Some films make you feel good inside. Some can scare you, make you laugh and others can make you want to fist pump the air. But there are films that can rip you to pieces, tear away at any hope you have, and force you to accept that the world is a monstrous place. This is American History X in a nutshell.
When I watched the film for the first time, my expectations were minimal going in, but when the film finished I sat in stunned silence. Part of me felt depressed, but I’d just laid eyes on one of the most powerful films I’d ever seen. And that’s mostly all down to Edward Norton, who takes the viewer on a dark journey within a world of racism, violence and hatred.
Norton portrays Derek Vinyard, a Neo-Nazi skinhead who’s far-right beliefs spawned whilst growing up with a racist father. The film also focuses on his impressionable younger brother Danny (Furlong), who is deeply influenced by Derek’s views. Told in a nonlinear narrative, with the past events shot in black-and-white, the film chronicles how Derek is sent to prison for manslaughter, is released a changed man and tries to save his brother from the Neo-Nazi gang, that has consumed him.
What makes American History X so fascinating, yet harrowing to watch, is that Norton’s Derek is an intelligent racist (yes, really he is). He uses logic and harsh statistics in scenes where he rants and raves about minorities. He’s not presented as ignorant or uneducated, and even when he commits atrocious acts, he still manages to retain his sense of humanity.
But the film doesn’t side the viewer with racist people. The point of the film is to show that no matter what your political and societal viewers are, violence and hatred is a continuous cycle. The film refuses to sensitise its message and it’s sheer commitment to exploring harsh realities, makes it so impacting and simply unforgettable.
When Derek turns his life around after his experience in prison, we can’t forget what he’s done, but we do forgive him somewhat as he has clearly reformed. I can understand how some viewers may consider Derek’s moral reversal to be implausible, as he essentially throws in the towel, denouncing his past. At the same time, I think it’s entirely believable as Derek’s turbulent experience in prison makes him see the error of his ways, finally realising that hate only fuels more hate. So, I think the film’s message overwrites any minor implausibilities in the story.
American History X never takes the easy way out, or tries to simplify its themes for the benefit of the viewer. It’s a truthful and relentless look at the complexities of humanity, how perspectives are born and how they can change. No one comes out completely unscathed and the moral of the story is very simple.
You have to credit Norton and all the other actors portraying racists, for having the courage to tackle a film like this. I can imagine many actors would have run a mile. American History X is a remarkable film and even the most tolerant viewers will be left shaken when the credits roll.
Quoted: “Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: David McKenna
Stars: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo.
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 119 min