Anthony's Film Review

American History X (1998)

This intense but memorable drama about racism benefits from two great performances...

American History X is a film that you can already tell is brutal and gritty just from looking at its poster. It features Edward Norton, an actor whom I tend to picture as someone best playing average Joe characters, as a white supremacist named Derek Vinyard, who is a frighteningly cold man with a shaved head and swastika tattoo on his chest. He is quite unrecognizable in such a role, and even before seeing the movie, I applauded the actor for bravely taking on such a part. Once I watched American History X, my predictions were correct. The film is definitely realistic and gritty with plenty of unhindered raw language and some intense violence (specifically, racially-motivated murder and a scene of male rape).

While Edward Norton is great in this movie, we should not forget about the film's co-star. Edward Furlong, famous for starring in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, takes on a more mature role as Derek Vinyard's younger brother Danny. He is definitely memorable here, playing a teenager who takes a seriously wrong turn influenced by racism but is still a naive boy who might still be reachable. From the start, this is a character who heart is still soft, even if his shaved head might suggest otherwise. Obviously, this movie promises to follow two interesting characters played by two fine actors.

The film alternates between flashbacks shown in black and white and events of the present day shown in color. It begins with a flashback of Derek shooting a black man to death and proceeds to a present-day scene at Danny's high school in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. There, the school principal, Dr. Bob Sweeney (played by Avery Brooks of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame), talks to Danny about a report he submitted for a class assignment. Danny was asked to write a paper on any topic related to racial equality, but he turned in an essay that praised Adolf Hitler as a civil rights hero. Sweeney, who is not ready to give up on the boy, gives Danny a special homework assignment: write a new report about his brother Derek and his racist influence on Danny. The principal considers this an informal daily course, which he calls "American History X."

As Danny goes home to work on his new assignment, the alternation between black-and-white flashback and current moments in color continues. This is where we get to see Edward Norton as a fine versatile actor. He delivers an excellent performance as three versions of Derek Vinyard: a young man with long hair who will be pulled into racist hate, the bad-to-the-bone skinhead that he would later become, and a man with short hair emerging from prison as a better person. It's very interesting to go back and forth between the earlier badder Derek and the newer refined Derek. While we could watch the character entirely in chronological order, jumping in time helps us see the character evolution even better.

As long as we're talking about Edward Norton, there are a few scenes with his character that I thought were particularly notable. In one flashback scene, Derek the skinhead launches a tirade against illegal Mexican immigrants, rallies his fellow white supremacists, and leads his group into a grocery store where they vandalize the property and torment its minority workers. In another flashback, Derek honestly expresses his disparaging thoughts about non-whites, deeply disturbing the rest of his family at the dinner table to the point where his younger sister attacks him and his mother kicks him out of the house. This is a scene that is certainly hard to watch, but only by watching it can we bravely look at the issue of racism without turning a blind eye.

Going back to the present, Danny is clearly in the middle of a tug-of-war between the now rational Derek and a friend of Derek named Seth (played by Ethan Suplee) who is still a devoted white supremacist. Danny continues to be at his computer, typing the report about Derek. Just when it looks like he can complete the assignment, Danny gives in to the pressure of attending a party with other white supremacists, including the middle-aged neo-Nazi leader Cameron Alexander (played by Stacy Keach) who had corrupted Derek and others with his racist ideology. As this is happening, Derek is dismayed to learn that the local white supremacist movement has grown in size and become better organized while he did time in prison.

Basically, American History X is the story of a man who has seen how wrong he was and wants to help his brother who might make the same mistake. It's an illustration of how destructive racism can be, to the individual and to everyone else who is connected. As the film goes on, it's about something else that's far more important: redemption. Whether Derek is trying to help Danny see the light or, in another memorable flashback, Derek bonds with a black inmate while in prison, it is wonderful to see how good can emerge from even the most depraved soul. That, to me, is the real message of this movie, along with the grim reminder that hate perpetuates itself with deadly consequences.

This movie is just incredible and deeply moving. Edward Norton really amazed me with his role in American History X, masterfully playing three versions of the same character, and the same goes for Edward Furlong in his part. I also didn't expect this movie to have some touching moments, thinking that it be nothing but a graphic portrayal of white supremacists just for the sake of being able to do so. But the movie does have some heart, not to mention a takeaway message or two, and I'm grateful for that. All in all, American History X is an unforgettable drama with fine performances from its stars, making it one of the best films of 1998.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about American History X, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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