American History X (1998)
Release Date: November 20th, 1998 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tony Kaye Actors: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Lien, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach, William Russ
n a black-and-white opening sequence, young Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is awoken by his older brother Derek (Edward Norton) loudly making love to his girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk), as well as by the sounds of three armed black men breaking into Derek’s truck. Derek emerges from his bed sheets, revealing a torso prominently tattooed with a swastika, and proceeds to violently gun down the trespassers. It’s an event that stays with Danny throughout his teenage years, prompting him to rebel in school by writing a paper on “Mein Kampf” for his Jewish teacher. Venice Beach High principal Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) takes a lenient approach, insisting that giving up on the boy will result in a brief life on the merciless streets. As a substitution for expulsion, he creates a new assignment, this time to write about Danny’s influences on Derek – in a one-on-one, alternative class, dubbed American History X.
At a Los Angeles Police Department meeting, where Sweeney serves as an advisor and expert on neo-Nazi skinhead gangs, he details the role of Derek Vinyard who, along with Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), was significant in spreading and preaching about White Power – leading up to his incarceration for manslaughter. After serving more than three years in Chino prison, Derek is released, back into Danny’s life. His homecoming is a celebratory occasion for family and friends, including sister Davina (Jennifer Lien), mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo), and longtime neo-Nazi pal Seth Ryan (Ethan Suplee). But while Danny has been learning to hate anyone that isn’t a white Protestant, following the lead of his bigoted associates, Derek has reformed, no longer wanting to incite hateful acts of violence or perpetuate organized discrimination.
Operatic voices, moody violin music, monologic grandstanding, the alternation of grayscale and low contrast color, and overbearing slow-motion attempt to turn a basic plot into an artistic fictionalization of potent themes. The entire project is largely amateurish and incompetent on a technical level, with most of the supporting actors contributing correspondingly mediocre performances. In addition, uninspired cinematography and editing that blends pseudo-documentary framing and made-for-TV direction gives the film a deficient visual quality. Sporadic narration by Danny, then Derek, similarly betrays an unfocused perspective. The dialogue also lacks punch, while the action is dully distributed across a lengthy two hours, fluctuating between repetitive conversations and sudden, graphic aggression.
There’s commentary on the slant of the media, affirmative action, domestic violence, the notion of inherited intolerance, prison politics, firm beliefs, bitter betrayal, and unexpected alliances. Themes on the importance of selecting role models, the potential evils of assembling harmonious ignorance (an idea used for all facets of racism), manipulative leaders who prey on the weak-minded, and instruction through terror are also present. In the end, there is a further acknowledgement of anticipated cognizance or the recognition of indefensible convictions – all thought-provoking topics by themselves. But as a prison film, “American History X” isn’t substantial enough, and as a morality tale – or one of redemption – it’s conflicted and unoriginal.
– Mike Massie