American History X
Rating -

Drama (US); 1998; Rated R; 118 Minutes

Edward Norton: Derek Vinyard
Edward Furlong: Danny Vinyard
Fairuza Balk: Stacey
Beverly DíAngelo: Doris Vinyard
Avery Brooks: Bob Sweeney

Produced by Bill Carraro, David McKenna, John Morrisey, Kearie Peak, Steve Tisch and Lawrence Turman; Directed by Tony Kaye; Screenwritten by David McKenna

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Written by DAVID KEYES

American History X may seem like an average melodrama at first glance, but deep inside, itís a brutal and disturbing movie that discusses and demonstrates racism, prejudice, and human blindness. You expect to see a movie simply discussing the average skinhead life, but what you get is something totally beyond what youíd expect to see at the cinema. It brings a neo-naziís life completely to the screen.

And this is difficult for me as a critic. Why? Well, think about this observation: how do you praise a movie when itís offensive and so brutally prejudice? Then again, how can you hate it when it paints such a realistic picture of these things, in a way, I gather, completely based on fact?

I think you can see it my way. A movie like American History X is either likely to be blown down by the harshness of critics or praised ultimately for its intense and disturbing themes. In the end, for my sake, I appreciated the movie for what it did. It convinced me and attacked me with forces I didnít know even existed in the movies. Like Saving Private Ryan, it displays raw power in the human heart and human eyes, all of which work perfectly. Well, sort of.

If thereís a flaw in the movie, itís the overall explanation. But weíll get to that later. First, something needs to be said about its message. Itís about a racist named Derek Vinyard, who, as flashbacks show us, became a skinhead after a group of African-Americans shot down his father on the street while he was trying to put out the fires in a burning building. Heís played by Edward Norton, in a role that deserves Oscar consideration beyond comprehension. He is described in early scenes of flashback as one of the most brutal of his kind; tough, ragged, brave, and, of course, absolutely prejudice.

But the movie actually begins with Derek exiting a jail term, for a crime that I wouldnít dare mention here. Strangely, however, he emerges from the prison sentence a new, refreshed human being, free of his racist beliefs and his urges to be supreme.

Ahh, but wouldnít the movie be dull if it simply started like that and had nothing more than flashbacks of his past? The present focuses mainly on Derekís younger brother, Danny, who himself idolizes his older brother to the point that, yes, he has skinhead tendencies as well.

The movie bounces back and forth between these two situations; displayed in stunning black and white shots are the flashbacks and memories of Derekís life as a Neo-nazi. The present takes places purely in color, and directs attention to the relationships of the two brothers who, at this point, are completely opposite of what they use to be.

The technique of these color and black and white shots seems reminiscent of Spielbergís from Schindlerís List, though the movie doesnít mix both of them in the same camera shots. Itís an approach that is so effective that it seems hard to believe that most movie directors havenít made their movies with the same technique.

And at another glance, it seems hard to believe that a movie like this would have a weakness. But it does, and itís one that irritated me for days. Sure, this is a movie based on the recovery of a skinhead and the upbringing of a new one, but how did Derek, the one who changed his ways, all of a sudden decide to give up his racial tendencies? I gather his change of heart took place in jail when some African-Americans saved his life, but is that really reason enough for such a brutal neo-nazi to change his ways?

I dunno. The movie never gets into explanation of Derekís mending, nor does it get into much explanation of what happened during his jail sentence. If this could have been something corrected during production, American History X would have been the triumph of the year. It could have been the best film I ever laid eyes on.

But still, itís worthwhile, powerful experience. Of course, it would be easy to give away several details of a movie like this. It would be so funny if I mentioned every quirk and every tidbit for you, but why would I? Is that the purpose of a film review? To spoil everything for a movie before you actually see it?

I think not. Some critics actually do it. Sometimes I do it. But I donít, at least, for movies as powerful as this.

If you seem to believe that I get kicks out of spoiling these things, then you havenít been paying attention very long.

© 1998, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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