American History X (1998)
“United by hate, divided by truth”
Director: Tony Kaye
Cast: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo
Synopsis: A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.
Outside of exploitation cinema and high-concept crime thrillers, the subject of white supremacist neo-Nazis seems to have been somewhat overlooked by the cinema. Those movies that do take a serious look at the subject — Romper Stomper, for example — tend to be vilified simply because of their subject matter and accused by reactionaries of glorifying the cult of hatred simply by daring to address it. Sadly, while American History X provides an absorbing entertainment it never really comes across as an authentic representation of the type of individual who can be seduced by racist ideology. The film does feature a Neo-Nazi in its leading role, but long before the end credits roll he has learned the error of his ways and embraced the traditional American values of family and education. Hard-hitting, or what?
Edward Furlong plays Danny, a gifted high school student who idolises his older brother, Derek (Edward Norton), who has just been released from prison after murdering two black men. Derek was a committed Neo-Nazi, the manipulated protege of a shady white supremacist agitator (Stacy Keach), and his victims were two black kids who came to his house bearing arms with the apparent intention of gaining revenge after his basketball team beat theirs in a grudge match to see who won sole rights to the neighbourhood court.
After serving three years in prison, Derek is out and he’s a changed man. Gone is the shaven head and the racist invective, replaced by a more thoughtful, introspective man who wants nothing to do with his former gang of thugs While inside, he rejected the Neo-Nazis he had befriended for protection from the prison’s black community after befriending Lamont (Guy Torry), a black inmate with whom he shared laundry detail (how’s that for symbolism?). And Derek’s release, after serving just three years, has been expedited by a black teacher named Sweeney (Avery Brooks), who now teaches Danny, and who fears the younger brother is destined to follow in the footsteps of his older sibling.
American History X is the type of movie that impresses on first viewing but which immediately begins to show its flaws when you watch it for a second time. Like Derek’s racist rhetoric — which is succinctly and blisteringly summarised in a fiercely eloquent diatribe about the Rodney King incident aimed at his mother’s Jewish suitor (Elliott Gould, impressive in a small role) — American History X’s storyline doesn’t really stand up under close scrutiny. Ironically, it’s not so much the portrayal of racism that fails to convince, as both brothers’ unlikely rejection of it. Derek’s conversion is glossed over in the space of a few brief, unconvincing scenes. Those scenes, in which Lamont patiently chips away at Derek’s mute contempt, offer little to explain just what it is about him that persuades Derek to suddenly abandon the theories he has so passionately espoused up to that point. A humorous observation about making-up sex from Lamont appears to be the turning point, and it’s a ‘revelation’ scene that belongs in a movie from the 1940s rather than the 90s.
No less hurried is the conversion of Danny, whose growing enthusiasm for the cause is abruptly and completely reversed by Derek’s heart-warming recollection of the day when he learned that blacks, too, have a sense of humour. By this point, Danny has pretty much become a spectator in a story that originally appeared to be his, but in which he increasingly plays the role of narrator by way of an essay about his brother that he is writing for Sweeney. This unfocused, shallow writing does real damage to what initially promises to be a searing indictment of a society in which racism becomes a tightly controlled sub-culture with its own codes and precepts, but which deteriorates into soap opera melodramatics. It also undermines a mesmerising performance from Edward Norton.
The conflicting standards of the writing are crystallised in a flashback scene which identifies the birth of Derek’s racism. He is sat at the family dinner table, enthusing to his fireman father (since deceased) about Sweeney, who has initiated a project in which his pupils are encouraged to read black literature. His father isn’t a bad man, but he’s the kind of person who identifies what he perceives to be the unfairness of a system — he’s forced to employ black men who are less-qualified to do their jobs than the rival white candidates he had to reject in order to fill a percentage quota of ethnic employees — and aims his resentment at the beneficiaries of the rules rather than those who impose them. It’s a lazy kind of racism, symptomatic of little more than confused and disorganised thought processes (undoubtedly shared by more people in the real world than it’s comfortable to acknowledge), but it’s the tiny seed from which abnormally twisted roots take hold and thrive. But while this highlighting of the dangers of allowing apparently harmless racism to be voiced unchallenged is well made, the way in which Derek unquestioningly accepts his father’s opinions belie his own obvious clear-minded intelligence and leadership qualities.
The ultimate failure of American History X may be down to the fact that Norton apparently took over editing duties in order to give his character more screen time — which would explain why the character of Derek is rudely shunted aside, and why director Tony Kaye angrily disowned the finished article. It’s a shame, because there are the seeds of a great movie here, but American History X has to be considered nothing more than an interesting failure.
(Reviewed 12th December 2012)