Monday, March 21, 2011

American History X

Back to 1998 and American History X, directed by Tony Kaye, and starring Edward Norton (Fight Club, Primal Fear) and Edward Furlong.

Derek Vinyard (Norton) is a neo-nazi skinhead who is sent to prison after brutally murdering two black guys. After being released, he realizes his younger brother Danny (Furlong) is following in his footsteps and tries to save him.

During the movie we go back and forth: from present to past to present to past. Gradually we understand how Derek became a violent white supremacist: we are led to believe his father’s death in a drug-related shooting in a black area cause his ideology to change. 


But the seed was planted even before that – we gradually discover his father was a passive racist, and his death causes confusion in Derek’s mind. As a confused teenager, he then becomes an easy prey for Cameron (Stacy Keach), a man who organizes and leads hate groups from behind the scenes – charismatic Derek becomes his front man. And….his perfect cover. When Derek is released he realizes Danny is now one of Cameron’s recruits, and vows not to let that happen. He tells him the story of life in prison. It is ironic how he is saved, not by his “own” group, but by a black guy, Lamont. I wondered many times during the movie if the change in Derek did not occur before he was violently attacked: when he discusses with Lamont, the guy tells him he has been sentenced to 6 years for dropping a TV he was trying to steal on a policeman’s foot. Meanwhile, Derek got 3 years for brutally murdering two black guys. The obvious injustice of the situation surely must have been apparent?

Going back and forth, we see Derek’s evolution – flashbacks are filmed in black and white, and one could go as far as saying the dual tone highlights the way Derek sees the world: in black and white, good or bad.

In Danny’s evolution, there is this essay he has to do for Pr Sweeney on his brother, that he reluctantly starts, and that turns into a real catharsis as he thinks about past events and hears what his brother went through in prison. We find out, going back and forth, past to present to past again, that Sweeney is more than just a teacher, and is determined to help both Derek and Danny and to show them where they are wrong.


Bob Sweeney: There was a moment, when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. Used to blame everybody. Blamed white people, blamed society, blamed God. I didn't get no answers 'cause I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.

Derek Vinyard: Like what?

Bob Sweeney: Has anything you've done made your life better?


The rhythm is good, and we are hooked instantly – as the story unfolds we understand the origins of this hate, and the redemption. Edward Norton is unbelievably good: from shy teenager to violent leader to affectionate repented son and brother, his performance is frighteningly real.

The lesson on tolerance is obvious here, but is made bitter by the ending: violence is a vicious circle and is hard to break. There is balance too, as violence is not one-sided and comes from all races, and the ending just dramatically emphasizes the futile nature of race wars. It is not easy to watch, it is difficult and shocking but, in the end, it remains a must.


We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.(Abraham Lincoln)

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