Directed by Tony Kaye
Written by David McKenna
Cast: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Avery Brooks, Stacy Keach, Fairuza Balk, Ethan Suplee, and Elliott Gould
Length: 1 hour and 59 minutes
Genre: Crime, drama
MPAA Rating: R
Description from IMDB:
“A former neo-Nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.”
Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a reformed neo-Nazi who was just released from prison after spending three years for voluntary manslaughter, seeks to right the wrongs of his past and get his family away from the very people he once led. His younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), is given an assignment by his principal (Avery Brooks) to write an essay about Derek describing the effect his brother’s actions have had on his life. Danny has been following in Derek’s footsteps while he was in prison, and this frightens the newly reformed Derek. He goes to meet with Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), his former mentor and the ringleader of the white supremacists, in order to sever ties with his hateful past. Unfortunately, hate and violence only begat more of the same, and the film ends with a tragic death in the Vinyard family which brings their story to an emotional end.
American History X (1998) is filled with supporting characters that show separate ends of belief systems. Cameron, Derek’s girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk), and Seth (Ethan Suplee) are all prominent figures in the white supremacy group that Derek helped create, and are open about the way they feel about minorities. They are blinded by their “us or them” mentality and feel betrayed when Derek moves beyond their hateful propaganda. On the other end, Dr. Sweeney, Danny’s principal and Derek’s former high school teacher, advocates for his students to be given a chance to change. When arguing about Danny turning in a book report about Mein Kamf with Danny’s teacher (Elliott Gould), Sweeney states that he will not give up on the boy and that whatever he has learned can be unlearned.
The characters are dynamic and multi-faceted, but the main focus of the story is around the relationship between Derek and Danny. They are the two narrators of the film and have voice overs when telling their respective stories. Their father died doing his job fighting a fire, and it first appears that this is the catalyst for Derek’s hateful obsession, but it is revealed that the seed was planted by the very man they revered. After losing their father, Derek looked up to Cameron as a patron and Danny began to worship Derek as his closest masculine figure. This legacy of hate is only stopped when Derek undergoes a change in prison after brutally murdering two African American gang members who were breaking into his truck. He is forced to work with Lamont (Guy Torry), a fast-talking and funny black man who helps bring Derek around to a more understanding viewpoint after the two become friends.
Cinematography is a heavy indicator for the viewer in this movie. Slow motion factors in during the important events (the shooting, the aftermath of Derek being raped in the prison shower, and the death at the end of the film). The flashbacks in which we learn what happened to Derek in prison are presented in black and white. There are scenes in this film that are difficult to watch. The murder of a black man outside Derek’s house, Derek and his followers trashing a convenience store that employs minorities and pouring milk on a Hispanic woman while holding her down, and the scene in which Derek is raped by fellow neo-Nazis in prison are all difficult images to take in. However, these show the depravity of his thinking while a white supremacist and how, once he was on the receiving end of that hate, he no longer wanted any part of it.
American History X (1998) advocates that we see people as what they are: other human beings just like us. We should stop thinking of other people by their race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever may be different from ourselves and start looking at what we have in common. This is not a light-hearted movie; there is a significantly important message and it is brutally effective in its presentation. There are movies you watch to kill time, those you watch in order to be scared or entertained, and movies that you watch because they cover a difficult subject with aplomb and honesty. I believe it is more important now than ever that we look to what we have in common, especially since a movie released twenty years ago is still relevant to this day despite the passage of time.
Verdict: 4 movies still relevant 20 years later out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of intense dramas, people looking for an emotionally heavy movie, those looking for insight into societal issues that still plague us, and those who believe everyone is capable of changing for the better.
Not recommended for: The squeamish, those uncomfortable with hearing the n-word a lot, the close-minded, people looking for a feel-good movie, Neo-Nazis, or people who prefer to live with their heads in the sand.