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American History X Review

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It has been many years since I have seen this film. My memory attested it to be an excellent picture that meaningfully discussed issues as heavy as race relations, prejudice, and hatred. Unfortunately, my memory is a little at fault, and upon viewing it this time I found it a bit disappointing. The film sets its sights to the heavens, and while succeeding in many ways, it could not attain such a lofty height. In trying to cover all the basis in such a thorny issue as race relations it cheats a bit in its storytelling. But we’ll cover more of that in a bit.

The plot involves a young, white Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and the tumultuous 24 hours after his release from prison for killing two black men while they were trying to steal his car. Much of the story is told in a flash-backed black-and-white. Here we learn that Derek was a Neo-Nazi skinhead leader who has had a change of heart after his stint in prison. Post prison time is being spent trying to keep his brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) from following in his footsteps, a path he is already walking down.

This is a powerful, moving film. Reading the boards on IMDB will attest to lives being changed through watching it. It works best when it shoots for an emotional response, rather than an intellectual one. Scenes such as when Edward Nortan’s skin head leader rallies the troops to loot a local grocer, or the opening scene where we see Norton kill the two aforementioned black men, or a traumatic rape scene in prison, emit a guttural response from its viewers. It is in such scenes that we are rallied into discourse on the issues presented. Yet when the film gets talky it falls short of its ideals. It presents nothing beyond the general rhetoric you can find just about anywhere. In fact most of the rhetoric is spewed from the Neo-Nazi skinheads, and this type of discussion can be found every other day on day time talk shows. There is little in way of discussion from the rational, unprejudiced mind.

There are two powerful performances from Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. At this point Norton was already beginning to take his role as the new Robert DeNiro, who had previously taken his turn as the new Marlon Brando. Let’s hope he escapes the fate of mediocrity that they fell into. Furlong, who once made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Laurence Olivier with such a wooden performance, here has finally made himself worthy of attention. He gives a fine performance here, as a young man struggling with the passionate feelings of youth.

Tackling an issue as heady as racism in America is a worthy, yet difficult cause. It proves to be too much for first time screenwriter David McKenna and director Tony Kaye. Trying to condense their story into regulation movie time they either skipped over completely or barely touched on some important issues. To give reasons for Derek’s turn as a skinhead we are only allowed one small dinner table conversation with his father who spews some hateful race sentiments. This, and his fathers murder at the hands of black addicts in a crackhouse, whom he was trying to save from a fire must suffice for an intelligent, middle class youth’s turn into a Nazi. Likewise, his subsequent salvation in prison is not dwelt on enough to give us sufficient reasons for this turn of heart. Yes, the skinheads in prison are hypocrites, and yes the rape scene is brutal enough to turn away from their midst. But his relationship with the black coworker, Lamont (Guy Torry) is not enough to change the heart of such hatred. Torry gives a fine performance and does enough to show Derek that all blacks aren’t as vile as the rhetoric made him believe, but are jokes about sex really going to make a skinhead believe in the goodness of the black race?

In searching for a cause behind the Neo-Nazi scene in America the filmmakers seem to point directly towards the intense feelings of anger found in adolescence and the need to fit in with some social group. Rightly, these two issues play powerfully on the minds of many in the skinhead culture. But the issue goes deeper than this, and it is here, again, that this film misses the mark. Just as Derek dismisses issues of poverty and social position in the plight of the black man, this film seems to skim over some of the deeper motivation behind racism.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a powerful, well-made film. There is plenty to chew upon and discuss. It is, in fact, a good film to watch with others and bring into light an important debate. Yet when I watch it, I can’t help but think of how it could have been better, how it could have reached the heights it was reaching for.

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About Mat Brewster

  • interesting analysis. i must admit, up to now, i’ve only seen it once, though i did think it rather good. I’m not sure it came across to me as being as much about dissecting the more “rational” forms of racism, but then, i hadn’t seen any reviews of it before so didn’t have expectations.
    Of course, still being good, if it really is changing lives for the better, then it’s done a good job.
    Think i’ll have to get round to watching it again sometime soon, see if i can bash out a review myself…

  • I remember the film as a white version of Boyz’n’the Hood, and I remember thinking that Boyz’n’the Hood was slightly better. But I should probably watch both again sometime.

  • I disagree Phillip: Boyz N the Hood is a very different movie as it looks at the human condition in South Central LA and so isn’t really a “race relations” film.

    I think that it’s more appropriate to compare American History X to (I believe) another John Singleton film: Higher Learning. In my opinion, American History X, while not a perfect film, is a far more effective film in exploring racial hatred and other emotions than Higher Learning (which is really a poor dramatic version of PCU, when it comes down to it).

    Mat – I think you’re right in saying that AHX works best on the emotional level and on the strength of its lead performers. I’d like to see Norton do some work that’s up the calibar of this film sometime soon.

    One aside: the scene when the hefty white neo-Nazi dude is driving his crappy pickup, singing along to a crappy white supremicist folk song on tape has always stayed with me.

    And in closing, a tangent: I absolutely love when Howard Stern plays the above kinds of songs of his radio show as it exposes these ignorant a-holes for who they are.

  • overall i think American History X is fantastic, certainly in it’s portrayal of the neo-nazi individuals, folks usually represented via lazy stereotypes. Whilst i’m not claiming they’re anything less than rancid shit fit only to be cacked from humanity’s arsehole, it is as harmful to present these thugs as mindless yobs. The scary fact of it all is that some are incredibly bright. Misinformed and misguided, but intelligent at some level.

    The real problems i have with the film are mostly concerned with the big fella who’s name escapes me. I think he’s pretty much a throwback to the kindsa KKK types in Joel Schumachers hilariously shite A Time To Kill.

    Also, Tony Kayes advert-roots are cringe-inducingly obvious at times; notably the basketball game which looks like a Nike ad, and the shower scene near the end wherein one expects to see Head & Shoulders appear at the bottom of the screen. But a fine flick for the most part, and one of very, very few i had to turn off mid-way through, and return to later, on account of the rage coursing through mine fists. (it was the scene where they make the check-out girl piss herself on the counter)

    Also, the behind the scenes malarkey is terribly entertaining. Someone should make a documentary about that, is the truth of the matter. Kaye VS Norton.

    Tellingly, Kaye has done nothing since.

  • Mat

    It has been too many years since I have seen Boys in the Hood to make much of a comparison, but memory tells me it was serving a different purpose.

    The technical abilities of Tony Kaye are certainly visible here. I think that’s what struck me the most on this viewing. With the first viewing you are struck by its emotional punch so hard that it’s faulty craft is easily overlooked.

    On a sidenote I bought the DVD from a Woolworths in Germany. Buying a neo-Nazi film in what was the land of real Nazis struck some sick ironical cord in my belly.

    On an even broader side note I watched Higher Learning at a theatre known locally as “the shootout” in Montgomery, Alabama. Me and my girlfriend at the time were the only white faces in a packed crowd. It was a particularly tense moment when the skinhead sniper gets away from the cops because they decide to pummel the innocent black man. There are more enjoyable ways to spend a Saturday night than to be surrounded by a hundred angry Africans standing and screaming at the injustices hurled at them on a movie screen.

  • Tristan

    Did anyone see that 1st movie Rusell Crowe did where he plays a white supremacist / gang-type—-
    think it was called something like Romper Boys or some such ..????

  • You’re thinking of Romper Stomper. And yes I did, and no, I didn’t like it.

    Amer. Hist. X was fantastic, so hard to watch, yet it’s important that you do. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it (you really need to prepare yourself for it), but I can definitely say I saw no resemblence to Boyz in the Hood.

  • Romper Stomper just came out on 2-disc Region 2 DVD. I didn’t like it either. Quite a nasty piece of work.

  • We’ve had that 2-disc set over here in the US before, but I believe it’s been long out of print. Bought it when it first came out and it was eBay’ed a few days later.

  • Why is this film fantastic? I see that word popping up a lot.

    My take on why it isn’t fantastic:

    Yes, it deals with heavy issues, but it deals with those issues in a heavy-handed manner. The film resorts to triteness (“the white man marches on”, an overly intelligent Will Hunting of a Nazi, and the most original of these – a basketball game as stand-in for the race war between the Aryans and the Africans. Brilliant.) I understand there is an alarming dearth of films which eloquently confront the issue of racism, but why settle for one ineloquent? This is (at best) a Hollywood glam job, portraying the redemptive arc of a single character – smart, sexy, and athletic indeed, but without an ounce of real humanity or depth.

  • bhw

    I liked the film because it was the first time I realized that Edward Norton had a nice upper body. Pleasant surprise!

  • Keeley

    I think in the movie, we are shown a select number of scenes that depict what may have gone on in similar scenes that were chosen not be shot and put in film due to their repetitious message. Viewers wouldn’t want to see Lamont and Derek constantly have those conversations; they get the point after the first one. There definitely are time lapses, and I think it all culminated (sp) in Derek until the rape. Pretty much. Also, fear itself helped sober him. Just knowing what fear was and knowing what he was putting in people. It wasn’t worth it. Also, he was weak in the first place. Being sucked into an ideal with no background or logical reasoning. A strong environment and people, such as the one after he was thrown in jail, brings him back right quick when things turn tables just so.

    Yes, the film is a bunch of overdramatic cliche, but life is that. A cliche. It has happened so much.

    It’s just a survey of how sad life can be and how we are so simple and have much to evolve into. F/X has it on like all night; love it.

  • eric

    I specifically googled AHX and BITH to see if there were any comparisons made. I did this because I saw Boyz for the first time last night, 17 years after it came out, I’m afraid. AHX was indeed fascinating for me, because it told a story of white anger, through the context of the only white gang with significant history. As a young white male at the time I could relate with the fear and anger surrounding these white young males regarding the very real threats posed by black gangs in our society, Violence and hate notwithstanding. It seems that the wasted energy of black anger and it’s spawned gang violence has become almost accepted in America, whereas the equal stupidity of the white supremacy movement is so much more criticized. I thought however that the only valid comparison between the films was the overall direction and tone. Quiet moments where brothers stood together in purpose interspersed with chaos and murder, which is portrayed as acceptable, even if disturbing.