decoupled from their actions, some of their less-volatile arguments, borne of insecurity and frustration, sound plausible. The problem is, such doctrine frequently takes kernels of truth and distorts them into grotesque lies.

In the world of the skinhead neo-Nazi, slogans replace thought, fueling a mindless hatred that is startling in its intensity. Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is one of the most fervent members of the Venice Beach White Supremacist movement. An avowed hater of everyone who is not a white Protestant, he has risen to the top of a ragged group of hate-mongers. Derek is the disciple of Cameron (Stacy Keach), who stays behind the scenes to keep his record clean. Derek's followers include his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who worships him; his girlfriend, Stacey (Fairuza Balk), who thoughtlessly parrots his words; and a fat man named Seth (Ethan Suplee), who finds strength in a group that he lacks on his own. Derek's mother, Doris (Beverly D'Angelo), and sister, Davin (Jennifer Lien), are frightened of and for him. Then, on one fateful night, Derek uses deadly force to stop a pair of black youths from stealing his car. He ends up in prison for three years, and, while on the inside, learns some hard truths about life from a fellow inmate (Guy Torry) and from the principal of his old high school (Avery Brooks), who takes a special interest in him. But, when Derek emerges with a desire to change attitudes, he finds that words are not enough.

American History X is in no way a comprehensive look at racism, hatred, or inner city violence. Instead, it examines the various ways these elements tear at the fabric of a family. The film emphasizes that actions have consequences, and that attaining redemption isn't as easy as saying "I'm sorry." The price for a change of heart can be, and often is, brutal. The final sequence in the film is shocking not because it's unexpected, but because it illustrates this truth.

The chief weakness in American History X is that we're presented with only one truly three-dimensional character. As portrayed by Edward Norton (who gained 30 pounds for the role) in one of the year's best performances, Derek is a fully-developed individual. We see the subtle elements that prime Derek for racist attitudes, follow the events that push him over the edge, then watch the trajectory of his life as his hatred spirals out of control before being reined in. Unfortunately, no one else in the movie comes close to being as real as Derek. Most of the other characters are thinly-sketched stereotypes (the principal, the liberal sister, the weary mother) or caricatures (the skinheads). Actors like Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Fairuza Balk, and Avery Brooks do the best they can with lean material, but it falls on Norton's shoulders to carry the film. Ultimately, American History X succeeds in large part because of him.

The director is Tony Kaye, who has made no secret of his displeasure with the way New Line Cinema chose to edit the film (he made a very public threat to have his name removed from the credits). Some have speculated that Kaye's actions are a publicity stunt; regardless, he is still listed as both director and cinematographer. Kaye imbues American History X with a relentlessly ominous tone, especially during the final half hour, when we're expecting something grim to occur. Not all of Kaye's moves work - it seems unnecessarily showy for all of the "past" sequences to be in black-and-white, while the "current" ones are in color - but, on balance, Kaye displays ability in the motion picture arena (he is already highly praised for his direction of TV commercials). American History X may be flawed, but it's not easily forgotten.

American History X (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1998-10-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1