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American History X. 1998. Directed by Tony Kaye. Screenplay by David McKenna.
Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Lien, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach, William Russ, Guy Torry, Joe Cortese, Jason Bose Smith, Antonio David Lyons, & Alex Sol. New Line Cinema/Savoy Pictures/The Turman-Morrissey Company.
Rated 18A. 119 minutes.
The idea of racism is something that interests me to no end. Because I’ll never understand it. I can’t wrap my head around being a racist. I can understand people fed up with racism saying “Fuck white people” because after so long all you can do is hate the people that are perpetuating racist nonsense. Either way, the neo-Nazi subculture and the concept of white supremacy interests me. In the sense it baffles me. Being about 13 when American History X hit theatre, I remember seeing it shortly after on VHS. Tony Kaye’s stylised directing wasn’t immediately what hit me; that I came to appreciate later. Initially, the story and its plots concerning the heart of hate and the disease of racism, specifically white nationalist ideology, grabbed me at an early stage of my teenage years. Being from a small island off the far East Coast of Canada – Newfoundland – and from a semi-small town, I didn’t know many people of other races. However, that never made me feel separated. When I moved to Ontario to pursue film school for a couple years I met people from all walks of life, all religions, cultures, races. Two of the few best friends I made during my time there were of completely different upbringing: one was a black, London-born Canadian, the other a Canadian Sikh. So coming from a place where I’d known nobody, aside from a doctor I had, from a different race or culture, it amazes me that others somehow from the same type of place as myself managed to become racist. I’ve seen more “tired and hungry and poor” white people that Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) speaks about mooching off the system than any immigrant I know of. So many of the people who come to Newfoundland particularly are hard workers, nice people, genuine and often interesting. Whereas I know an awful amount of white Newfoundlanders who only work 5 months out of the year then take the rest off on unemployment, working seasonally so they can spend their winters riding snowmobiles and going to the cabin. Take from that what you will.
American History X is a unique film about white supremacy. One which takes aim at the irresponsible and unavoidable consequences of racial hatred through the lens of Derek. Using a nonlinear narrative, Kaye tells a fascinating tale with the script from David McKenna, and tries to look at Derek in a neutral light while he transitions out of his hideous racist past. Again, the style is what you’ll find draws you in, but the ultimate journey on which Derek finds himself, the way McKenna’s screenplay reveals his past and how time in prison culminated in his realisation of a different way of life, these are the elements that are most interesting. This isn’t a plea to give white supremacists a chance. This is a plea to give those willing to change a chance. At the very same time, the film’s ending leaves us at a point where we must consider there’s a possibility Derek could, after all that’s happened, revert back to that old life. Regardless, Kaye and McKenna’s collaboration makes for a work of art, topped by a powerhouse performance out of Norton, giving it all he’s got in a role that could be monumentally difficult for a lesser actor.
The use of black-and-white v. colour in particular segments is more than a stylistic device. It is thematic in nature. All flashbacks to Derek’s time before being released, the past, his racist past specifically, are shot in black-and-white. Later, after his release from prison the story becomes colour, vibrant and vivid. This is because the colour change represents the very struggle through which Derek goes while in prison. He used to see the world only in black v. white. Now, once through the prison gates and back into the real world, Derek sees everything in reality, the way it is, as a colourful palette, one that’s incomplete without all shades of the spectrum.
That infamous curb stomp scene is one that’s etched in the minds of moviegoers around the world. Permanently. It isn’t simply the visual and the intense way Kaye sets up the scene, nor is it that fiery, Satan-like look that Norton gives while holding his hands up for the police. The sound design gets me, every time. The way that guy puts his teeth to the curb and they scrape lightly, an almost metal-like sound against the cement… yuck. Just rattles down my spine.
Something that makes the entire film more heavy, aside from Kaye’s directorial choices and the cinematography alone (also by Kaye), is the score. Anne Dudley (Say Anything…, The Crying Game, The Full Monty) gives the atmosphere a much more intense feeling with her various pieces. The classical sound of the orchestral work helps give the movie something extra rather than going with a traditional soundtrack, something you might expect from most movies about neo-Nazis; you can almost see another film in a similar vein using rock n’roll versus hip hop, making things tacky. Dudley does a lot of amazing stuff here that does wonders for the overall atmosphere. The suspense and tension is pumped up. In that curb stomp scene there is a beautiful, simultaneously ominous bit of choir along with orchestra that makes you feel as if you’re sitting in on a sermon at church. The way it plays underneath the action of the scene, the way Kaye slows things down and lets you see, feel everything, is impressively potent.
“Hate is baggage. Life‘s too short to be pissed off all the time. It‘s just not worth it.”
The character of Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) is highly interesting. Due to the fact these types of “chicken hawk” neo-Nazi, white nationalist phonies are all too real. They’re the types out there conning young men into the lifestyle, feeding them lies and filling their heads/hearts with the fertiliser of hate and racism. Keach plays him well: a weasel of a man, one that pumps himself up with the accomplishments of others and partly with embellished stories of his own past, a guy that uses a bunch of young people to do the dirty work he can’t manage himself, a lost and pathetic man that grasps onto whatever control he’s able to, wherever it comes. He’s a great parallel to Derek, as the latter has done actual real time in prison, whereas Cam only did a small bid before ratting on two younger guys and letting them take the big fall. This opens up the comparison, which is what much of Derek’s time after prison concerns primarily.
Derek knows the hardships of real time in the big house. Moreover, he’s seen his own white supposed brethren turn on him; not only did they hurt him, they straight up raped him. So there’s also the added fact Derek saw more than rough time in prison. He witnessed the hypocrisy of those beliefs while inside the walls of the penitentiary. Meanwhile, this eventually leads to his understanding the hypocrisy of white supremacy and the neo-Nazi ideology in general. Stemming from his experience in jail, especially his time working alongside Lamont (Guy Torry), Derek comes to see that he knows no black people, he doesn’t know their personal experience though he judges them and considers them all leeches on society, et cetera – just as many on the outside won’t understand his personal journey as an inmate, they’ll merely chalk him up as one of many. So through his terrifying, disturbing prison time Derek is able to get out of that racist mindset and discover another side to life. Norton plays the character incredibly well and he makes an ugly character into a human being, coming out on the opposite side of racism with a view that not enough in the real world will find on their own. His portrayal of Derek is one of the greatest from the 1990s. Better than that it’s the single best portrait of a white supremacist I’ve personally ever seen.
American History X weaves the tale of generational racism through the story of Derek Vinyard’s character, his personal experiences with neo-Nazi ideology and the consequences of going through the prison system holding onto his own system of belief while having it challenged at every corner. The epitome of this vein comes through Derek’s father, which is why his most important, major scene comes later at a critical moment in the finale of the film; almost at the very moment young Danny (Edward Furlong) pinpoints where their lives changed, when the racist seed found itself planted firmly in their hearts. A powerful moment, punctuated by nice directing.
All sorts of these moments happen. The movie is filled with them. We’re never asked to identify with hatred. We’re merely asked to look it in the eye, as the characters do. Derek looks hate right in the eye and his own mistakes in the scene where he looks in the mirror, seeing that symbol of hate right on his chest; he covers it up with his hand to try and imagine himself without it. This is a story of redemption, just as much as it’s also a story about the consequences of hatred. It’s ultimately a cycle that keeps on perpetuating itself, over and over until the end of time. Almost as if there’ll never be an end. The fire started a long time ago. At this point, it rages too hot and bright to ever fully be extinguished. We can only try as best we can to keep on keeping on in the face of its heat.
This Is England. 2006. Directed & Written by Shane Meadows.
Starring Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson, Andrew Ellis, Perry Benson, George Newton, Frank Harper, & Jack O’Connell. Warp Films/Big Arty Productions/EM Media.
Unrated. 101 minutes.
Shane Meadows is a British National Treasure. His films are snapshots of British life in various ways. Above all else, his directing and writing gives us insight into the struggle of the lower class, from people living in council flats to those fighting war and coming home to a dreary life to skinheads and white nationalists struggling to discover some kind of place in the hierarchy of English citizens. Regardless of theme, his subjects are usually a part of the lower socioeconomic ladder. This technique is proper because the best films often illustrate the complexities of its issues, something Meadows is able to do time and time again.
This Is England tells two stories: that of skinhead subculture and its reappropriation by white nationalist groups, as well as the tale of a young man in a low class neighbourhood trying to find his way, fed up with being bullied and with nowhere else to turn but a damaged group of neo-Nazis. The realism of the film is what gives Meadows his edge. In the tradition of other well respected British filmmakers such as Ken Loach, this movie and the style of Meadows in his directorial choices makes This Is England an important piece of cinema. Not simply in terms of British film, but rather it is a hugely influential, emotional, provocative work that begs attention from the world. Best of all, though, it definitely has given the British film industry hope in the 21st century to have someone like Meadows making such excellent films.
Effectively, Meadows turns a personal story into one that attempts to demarcate the end of being a skinhead simply as an apolitical lifestyle, an attitude and a way of dress, before the white nationalists adopted it into a part of their system. The central story is about Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), his being a member of the lower class and slipping in amongst the cracks eventually almost right into the grasp of a dangerous ideology. However, around that with the influence of Combo (Stephen Graham) comes the major examination of skinhead culture. Today, you say the word skinhead and just about every last person you ask will associate that automatically with neo-Nazism. Rightfully so, as we see throughout This Is England. Because the apolitical nature of the original skinhead subculture clashed so brutally, often violently with the resurgence of Nazi ideologies in the 1960s through to the ’80s; of course there are still groups out there, but it seems up until the ’80s, maybe early ’90s was when the heyday of neo-Nazi subculture raged. In this sense, the situation between Combo and Milky (Andrew Shim) can be seen as a microcosm of the entire national situation in England with the skinheads and the white nationalists bumping up against one another. That emergence of senseless violence in Combo is like the turning point of where the white nationalism overtook skinhead subculture and made it their defining look.
To my mind, Graham is one of the best actors working today. He is consistently amazing from one project to the next, and his energy is undeniable. There’s this thing that Hollywood, and the movie industry as a whole, has with male actors of smaller stature where they don’t usually get enough attention, other than some of the classic guys from the 1970s like Dustin Hoffman, even Al Pacino who isn’t that big. They were able to break past any of that foolishness and impress with their style. Graham is one of those, whose size determines nothing about his performance. He is downright threatening, menacing to the extreme even in his quieter moments. The explosiveness of his temper as Combo is startling. Without him, this story would not come as effective as it does because his raw intensity, the emotion he coils up underneath the character is fascinating. One favourite moment, even though it’s so hard to choose: after Lol (Vicky McClure) leaves him alone in the car, Combo does all he can to prevent bursting out into tears, shaking and crying; a scene of wild emotion, very subtle, very personal.
Aside from Graham and an altogether spectacular cast, young Thomas Turgoose is a major reason why the character of Shaun and his whole story comes across so honest. Before this film he’d never acted. Apparently he’d previously been kicked out of his school play for bad behaviour, even demanded five quid for his audition. Amazing. But his lack of experience as a formal actor, or even amateur, pays off. His reactions, his timing, it’s all genuine and there’s no pretense in him whatsoever. I’m sure an experienced actor could’ve played the character of Shaun, but for a personal, truthful, tragic story and character someone like Turgoose was the perfect pick. The kid has charisma and he makes Shaun into an interesting character that in the hands of a professional actor might have been caught up in method over something more organic.
Shane Meadows wrote and directed one of the greatest films in the past couple decades. Certainly one of the best of the 21st century, and will remain so until the end of time. The cast is spot on, natural, led by the fantastically riveting performances of Stephen Graham and newcomer Thomas Turgoose. Keeping things natural and opting for a style akin to realism, Meadows captures the violent clash of subcultures in England through the eyes of a lost and lonely young boy. Not enough films are honest. This Is England comes across as some of the more honest cinema, British or otherwise, I’ve personally ever seen. The hardest truths to confront are most important, and Meadows does perfectly well navigating tough subject matter to create an engaging story that should resonate with many, today and long after tomorrow.