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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.