Edward Norton in American History X (1998)



(director: Tony Kaye; screenwriter: David McKenna; cinematographer: Tony Kaye; editors: Jerry Greenberg/Alan Heim; cast: Edward Norton (Derek), Edward Furlong (Danny), Fairuza Balk (Stacey), Stacy Keach (Cameron), Avery Brooks (Sweeney), Beverly D’Angelo (Doris), Jennifer Lien (Davina), Elliott Gould (Murray), William Russ (Dennis, Derek’s dad), Ethan Suplee (Seth), Guy Torry (Lamont); Runtime: 119; New Line Cinema; 1998)


“I just wish the film didn’t give us an entire year’s history curriculum about racism in two hours.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Racial hatred is something that we are not born with: it is a learned response. “American History X” examines how two Los Angeles brothers learn how to hate from their families, their communities, their schools, their friends, and from a country that doesn’t fulfill everyone’s expectations. Films of this nature are very difficult to do; firstly, because they tend to become merely message vehicles and, secondly, hatred is a mindset that must be unlearned and films tend to think that they must sermonize to get their good intentions across and sermons as a rule do not make for pleasing dramatics.

When this film is most effective it goes for the jugular of its racist veins and pulls back no punches, using lucid arguments about why there is racial disharmony in this country and it does so in the language used on the street. When it backtracks and feels that it has to explain itself and sort of apologize for what it has shown and allows the main character off the racial hook rather abruptly, the story seems to weaken and becomes somewhat artificial like so many other films of this ilk that are afraid to let completely go and allow the chips to fly where they may. What the producers of the film might be afraid of is that the message about why youngsters become racists was too convincingly done, that their gripes they have are too reasonable and might leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who can’t face the realities of life in contemporary America.

So one of the questions, is what can this film add to our knowledge of hatred that would make us feel we are onto some way of dealing with it any better than we have until now? Perhaps it is an unfair or an unanswerable question, and it is not the purpose of any film to do that; but, after seeing so much ugliness onscreen such as gang violence, race baiting, and the polarization of the races to make its point about the current social crisis, it makes one wonder how hatred can be overcome, especially, when all the great religious leaders and artists and philosophers could only reach those who were convinced already that hatred was wrong and couldn’t change the world into a harmonious place even if their message was an eloquent and a correct one. I expect this film will actually be relished for its provocative stance it took in depicting those white or black punks committing the violence, with the extreme views of hatred outweighing any other message the film was trying to deliver. And that is the beauty of the film; the real lesson it puts on the table, the one that must be confronted — that is what makes this film invaluable and genuine. It offers a documentary-style look at racism, making it appear just as ugly as it really is.

In Britisher Tony Kaye’s debut feature, after a successful career in doing TV commercials, he brings some of the attention getting scenes into focus in the same manner that commercials use to reach the consumer and has come up with a riveting film that paints a necessary but ugly racial picture in bold black-and-white photography during some of its more graphically violent scenes. But the director was not satisfied with the finished product claiming that the film’s star, Edward Norton, re-edited the final version giving himself more screen time and that the studio themselves changed the film so that it could be more acceptable to a greater audience. The film did have an incomplete look and its ending did seem to be missing something, as there appeared to be holes in the story and the film ended too abruptly to make sense. Nevertheless, the director did a good overall job, this is a provocative film and it is one that is grounded in reality and will be remembered for its powerful images of hatred.

How do people feel when they see such changes for the worst in their neighborhood and lump all people into stereotypes, is answered by Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) as follows: he joins a skinhead neo-Nazi group after the last straw of his rationality is broken when his firefighter father (Russ) is senselessly killed by a sniper in a black neighborhood while putting out a fire in a crack house. We will learn later on through one of the many flashbacks used that his father taught the kid to have these racists views, as we listen to them converse over dinner.

The story takes place in Venice Beach, and Derek tells us that blacks and Hispanics have moved here recently from the ghettos of L.A. and have changed the fabric of the once peaceful community by scaring the white kids in school, bringing drugs and gangs into the area, and taking over the basketball courts (the basketball game between the skinheads and the black gang members over who will control the court seemed too facile to be convincing).

American History X ” follows the life of the articulate rabble-rouser Derek and his impressionable younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), as they try to find their real identities in life. For the past year after his father’s death, Derek has become a fanatical member of a neo-Nazi gang which is influenced by a devious adult, Cameron Alexander (Keach), who keeps in the background as he manipulates the boys with his sinister hatred and gets the willing Derek to recruit and organize other disenfranchised whites into the gang. Derek has many Nazi tattoos on his body but the one that stands out, is the giant swastika over his heart.

Derek’s mother (D’Angelo) is dating a liberal-minded Jewish teacher from the local high school, Murray (Gould), and has invited him over for dinner. The family is discussing the Rodney King case with the contrasting views argued by Derek in a passionate manner as he is defending the white cops, while Murray is appalled at the police brutality shown against the black man. The rational part of their argument comes to an end as Derek’s anti-Semitism is raised to a feverish pitch at the sight of Murray sitting at the family table and going out with his mother. This causes a verbal barrage of hatred by him directed at the befuddled school teacher, who is forced to leave the house and end the budding relationship with Derek’s mother.

That night while Derek is having sex in his room with his neo-Nazi girlfriend Stacey (Balk), Danny spots some black youths breaking into their van and alerts his brother. Derek comes out with his automatic weapon and kills two of them, with the third escaping. But the cops come to the scene and arrest him in front of his house. In the most powerful visual scene of the film he is standing in his underwear, topless, with his swastika tattoo standing out in the nighttime sky, as he feels so proud of what he has done that he raises his eyebrows and gives off with an obscene smirk like the good neo-Nazi he has become under his mentor Cameron’s tutelage. For this act, he receives a three-year jail sentence and his life will drastically change in jail, as he learns the errors of his ways the hard way. This is reminiscent of the familiar Western story of the gunman giving up his guns and returning to town as a peacemaker.

In jail, prisoners cling together by race. Being white in prison means you are in the minority and as one of the black inmates, Lamont (Torry), who reluctantly befriends the angry Derek on a laundry work detail they share tells him: “In here, you are the ‘nigger’.”

In order to be protected from the blacks who are out to get him, Derek stays with the white power faction. But when the white leader rapes him in the shower, he disses the group by refusing to sit with them at the dining room. He was also disillusioned that his group didn’t believe as seriously as he did in the message about “white power” and made political deals with the blacks and Hispanics. His protection is now over and he is seen as a disheartened outcast. To his surprise Lamont puts out the word among the blacks to leave him alone and because of this, Derek’s racial feelings change and he can now look at blacks as being human again. So he decides that he can’t go back to his neo-Nazi gang again. This was the hardest part of the film to swallow whole, especially when the change comes about so rapidly and the film did not do a good enough job storywise of showing how this change came about internally. What excelled though was the acting, especially, by Norton, who understood his role and got the most out of it.

Meanwhile, back at school, Danny has Murray as his history teacher and for homework writes a paper on Mein Kampf as an example of a great work on civil rights, which upsets the Jewish teacher. The principal of the school, a black man, Dr. Sweeney, has two doctorates–he is depicted as being twice as good as anyone in this film and will be the bridge of sanity for the disenfranchised, helping his students beyond the call of duty. He was Derek’s teacher and enjoyed having the bright student in class and had visited him in jail, vouching for his early release from prison on the condition he stops Danny from making the same mistakes he did. What Sweeney decides to do for Danny, is to remove him from his history class and have him take a new subject with him called American History X. As his first assignment, he is to write a report about what led his brother to prison and hand it in to him tomorrow. This 24-hour period will prove itself to be eventful, because Derek gets released from prison and confronts the skinheads telling them that he no longer will be in their organization. This part of the story was too incredulous and sketchy for it to be anything but a well-intentioned but misguided effort at making everything turn out to be pat. Dr. Sweeney was also too sketchy a characterization to be a believable character. He seemed to be placed there to provide the film with a safe way out of the difficult dilemma it dug for itself regarding the extremity of race relations.

Danny has been under Cameron’s influence while Derek did his time. He is also being befriended by an overweight loser and fanatical neo-Nazi, Seth (Suplee). The only character in the story that has the right energy to counter the neo-Nazi influence on her hero-worshiping younger brother is his sister, Davina (Jennifer Lien). She is solid. Her anger and impatience with the nonsense she is hearing is right on target. It’s too bad she wasn’t given more to say, as her performance was superb. She overcomes having a weak mother, and she is more gib than the ineffective Murray when challenging bigotry. She is more real than the artificially inflated characterization of the principal.

A horrible scene to look at is the flashback of the gang in action, led by Derek rampaging through a Korean grocery store wrecking the place and violating the black lady cashier and humiliating the Koreans by putting different food all over their faces and beating them. Scenes like this are all done in black and white–it is only when Derek reforms his ways when out of prison that the film becomes Technicolor.

The most obvious flaw of the film is that Derek’s ultra right-wing arguments against liberals and how the blacks are ruining the country, never get answered back in a satisfactory way. There is no one to speak up for what most people in America think is fair. And so when the tragic ending to the film takes place, what is there to say! We have seen the worst about America, how herd-like certain people can behave and how the prison and the Venice Beach that is depicted are both seen as lumping people into groups because of race. But if this is the current reality then there are certainly alternative realities, where different types of human beings can live together in peace, which the film tried to show through Dr. Sweeney’s presence; but, that didn’t work because his actions seemed too contrived.

It is too bad that Derek couldn’t see how rotten his ideas were in time, maybe his intelligence wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Or, maybe someone like Cameron, whom he will eventually call a “chicken hawk” because of his cowardly nature at preying on the very vulnerable youngsters who need to belong to some hate group to express themselves, was his poison. And, his mother, who was too enfeebled to raise him properly, also failed him. He didn’t seem like he was a criminal or the typical dumb skinhead type, but he seemed as if he was someone who got confused over his bad ideas and didn’t know what else to do.

The film didn’t really capture the mindset of the neo-Nazi wholly, it just peeked in on them and was starting to zero in on their psyche and why they become skinheads and what makes them exit from being one; but, it ended up by just lumping them together with all the other stereotyped groups in one broad brushstroke and failed to go far enough in showing us what makes them, in particular, tick. There just seemed to be too much ground this film was trying to cover and it just couldn’t adequately cover the entire history of contemporary American racism without turning the film into a TV miniseries documentary.

But this is still a quality film that is both visually powerful and disturbing, showing how much dirt there is to bring up about America’s ever-present racial problems. I just wish the film didn’t give us an entire year’s history curriculum about racism in two hours. If it didn’t back off from its characterization of Derek and Danny and if it kept hitting the sore points in society that ordinary people find hard to talk about without getting overwrought or emotionally racial about, we might have had a great film. The potential for this good film to be much better, was certainly there for the taking. And who can know for sure, if Tony Kaye is right about what he says ruined his film!