Classic Movie: American History X (1998)

2009-09-08 15:24

Where does one start with something like American History X, a movie that pummels you with body blows while whispering in your ear that everything's going to turn out okay? How can a movie filled with so much hate and fury also leave you with the hope that even the most violent and contemptible are capable of redemption? It’s a brave and provocative endeavor that is enabled by mesmerising performances from the cast and a camera that doesn’t flinch from the brutality and beauty at the centre of this heartbreaking story.

Derek Vineyard (played by a ripped and menacing Edward Norton) is the haloed leader of neo-Nazi gang of skinheads in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. In the opening scenes of the movie, he brutally executes two black men who attempt to steal his car. The movie takes place over two distinct time frames. In stark black and white flashbacks, we learn of the events leading up to Derek's crime, the racist propaganda he is fed by his father, his growing involvement with the skinhead gangs after his father is killed, the effect this has on his family, and his life-altering time in prison.

Told alongside this narrative are the present-day struggles of Derek's younger brother Daniel (Edward Furlong) who is taking the same dangerous path to hate and self-destruction, on a critical day for both men – Derek's release from prison. Perhaps pointing to a brighter outcome for this parallel story, these scenes are shot in colour.

Both brothers are now changed men, but have taken opposing directions. Derek emerges from three years in prison a changed man – he abandons his neo-Nazi philosophy after a harrowing ordeal at the hands of his own Aryan Brotherhood, and comes to learn an important lesson: his hate hasn’t improved his life, or that of his family's. At the same time, the teenage Daniel has been lured into the skinhead gang, partly to 'honour' his brother, and is taken under the wing by the gang's enigmatic leader, Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach). These opposing influences sets up a nail-biting tension that pits two young idealists against a hate-mongering machine. And each side is destined to sustain dreadful casualties.

While the enduring images of American History X are the swastikas, White Power tattoos, and primitive acts of anarchy and violence, the movie is really about the decay of a once-prosperous, upstanding American family that began to rot from the inside out. The strides the Vineyard children are making in their education comes undone once their father poisons his children's minds with racist rhetoric when he learns that an inspirational – and black – history teacher, Dr Sweeney (Avery Brooks) is teaching Derek's class Black History. The murder of their firefighter father by black drug dealer while on the job sends an angry Derek over the edge, and his association with the neo-Nazis begins. It marks the point of no return for the family, who lose their home and their sense of purpose as the sins of the father continue to tear them apart.

What's interesting is how the movie's most polarising image, of Nazi insignia on teenage bedroom walls and tattooed into skin, doesn’t carry the kind of power to shock as it should. Instead they feel more like empty props, a crutch these disillusioned and broken kids need for them to validate their hate. Derek's anger at the world doesn’t protect him in prison, but a budding friendship with a black prisoner does. Dr Sweeney continues to be a fixture in the brothers' lives as Daniel spouts Nazi philosophy in his schoolwork, while Derek tries to leave behind that same thinking that destroyed his family, and save his brother from the same fate.

American History X asks complex questions about the influence of immigration on "traditional" American ways, and tells its story in a manner that demands your undivided attention. Director Tony Kaye marries scenes of animalistic violence (one need look no further than the controversial curb-stomping scene) with a sad beauty (the image of water used as a redemptive force), and makes liberal use of close-ups on his actors to convey the confusion, regret and rage that propels this tragic tale. It's not the easiest film to watch, but certainly one of the most rewarding. It doesn’t seek to offer any solutions to the inescapable reality of racism and racial tensions in a modern society, and, in reality, doesn’t really look to the future with a particularly rosy view. Instead it portrays humanity at its ugliest and forces us to look inwardly and ask oursleves, "Has our hatred made our lives any better?"

A bit of trivia: [from]

* Director Tony Kaye disowned the final cut of the film after Edward Norton reportedly re-edited the movie to give himself more screen time. Kaye tried and failed to have his name taken off the credit list and reportedly sued New Line Cinema and the Directors' Guild of America for $200 million, stating that they violated his first amendment rights.

* Edward Norton gained 13kg of muscle for the movie.

* The punk band Anti-Heroes sued New Line Cinema over a character's tattoo featuring the band. The band did not want to be associated with Nazis, even fictional ones, in any way. The band went on to record a song called "NLC" that debases the film studio.

* The film uses the word "fuck" 205 times.

* The quotation that concludes Danny's paper is from the closing words of Abraham Lincoln's first Inaugural Address in 1861.

Memorable quotes:

Derek Vinyard: D'you see this?
[Pulls down shirt to reveal huge swastika tattoo on his chest]
Derek Vinyard: This means "Not welcome".

Bob Sweeney: There was a moment... when I used to blame everything and everyone... for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. Used to blame everybody. Blamed white people, blamed society, blamed God. I didn't get no answers 'cause I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.
Derek Vinyard: Like what?
Bob Sweeney: Has anything you've done made your life better?

Bob Sweeney: [to Derek] Your anger is shutting down the brain God gave you.

[On Derek's change in prison]
Danny Vinyard: I'm sorry, Derek. I'm sorry that happened to you.
Derek Vinyard: I'm not. I'm lucky. I feel lucky because it's wrong, Danny. It's wrong and it was eating me up, it was going to kill me. And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this shit? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did ever took that feeling away. I killed two guys, Danny, I killed them. And it didn't make me feel any different. It just got me more lost and I'm tired of being pissed off, Danny. I'm just tired of it.

A harrowing look at the state of the American nation, featuring a fearless, unforgettable performance by Edward Norton. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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