Movie Review

American History X

Rated R for graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality and nudity

Reviewed by: Brian A. Gross
CONTRIBUTOR

Extremely Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adult
Genre:
Drama
R

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:

“I used to be mad too. Mad at everyone. Mad at society, white people, God. I had all the wrong answers but I wasn’t asking the right questions. You need to ask the right questions, Derek.”

“Like what?”

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

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).

** Editor’s Note: This film contains extensive brutal violence, language, sexuality, nudity and homosexual rape. While the overall message of this film is one of positive redemption, the path that leads to the conclusion is a bitter-sweet one, filled with extremely offensive material. Be cautious and prayerful in your consideration of “X”.

Year of Release—1998

Viewer Comments
I just rented this film tonight on home video and I’m glad I did. While, I was disgusted by the opening scene of Derek involved in a sexual act, the rest of the film is well displayed. The foul language is typical of the culture being shown. Men are commonly raped in prison—especially if they do what Derek did. And, in a movie about white supremacy, neo-Nazism and gangs the violence is to be expected. What I like about this movie is that it shows something prevelent in our world today—hate. It must be remembered that we as Christians are in class despised by these very groups. Yet our children, on an almost daily basis, are being surrounded by and sometimes sucked into joining gangs. Watching this movie had me in tears—tears of pain for the victims of gangviolence, tears for those involved in the lie, tears of joy when Derek and Danny tore down the Nazi stuff from their bedroom walls, and tears of sadness when Danny was killed. While this movie is not for young viewers, its one that high school aged teens (to see the dangers) and adults should watch and learn from. Like Schindler’s List, which I strongly endorse, the offensive elements in this movie have their place and the R rating is respectful, because like the Holocaust—gang activity is offensive and is definitely R rated.
—Brian, age 24
Next only to “Pi,” the deepest movie I’ve ever seen. Though some Christians (and non-Christians) might find this movie too violent and graphic, well that’s the world. I know people that were very surprised that I saw this movie at my “age,” but not surprised I saw “Saving Private Ryan” because it was [a war flick]…
—Josiah Hager, age 15
I found this film to have a profoundly Christian perspective, I would argue that “American History X” has one of the most deeply felt, moral cores of any U.S released film this year. It graphically portrays that actions have consequences. Not just for ourselves, but for those we influence. And ultimately for good and bad we truly reap what we sow. It showed that grace can shine in the bleakest of situations to touch and free the darkest of hearts. The pathetic brew of angry ignorence, denialism and terrible insecurity that drives people to want to be part of something, indeed anything, that has something to offer that they perceive to be bigger than themselves is a sad indictment of our society. In this movie it’s racism, but it really could be anything that drives someone to find meaning in destructive and self destructive behaviour. Proverbs 27:7 goes something like “He who is full hates honey, but to he who is empty everything bitter is sweet” To me Amerian History X demostrates this. Bad belonging is better than no belonging. Bad meaning is better than no meaning at all… a powerful moving piece of cinema that transcends some obvious weaknesses “American History X” is high voltage all the way.
—Anonymous
I agree with the comments regarding the positive message of this movie, but I feel that the language, extreme violence, nudity and sexual situations is inappropriate material for Christians to be viewing. We have the Bible as our message, why do we need to pay $7.00 to spend two hours immersed in this filth? What would Jesus do? I don’t think He would be sitting there next to me.
—SV, age 31
This movie is a harsh, brutal look at how parts of our society is lied to by satan. But is was good and not for kids. I really learned a lot from this movie. How your actions can affect your life as well or even more, others. During the movie, I started to do a scan on my friends, and associations. I realized that some of my friends didn’t put the Godly input that I would like in a friend and that I input to others. Because I think your friends are one of the biggest influences in your life. So for some, I need to step back and let God do a work, because I sowed and did all I can do. Do I give up on them? Never, but sometimes you need to detach. I don’t want my friends to play Christian when they’re around me, and vice versa. In the movie, you can see how parents train up child the wrong way. It’s amazing, that if we don’t stop hate, it won’t stop. We don’t want to pass on that generation curse. Let’s get rid of it.
—EQ, age 30