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AMERICAN HISTORY X

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Stacy Keach, Beverly D’Angelo, Avery Brooks
Director:  Tony Kaye
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  April 6, 1999

Film ***1/2

American History X is a dark, unflinching look at one of the most destructive forces in human history--the power of hate.  It may show what most of us (hopefully) already know, but it does so with unbridled harshness and unapologetic brutality.  It demonstrates in no uncertain terms how hatred destroys.  Not just those who are the object of hate, but those who do the hating.

The present day setting of the story takes place in about a 24 hour period, but the majority of the film is told in flashbacks (filmed in black and white, for a nice touch) recounting the events leading up to the current day.  We are introduced to Derek Vinyard (Norton), a hate filled neo-Nazi skinhead who was once a brilliant and promising student.  We also meet many of his cohorts in action and the silent, despicable man behind it all, Cameron Alexander (a nice performance by Stacy Keach).

Through the flashbacks, we see how the seeds of hatred are planted in young Derek, and how they grow, and of course, eventually how they manifest themselves.  In one particular scene, Derek is riling up his fellow gang members with a speech about the problems of illegal immigration.  One can see that Derek is no fool.  He quotes facts and figures about how “border jumpers” hurt everybody by taking jobs and getting money from the government.  And before you know what has happened, they have targeted a minority owned grocery store that employs illegal immigrants.  The violence is brutal and utterly degrading.  It's horrible to watch, but impossible to look away from it.  This truly is the dark side of humanity. 

Derek’s story climaxes in the vicious killing of two black men who were trying to steal his truck.  He goes to jail, and while there, he begins to learn two very real truths...that members of other races and creeds aren't the enemy, and that fellow white people can be just as much of a threat as anything he had ever imagined.

The present day story involves a reformed Derek, released from prison, and trying to get his life back in order.  The problem is his younger brother Danny (Furlong) is now a skinhead and a disciple of Cameron.  Danny doesn't understand his brother's change of heart, and neither do his old comrades.  At a party where Derek confronts Cameron, he is nearly killed by the same people who used to be his friends.  Even his girlfriend (Balk) who waited for his release screams for his blood.

Danny, meanwhile, after turning in a paper on Mein Kampf for a history class, is forced by his principal (Brooks) to write a paper on his older brother.  Like it or not, he is going to have to take a long hard look at Derek's life, and how it changed, and how it brought him to where he is today.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way skinheads are portrayed.  We see how ugly and misguided their actions are.  We don't like them.  But it's also clear the type of people that make up the organization.  These are the losers, for lack of a better word, of society.  They have no intelligence, no real ambition, and hence, no honest hope of improving their lot in life.  The best they can do is direct their anger and bitterness towards a scapegoat.  And the best scapegoat happens to be anybody who's not like them.  A touch I found ironic was their song:  “Glory, glory, hallelujah, the white man marches on.”  These people don't even have a clue they're using a Hebrew word in their racial superiority anthem.

It’s obvious how someone like Derek can rise in rank so quickly amongst them.  Someone with some brains and a little sense of organization can be revered as almost a god in their group.  But the key element still has to be the hatred.  When Derek no longer has that, he becomes no better in their eyes than the groups they target.

This is a powerful film, one that certainly rises above the now famous disputes between director Kaye and New Line (I won’t go into it all here) and shines as a unique cinematic experience—one that's well written, acted, and directed, and certainly conveys a strong message.  The entire cast is terrific, but special mention must go to Edward Norton.  He is one of, if not the most, brilliant young actors working today.  Some felt his Oscar nomination for this role was token, but see the movie and you won't be one of them.  He explodes off the screen with anger and vitality.  He is unafraid to lose himself in the detestable character, which makes his eventual redemption that much more potent.  It is an ugly subject matter, but he manages to bring an honest humanity to Derek as he wallows in the muck of his own hatred.  Humanity doesn't have to mean something good, just something real.

This film, as I said, may not bring you a message you didn’t already know, but it will force you to think about the message in stronger and more uncompromising terms.  As the principal remarks early in the film, that kind of hatred is learned, and therefore it can be unlearned.  I certainly hope he's right, or we will certainly pay dearly for it down the road.

Video ****

This is one terrific looking disc.  Like another recent New Line release, Pleasantville, this transfer gets to shine in both color and black and white.  The black and white cinematography is especially extraordinary. Kaye, who was his own cameraman, has a real sense of how to use lights and shadows for dramatic effect. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is very well done, with plenty of good dynamic range and occasional use of the rear channels to add effects to some of the more action oriented scenes, like the fighting and the basketball game.  Dialogue, though normally forward-centered, comes across very clean throughout.  The subwoofer doesn't come into play much, but the other channels handle the audio duty with no noticeable trouble.

Features **1/2

Given the nature of the problems surrounding the movie, a commentary track was probably too much to hope for, but we do get a few deleted scenes and a trailer, plus some cast and crew info.

Summary:

American History X could easily be in the nineties what Do the Right Thing was in the eighties...a movie that forces its audience to take a long hard look at themselves and the world around them, and realize the abyss is not as far away as we'd like to think.