American History X
Reviewed by: Brian A. Gross
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Beverly D'Angelo | Director: Tony Kaye
“Hate, is baggage.” Those, along with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, are the last words spoken in the final narration of “American History X”; a movie with so much depth and character that it makes the regular Hollywood fare look like student films in comparison. Amazingly it is has a first time feature director in Tony Kaye and a freshman screenwriter in David McKenna.
Danny Vineyard’s (Edward Furlong) young life has seen its share of pain and turmoil: first, his father is murdered doing his job and then he witnesses his older brother Derek (Edward Norton) murdering two would-be robbers. Derek is a kind of Über-neo-Nazi, an Honors English student in High School and a protégé of the local racist leader, Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach). He is also Danny’s hero. After their dad is killed fighting a fire in a Compton crack den, Derek turns his hate into action and becomes a leader of the growing White Power movement in Venice Beach. He is never a true believer though—the group is an outlet for his charismatic personality and his rage at things he doesn’t understand. Cameron is right there to focus the attention of hopeless, young white kids like him and gives them an excuse to be angry, and stay angry.
The story, mostly told by Danny, is featured in black and white flashbacks with the current story told in color. It opens with Danny in Dr. Sweeney’s office (Avery Brooks as the principal) for writing a civil rights paper entitled “My Mien Kampf.” It is the same day Derek is released from Chino after serving three plus years for homicide for the aforementioned killings. When Danny finally sees Derek again he realizes that he has come home a man and we witness one of the most powerful stories of redemption I have ever seen. We cannot truly know how far he has come until we see where he has been. Where he has been is told in a brutal, graphic and final manner but it does provide the basis for his evolution.
When Derek goes into prison he is a hardened young man. He immediately makes his presence known to the Aryan convicts and is safe with them. Little does he realize his attitude of purity and adherence to philosophy gets him nowhere here. He becomes jaded from the compromise he sees his posse making and goes off on his own. After being raped and humiliated by one of his own men, Derek is visited by Dr. Sweeney who offers his help. He tells Derek about his own youth of anger:
The slow headshake Derek gives is the turning point. His only contention left is to deal with the prison’s black population (the “brothers”) who will be gunning for him. As he is leaving he realizes that the young black guy who befriended him, and broke down his perceptions, had put out the word that he be left alone. Derek has grace extended to him and doesn’t even realize it. He only understands the mercy he has lived under as he is leaving, but it has already changed him. Dr. Sweeney gives him help too, but it is a conditional grace based on his heart change. Both of them are worried about Danny and they both realize that he is headed down the same path Derek is departing from.
Not only is Derek a man of honor when he comes home he displays a compassion and protectiveness of his family he hasn’t had for years. He is clearly appalled at where they have to live and they are his top priority now. He does make mistakes and lashes out in anger several times but that is what makes him the man he is; a character fully realized. He is about his business of severing the ties that bind him to his old life (even some very personal ones) and rebuilding the new life he has been given.
“X” is an emotional and moving piece of work, a wonderful marriage of image, writing, and acting. Mr. McKenna boldly draws characters, not caricatures. He does not rely on the handy crutch of pathos but allows his progeny to live and move amongst the rest of us. The material he supplies allows Edward Norton to shine and give an Oscar-worthy performance. Mr. Kaye shows a flair for the showy image at times but as Edward Norton states: “his visuals… are wholly unique” and he does make his presence felt less than many other Hollywood directors.
On a side note, during post-production, the director decided he did not want his name anywhere on the picture and is still bad-mouthing it to this day. (He considers it “raped” by Edward Norton—who he calls a “narcissistic dilettante”—and New Line Cinema when he was refused more money and time for a third edit). What is more ironic is this egotistical clown, who is by his own estimation “the greatest English filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock,” could win an award for his work on the movie; work he fought months to damage and have his name replaced with a pseudonym. When asked about wanting to have his credits read “Humpty Dumpty” he explained “Its all about the fall of mankind…”—my guess is that would be anything that removes Tony Kaye from the spotlight, with his teeth marks still planted on it.
The MPAA rated this film R for graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality and nudity. Violent content: two murders (one visually extreme in nature) and several beatings. Sex/Nudity: One prolonged scene of sex between Derek and his girlfriend, full frontal and rear male nudity in prison, and a graphic rape in prison as well. Language: Almost all the players use dozens of obscenities and harsh profanity throughout (over 250 obscenities and over a dozen profanities).
Year of Release—1998