In light of the recent hateful developments in Charlottesville, I thought I’d revisit this classic.
The film contains violent, gratuitous scenes as well as heavy swearing.
American History X tells the story of white supremacist Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and his journey from a young confused English literature student, to white supremacist leader, and to development of acceptance and tolerance. The film chronicles his relationship with his family, especially his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) whom he tries to rescue from going through the same fate as himself.
This is one of the greatest movies ever made. It is also arguably the best, and most mature look at race problems in modern America. The film discusses issues of critical race theory, affirmative action, poverty and crime, immigration and welfare and presents them in a non-preachy digestible manner that is weaved perfectly into the movie’s narrative. The film is brutal, both in its honest depiction of racism in modern American society, as well as in its gratuity. Let me stress this, this was not made for the faint of heart. The film is violent, shocking and tragic.
Yet, I never thought I’d watch a film in my life about neo-nazi skinheads that was so vulnerable. Going into this for the first time a few years ago, I thought I’d feel great hatred for The Vinyard brothers. I was blown away. What drives this film is the powerful performances by both leading males. And Norton truly deserved his Oscar nod. Gaining 30 pounds of muscle, after his performance as an abused choir boy in Primal Fear (1996) his reputation as one of the most respected actors in Hollywood today was cemented. His character is terrifying, intelligent and hurtful. But what Norton miraculously does is (and I can’t stress this enough) bring a vulnerability and pain to his performance. His journey from scared and confused young man, to militant, aggressive skinhead is all too poignant and unsettling. A symbol of lost innocence. Norton’s character’s pain is felt throughout the transition. The film paints an honest depiction of bigotry, not being cartoonish hatred, but a result of misguided fear and sadness. And that’s what this film does best. It paints a complex multi-dimensional portrait into the journey of hate and intolerance. All along, illustrating that bigotry only leads to more pain and suffering.
The prison rape scene is perhaps the lowest point in the film, a turning point for Norton’s character. The grace and honesty this part of the film is handled with is remarkable, making the viewer witness something that would usually be distasteful and unsettling on screen as an important, in fact CRUCIAL, event in the character’s journey – as horrible as this sounds. The film is not for the faint of heart, as I said earlier.
Vinyard’s turn into a mature and tolerant character is remarkable. Norton brings a calmness to the performance, as if letting go of the hate led to inner peace, and it’s illustrated in his smile, voice and movements. It’s remarkable that the character is the same person as in the middle of the movie.
Let’s talk about Edward Furlong. His performance was phenomenal. The innocence and sadness he brings to the role is redeeming. It was very easy to portray a 16 year old skinhead as a obnoxious idiotic punk. Yet, remarkably, his portrayal creates sympathy for the character. Not sympathy for his racist cause, no. But pity for his misguidedness.
Every other performance in this movie is also incredible. From Beverly D’Angelo’s suffering mother, to Avery Brooke’s warmth and compassion. All cast members lend a serious, mature and vulnerable hand to the final brutal production.
The exceptional writing and direction really drives home the point realised by Furlong’s character – ‘Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time’, without having to drill it out for you. And I think that’s remarkable. The soundtrack is painful and chilling. Giving an opposing sense of operatic tragedy.
American History X is an urgent, timely and important film in Western Cinema. It’s sad that almost 20 years since it’s release, the US is perhaps more openly plagued by racism since during its release. The film is a must watch for those wishing to be introduced to race problems in contemporary America. And is a messianic warning about the depressing and tragic reality about the outcome of the notion of racial superiority. I highly recommend this movie to everyone and anyone, and I do so now – more than ever.
The end this review, the film’s closing remarks as quoted by Furlong’s character and originally said by Abraham Lincoln is an apt plea of peace :
‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’