American History X [Retro Review]

“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

The Scoop: 1998 R, directed by Tony Kaye and starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong and Avery Brooks

Tagline: Some Legacies Must End.

Summary Capsule: A neo-Nazi leader rips his family apart with hate and then gets into a lot of trouble.

Justin’s Rating: Incredible and throat-choking.

Justin’s Review: Sorry, but Justin is going to take a brief break from sarcastic and humorous reviews to be a little preachy. A week ago I was in my modern political times class, and we were discussing the recent school shootings in Colorado. Our highly intellectual class tried to locate the cause, the responsibility of the source that sent these kids the wrong way. We quibbled about media and teachers and parents… which were all influential, but not at the core. I finally stood up and yelled that it was just hate, plain and simple. Hate for oneself and for others… hate that keeps growing and feeding until nothing’s left but a husk. Somebody said, well, nobody in our class could be a killer. I turned to him and said that I very well could, if I chose hate over life and God.

The point is, being intellectual sometimes blinds you to the obvious problem. The characters in American History X fuel their racist hatred with intellectualism, with statistics, with almost-deceptive rationale… but the end, all it’s covering is a huge well of hate that has no end once you dip into it. This is perhaps one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend it.

Edward Norton plays Derek, a neo-Nazi leader who’s fear and hatred of a black gang invasion of his town leads him to violence and ultimately murder. His intellectual rhetoric gives him justification, as he sees himself on a holy war against all things non-Aryan. Derek’s brother and best friend, Danny (Edward Furlong), sees him as an idol and attempts to emulate his brother’s passion.

Excellent performances, including Avery Brooks as a teacher, and it really doesn’t wimp out at any point. Derek goes to jail for his crimes and discovers more about himself and hate than ever before. It doesn’t end well, or at least, perfect… for bad things do happen to good people. Derek finds himself in another war, a war to change the minds of his family, friends, and others after he’s spent so many years on the other side of that fence.

I really can’t give a just review for this film. You’ll just have to rent it and prepare to be challenged on every level.

Special Note: To date, this is the only review I’ve done for MRFH that’s actually resulted in someone writing in (anonymously) to threaten me for having given this movie a positive review. It underscores the whole point of this film, I think, when someone does something like that. Hate, racism and prejudice aren’t always as overt when they appear as you might think; sometimes they’re subtle and influence people who think they’re above such things. What I do know is that the second you try to blanket an entire section of people based on one trait or stereotype, that’s the moment you’ve shown to the world that you’re ignorant and small-minded.

Andie’s Review: Okay, I don’t have an actual review for this, per se, because it seemed to me that everything that needed to be said about it was said in the review already written. I happen to agree with everyone, it is a fine piece of film and I sing its praises highly. There was one thing I wanted to share, though. I worked at Blockbuster for the better part of my senior year of high school and there was quite a diverse taste in movies among the employees. However, American History X is the only, repeat ONLY, movie that was released during my employment that every single person in the store liked. Not one of us had anything bad to say about it. Just thought I’d share.

Lissa’s Rating: Simply phenomenal.

Lissa’s Review: It seems odd that last night was the first time I’ve watched American History X, but not really. I’ve wanted to see it since it was released in 1998, but I’ve just never gotten around to it. It was hard to get to certain movie theaters in grad school, and then once it came to video… well, American History X is one of those movies that you just have to be in the mood to see. Even without seeing it you know it’s dark and intense and packs a major emotional punch, and you just have to be up for that. Well, last night I wanted to see something good, so American History X it was.

I was so not disappointed.

Told with frequent flashbacks to the past, American History X is the story of how two brothers descended from what appears to be an ideal family (mother and father happily married, four kids that get along most days, nice house) into a neo-Nazi gang. The elder of the two, Derek (Edward Norton), was essentially the leader of the gang, and ended up going to prison after killing two men. He was released the day of the film. Danny (Edward Furlong), his younger brother, absolutely idolizes Derek, and is headed down the same road, until his principal (Avery Brooks) intervenes. After handing in a paper on Mein Kampf and how Adolf Hitler was a civil rights leader, Danny is told to write a paper on the circumstances and ways that Derek ended up killing two men and going to prison for three years. As he does so, the story of what happened to Derek’s descent into the neo-Nazi world and what happened to him in prison is revealed.

It’s a deeply intriguing plot, and the two brothers are complicated characters. Even more so, the writer David McKenna actually thought about why people become so violent in the first place, and what can prompt a person to begin to change convictions that they hold. The brothers are not mindless thugs; in fact, this movie would be a lot less scary if they were. They’re not one-note characters. It’s fascinating to see that these boys are both portrayed as scarily racist and full of hate, but at the same time are devoted to each other and to their family. The image of a skinhead giving his little sister a plane ride is one of those sights that leaves this weird feeling in your chest. You want to say “how sweet!”, but you can’t forget everything he stands for.

The acting is phenomenal. American History X is really the movie that brought Edward Norton into the public eye as the phenomenal actor he is, and deservedly so. Norton was the perfect choice to play Derek, and he pulled off the mix of hate, tenderness, love, and pride extremely well. He’s intelligent enough that his rhetorical scenes worked, charismatic enough that you could understand why he was the leader of his gang, and he’s able to do a wide range of emotion, which this character definitely needed. It’s really interesting to see how different he can be in the flashbacks, where the viewer can completely believe him as devoted to the neo-Nazi ideas, and the present, where he’s still got the same strength of character, but has channeled the energy elsewhere.

Next to the stir Edward Norton created, a few other great performances got lost as well. Edward Furlong is just as strong as Norton, and shares the burden of the movie successfully. His Danny is a confused kid convinced he knows what he’s about. He lacks the rage that motivated Derek, but the hate is still there. It’s very interesting to see just how different the two brothers are, but yet how Danny could truly take the same path Derek did. Avery Brooks as the principal/teacher character is understated and strong. He’s intense, but he’s not overplaying the teacher/mentor role, which was a good choice on the part of all involved. I was also impressed with Stacy Keach as Cameron Alexander, the adult who manipulates young, insecure kids into the neo-Nazi gang. Again, his performance was understated, and there was nothing camped up or satirical about his villain. And Guy Torry as Lamont, Derek’s work partner in prison, is incredibly notable as well.

It’s an excellent movie, but I’ll tell you, American History X is a scary movie as well. Not in terms of gore (although there are some scenes of intense violence where I needed to cover my eyes), but in terms of how easily something like this could happen. As I said, both Danny and Derek are extremely bright boys. In fact, in the scene where Derek spouts off to his mother’s new beau, you can see just how intelligent he is as he weaves facts and statistics into arguments. And what’s scary is he starts with some points that may be valid. Not about people needing to die or be removed, don’t get me wrong. But some of the issues brought up (questioning the selectivity of what the media shows, his father’s points about the weaknesses of affirmative action) are views that people hold every day and can be valid criticisms of the institutions. It’s the solution to these problems (and where the blame is laid) that’s different and puts people into different categories. But Derek’s charisma and intelligence often makes it hard to argue with him (as does the fact he doesn’t let others get a word in edgewise), not because he’s wrong, but because he constructs his arguments in such a way that logic doesn’t get through to him. If you try to find logical loopholes in his arguments, you can’t — or at least, not something he’s going to acknowledge as true. Derek turns the issues of race from a complex one to a simple one — a matter of statistics, semantics, and blame — and when someone does that… well, we’ve all seen that type of debater on the Internet. And that’s what makes it scary — just how easily someone can slip down that slope and go from intolerance into outright hate.

I do admit there were a few things about the movie that made me kind of say “yeah, right.” The biggest one was Danny’s transition from skinhead to “maybe I shouldn’t be”, which appeared to take place in a single night. On one level it worked, because Danny was never set up to being as angry and hate-filled as Derek, and you got the impression that Danny was in this white supremacist group because he idolized his brother rather than he believed in what they said. But on the other hand, it still seemed pretty quick to me. I also wondered if Derek’s fall into the neo-Nazi world wasn’t too easy… but that I think might be denial on my part. (I suspect it really could be that easy if the pieces are laid right.) I was a little surprised that Derek only got three years for his murders, as well. Plus, there are times that suspension of disbelief kicks out and the thought “you’re manipulating me” kicks in. But those things are minor in the face of the rest of the story, and easily forgivable based on the strength of the rest of the film.

Overall though, it’s a dark, insightful, moving movie with its head on straight and some amazing acting. If you haven’t seen it, remedy that fact as soon as you’re in the mood for that sort of movie.

“You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out, and THAT’S what the hokey pokey’s all about!”

Intermission!

  •  Seth wears a shirt during the basketball game featuring the number 88. This is a skinhead code for HH, or “Heil Hitler,” H being the 8th letter of the alphabet.
  • Water is shown in slow motion in several parts of the movie: in the grocery store, the shower in the prison, and later the shower at home. This may be a symbol of cleansing.
  • The quotation that concludes Danny’s paper is from the closing words of Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address in 1861.
  • Danny’s essay is titled “My Mein Kampf.” The words “Mein Kampf” translate into English as “my struggle”, making the title of Danny’s essay an example of very bad grammar. A better title would have been “my own Mein Kampf,” but Danny is not particularly knowledgeable in German.
  • Edward Norton was said to have re-edited the film to lengthen his screen time. Director Tony Kaye then attempted to get his name removed but violated a Directors’ Guild of America rule that states that directors that use pseudonyms (such as “Alan Smithee”) must not talk about why they had their name removed — which Tony Kaye had done in ads in Variety. Kaye sued the DGA and New Line Cinema for $200 million stating that the DGA rule violated his first amendment rights.

Groovy Quotes

Bob Sweeney: Has anything you’ve done made your life better?

Derek: One in every three black males is in some phase of the correctional system. Is that a coincidence or do these people have, you know, like a racial commitment to crime?

Doris: You think you’re the only one doin’ time, Derek? You think you’re here all alone? You think I’m not in here with you?

Doris: I’m ashamed that you came out of my body.

Danny: Life is too short to be pissed all the time.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Believer
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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Did I buy the right “Hunger Games” book?

  2. Pingback: ”American History X”: The dark side of American history « Radu presents: The Movie-Photo Blog

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