American History X (1998)

3 Feb

89209

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 racial drama “Do the Right Thing,” in which the black pizza-delivery boy Mookie confronts the white pizza-chef Pino about his racist remarks. Pino claims to hate African-Americans, and yet his favorite actor and his favorite basketball player (and possibly his favorite musician) are all dark-skinned. Mookie calls him out on it. How does Pino respond? “It’s different […] I mean, they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”

We don’t know why racism is still around, and that scene illustrates the probability that maybe the racists themselves don’t know either. “To me, it’s different.” I can’t be the only one who sees Pino’s “defense” as nothing more than pathetic.

But because of that, we know Pino wouldn’t actually act out on his prejudice against other races, particularly black people. He just comes off as a big mouth. I want to smack him, but I’m not scared of him. I am, however, scared of dumb White Rage group members (of groups like the KKK or the skinheads) because they do act out their rage and try to justify their brutal actions towards members of different races.

“American History X” is a disturbing drama that provokes questions/thoughts about racial hatred and doesn’t try to answer most of them itself. It features characters that follow the hatred with blindness and don’t give a moment’s thought to the world around them (and by the time most of them do, it’s nearly too late).

Edward Norton turns in a powerful performance as Derek Vinyard, one of the most active members of a white supremacist movement in Venice Beach, secretly led by Cameron (Stacy Keach) who stays in the shadows to keep his record clean. Derek is an inspiration to his fellow hate-filled disciples, as he seems angrier and is more charismatic than the rest—they listen to whatever he says, just as he listens to what Cameron says. But one night, everything changes when he kills two black men who tried to steal his car and is arrested by police and thrown in prison for three years. While inside, he faces some harsh truths, the harshest one being, with all the roughnecks and lifers and make up his inmates, he’s the minority. When he’s released three years later, he’s a changed man and wants to present that to his family and friends, but it’s easier said than done, especially since many of his close ones now hail him as a hero for the night he was arrested…

There’s one scene that attempts to give some idea as to where Derek got his hatred (in a flashback to a family dinner scene in which his father (William Russ) declares his cynicism against minorities in town), but overall, the film isn’t about why prejudice is around—instead, it shows how it can harshly affect the lives of a man and his family and friends. And when a change of heart comes, the film shows that it isn’t easy to demonstrate it with mere apologies or simple actions.

I really have to credit director/cinematographer Tony Kaye (who, for the record, has disowned the film for being against his earlier vision) for the genuine, disturbing feel in the scenes that show pure anger. Many of them are hard to watch, such as when Derek argues with his mother (Beverly d’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) for bringing in a teacher (Elliot Gould) who not only disagrees with his way of thinking but is also Jewish. Many of these scenes (unfortunately) ring true and you feel the angry words that are coming out of Norton’s mouth. (But the problem with these scenes is the unnecessary amount of extremely tight close-up shots that distract from the moment rather than make us feel like we’re in the moment.)

The film is told in non-linear fashion, with past events (Derek’s rise to power, the dinner scene, the murder, Derek’s whole prison experience) presented to us in black-and-white. I would have preferred if these events were told chronologically. In giving us early present scenes from the perspective of Danny (Derek’s younger brother, played by Edward Furlong), we lose track of focus fairly quickly. Danny learning about his brother, whom he idolizes and whose footsteps he tries to follow, isn’t as interesting as Derek’s development. With that said, Derek is a completely developed character. We see what set him off, what his influence was to people, why other people feared him, and more importantly, we understand why his attitude changes and feel bad when it seems he can’t be a more positive influence to the same people he led in the movement. We know a lot about Derek; not so much about Danny or their anxious mother or their liberal sister or the fat man (Ethan Suplee) that joins the movement to get strength he can’t get elsewhere or Derek’s girlfriend (Fairuza Bulk) who simply follows her man or even the black high-school principal (Avery Brooks) that wants to help both Derek and Danny. (I would’ve liked to see a movie about what the principal has to go through.) All of the actors do serviceable jobs, but the entire film rests on the shoulders of Edward Norton.

It is true that Tony Kaye is not particularly a fan of this film (and even tried to credit himself as “Alan Smithee” and even “Humpty Dumpty”), and long since this film’s release in 1998, I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t speaking out as a publicity stunt. I understand where he’s coming from; I empathize with filmmakers whose original vision is altered by producers (and even, in this case, the lead actor himself Edward Norton, who had the script changed midway through shooting). But Kaye shouldn’t be too resentful of the film; after all, it has grown a cult following from people whose eyes were opened by the film’s power (and is also a topic of discussion for most film schools). “American History X” may have its small amount of problems, but it also has its considerable amount of raw power.

Maybe Pino should take a look at this film…

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