Year 3, Film #12 (Total #462)
THE PLOT: A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.
THE GOOD: American History X is probably the most racially-charged, right-leaning, pro-white film I have ever seen, and probably one of the most extremist pieces of media, period. It’s a film that extols the virtues of being white and degrades the existence of every other race, blacks especially. It also has to be the record holder for most utterances of the n-word by white people, and that’s including Quentin Tarantino films.
But this film isn’t like a piece of propaganda. It’s not actually endorsing these actions but rather condemning them. Like most good films or stories though, before you can get to that actual message, the condemnation, you have to get in the mindset of the characters first. You have to try and see things the way Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) sees them and how he views his actions are guided by what’s right. He was indoctrinated and raised to be racist because of what his father Dennis (William Russ) believed as we learn through flashbacks, and by his father’s murder by a black man. At no point do you feel Derek’s actions are justified or in any way acceptable, but the film does a great job at getting you to understand why it is Derek acts the way he does.
The greatest strength of American History X is its ability to get you to understand and think about these issues. We not only see the beginning where Derek is the white supremacist, but also the aftermath where his time in prison truly changed his beliefs. We see his little brother Danny (Edward Furlong) following in his footsteps, turning in a paper entitled “My Mein Kampf” and joining his brother’s gang. We also see the effect Danny’s actions has on Derek, who despite what he did, wants a better life for his brother and for the rest of his family. At one point in the film, Derek tells Danny a story and says to him he’s not trying to tell him what to do with his life. The only thing he asks of Danny is that he understand what he went through and where he stands today. And in many ways that’s what this entire film is about. American History X shows you some very brutal, graphic, and disturbing things. It shows you these things to help you to understand what can go through a person’s head and how difficult it can be to change their way of thinking. It certainly implies that some things are wrong and should never be done, but it never preaches. It lets you draw your own conclusions and come to your own opinion.
THE BAD: What the film is not so great at showing is the change and evolution Derek, Danny, and the other characters actually go through. We start off the film seeing Derek as the white-supremacist who hates any other race besides his own. There’s also a few moments scattered throughout the film to show us how Derek wasn’t always this way — he enjoyed reading Native Son for English class and being inspired to learn more from his teacher Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) before his father found out the man was black and educated his son that he was spewing inequality. Derek also spends three years in prison after killing two black men and for a while holds steady to his beliefs. By the end though, he becomes good friends with Lamont (Guy Torry) who proves to Derek that blacks are people too, not some plague that’s out to get him.
There’s a lot of developments in American History X, character- and story-wise, but we don’t get a good sense of it. We see the before and we see the after; we don’t see the change happening in between. One moment Derek is the bigot he starts out as, the next, he’s an accepting person who denounces his old gang and lifestyle. The same is true with the changes Danny goes through. While we see more of the struggle Danny has with these beliefs earlier on, and can realize how he hasn’t drank as much of the Kool-Aid as his brother did, his journey to reach the conclusions he comes to at the end of the film is very binary. There’s no middle-ground to cover through his transformation and everything can feel quite abrupt.
THE TAKEAWAY: As extremist as American History X is, a film not afraid to show its true colors when it comes to race, the film doesn’t preach or prescribe certain beliefs. It may heavily imply what is right and what is wrong after seeing the ridiculousness of these issues being taken to the extreme, but what the film does very well is to get you to understand what’s going on. You come to understand why these characters act the way they do, and ultimately, come to understand why Derek changes his opinion on things. It’s a very powerful film and one that can be difficult to watch at times, but one that can get it’s message across.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5