Americana Movie Month: "American History X" Review

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Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is dangerous... a coiled fury of hate who leads a neo-Nazi gang. But time and events start to change him. He reassesses his ways while doing time for manslaughter and emerges from prison eager to keep his younger brother (Edward Furlong) from falling victim to the cycle of violence and payback. It may be too late.
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Americana Movie Month: "American History X" Review

-- Rating: R (strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and graphic, brutal violence that includes rape)
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 30, 1998
Directed by: Tony Kaye
Genre: Crime/Drama

"American History X" could have been a simple morality tale. However, in the hands of director Tony Kaye and lead actor Edward Norton, the film became a searing examination into the seductive qualities of racism. While audiences may cringe at several scenes involving highly stylized violence, the moments that reveal what neo-Nazi ideology offers its followers are much more frightening.

"American History X" is a tale of two brothers' involvement with a neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Venice Beach, California. The older brother, Derek Vinyard, has excellent oratory skills and the ability to rally other people to the neo-Nazi cause. He is second in command of a skinhead gang when he kills two African-American teenagers who attempt to steal his car. Derek's sentenced to three years in prison, where he's forced to reconsider his previously held views. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Danny, is trying to move up in Derek's old gang. When Derek is released from jail, he's determined to change Danny's path with the help of one of his old teachers.

Edward Norton gives an electrifying performance as Derek Vinyard. Although Norton packed on thirty pounds of muscle for the role, he never lets his character's physicality outshine his obvious intelligence. In part, this intelligence and oratorical power makes Derek's character at the beginning of the film so chilling. The film gives somewhat pat answers for Derek's entry into the skinhead gang as well as his reasons for leaving it. However, Norton so thoroughly inhabits this character that these criticisms seem petty.

Norton received an Oscar nomination for this role, but he lost to Roberto Benigni for his work in "Life Is Beautiful." However, with the ability of hindsight, many audiences will find that Norton's work is far more timeless than Benigni's role.

Although Tony Kaye wanted his name removed from the opening credits because he believed the film needed more work, "American History X" shows that he is a director with excellent storytelling abilities. Many scenes in the film could be used as thoughtful, stand-alone vignettes. New Line Cinema, the production company backing the film, brought Norton in to edit the film with film editor Jerry Greenberg when Kaye's second cut of the film was rejected, and Kaye claimed Norton edited large sections of the film to make his own performance shine. Unless Kaye's cut is ever released, moviegoers won't be able to judge for themselves who created a better film. However, there's nothing to shame Kaye in the final cut of this film.

The best scenes in the film are the ones showing neo-Nazi parties, where dozens of teenagers and young adults come to have fun and feel like they belong. These revelers aren't grappling with the perceived effects of other ethnic groups on the community and aren't overcome with inherent hatred for another ethic group. They're looking for someone to blame for their own lack of economic stability and overall loneliness. Neo-Nazism, as portrayed in "American History X," doesn't give the gang members a solution to their problems. Instead, this ideology gives them a common foe to unite against.

The largest criticism that can be leveled against "American History X" is its lack of a coherent argument against racism. The film shows several ethnic groups in Venice Beach bound together with a fierce tribalism that mirrors the skinheads, and these scenes make these divisions seem completely natural. In addition, many far-right beliefs are clearly expounded through the characters of Derek and his father. Derek's father, in particular, is able to expose many talking points about affirmative action and African-American culture that are common pieces of rhetoric in many far-right households. However, the film doesn't include any compelling characters that can articulate the American ideals of integration and racial harmony. Elliott Gould has a minor role as a Jewish teacher who attempts to offer some answers, but these scenes are among the weakest in the film.

It's possible that having a spokesperson that rails against neo-Nazi rhetoric may have made the movie seem too heavy handed. In fact, when Derek's African-American coworker, Lamont, from the jailhouse laundry gives a big speech, he talks about how much he misses sex. This scene might have further humanized Lamont for Derek, and it's disappointing that Lamont is not given more to say. A few more scenes in the jailhouse might have created a more believable trajectory for Derek's conversion and could have given Lamont more development as a character.

Overall, "American History X" is an excellent film that showcases an Oscar-worthy performance by Edward Norton. It shines when depicting the subtleties of racism, but even the more straightforward scenes give viewers much to think about.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars