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American History X Review

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by AVForums Apr 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    American History X Review

    'American History X' was released in 1998 to critical acclaim and scored a big hit for director Tony Kaye in what was his first feature film. The screenplay was written by David McKenna ('Blow') and the movie stars Edward Norton ('The Score', 'The Incredible Hulk'), Edward Furlong ('Terminator 2') and Beverley D'Angelo ('Entourage'). A suitably beefed up Norton, who gained 30 pounds of pure muscle for this role, plays Derek Vinyard. Derek was once a prominent member of the Venice Beach neo-Nazi movement who, following a stint in prison, has realised the error and folly of his ways and is striving to reform. Edward Furlong plays his impressionable brother Danny. Danny has grown up in the midst of neo-Nazi propaganda and its followers which have sculpted his own beliefs. Obviously influenced heavily by his older brother, Danny is heading on the same path of self destruction that led to Derek's incarceration. Beverly D'Angelo plays their long suffering mother who, after the loss of her husband, struggles daily to keep her disintegrating family together. An impressive Avery Brook ('Star Trek: Deep Space 9') plays Bob Sweeny, the African American headmaster at Danny's school, who was also history teacher to Derek. Ethan Suplee ('My Name is Earl') also features to add some tiny tastes of comic relief playing the obese and disgusting Seth.


    'A-X' is at base level a movie about the neo-Nazi movement which gained strength and momentum in California in the early nineties during the recession which swept America. The opening scenes show Danny receiving a rebuttal from his headmaster Bob Sweeny about an essay he has written supporting Hitler's infamous “Mein Kampf” publication. Sweeny informs Danny that he will have to rewrite this paper and instructs him to base it on the life of his brother, who has just been released from prison, and how his way of life fits into multi-racial contemporary America. Following an emotional reunion with his brother, who was in the Pen for three years, Danny begins his homework assignment. His composition focuses on the exploits of Derek Vinyard and his progression from ordinary white high school pupil to white supremacist, heavily afflicted by the disease of race hate. Following the death of his father (a fire-fighter) at the hands of African-American drug dealers, Derek underwent a transformation and used his unwavering hatred for all other races to become second in command of the DOC, a prominent Venice Beach neo-Nazi organisation. The DOC is led by Cameron Alexander, who preys on unstable youth who feel shunned and misunderstood by society. Cameron welcomes them with open arms and acts as father figure to these lost boys while manipulating them to do his bidding. Harnessing their rage under the leadership of Derek, Cameron assembles a mini army of neo-Nazis. With general like status within this secluded sect Derek seeks to regain the power that the white man once had over all other races. Derek intelligently uses facts and the beliefs of his extreme political friends to justify his actions of terror against all other ethnic communities.


    As Danny begins his assignment we're whisked back three years to the glory days of Derek's reign of racist terror in the Venice Beach area. In these segments we retrospectively witness Derek's rise to glory within the DOC in a reflection of what Danny is putting to paper. Presented in black in white, with Danny narrating, these segments are in stark contrast to the full colour “modern day” scenes. One night three African-American car-jackers attempt to steal the truck that Derek's late father purchased for him, big mistake. Disturbed from his carnal pleasures the shaven headed, Swastika tattooed and muscular Derek advances with incredible menace and a vehement hatred. Swooping upon them like an iron eagle, Derek attacks and slaughters them all as Danny looks on. This brutal set piece features the infamous curb-stomp. Derek forces one of the gang members at gunpoint to bite hard on the concrete curb and then proceeds to stamp hard on the back of his skull resulting in instant death. This event results in Derek serving three years hard time. Derek is intelligent enough to realise that he will not survive inside on his own. Befriending the “Aryan Brotherhood” he survives in prison by forming an alliance with those akin to his beliefs. In an interesting plot twist Derek witnesses one of the “Brotherhood's” members dealing drugs to the Mexicans and Jews inside the state penitentiary. Voicing his disgust over their involvement with inferior races who, in Derek's opinion, are a plague to society he turns his back on the “Brotherhood” and seeks to survive on his own. Derek works in the laundry room folding underwear and sheets with a black inmate (Lamont) and gradually they form a bond of friendship. Derek's interactions with this inmate are pivotal to his reform as he slowly realises that no matter what your skin colour or religious persuasion everyone is the same. Things then take a turn for the worst when Derek is raped by the “Aryan Brotherhood” members in the shower in an act of revenge for his disrespect. The scene which follows shows Derek break down in the infirmary as the doctor informs Sweeny, who has come to speak with Derek about Danny's downward spiral into neo-Nazism, that Derek has been assaulted and took six stitches. Only two are visible in Derek's right eye, the other four are elsewhere. I found the rape scene and infirmary aftermath more disturbing than the curb-stomp with Derek breaking down in complete despair and helplessness, his life completely destroyed by his actions. Derek lives out the rest of his term in constant fear that either the “Brotherhood” or other inmates of non-white Protestant orientation will end his life (now that the protection of the Brotherhood is gone). When Derek finally becomes a free man again, after striking a deal with Sweeny to reduce his sentence, we see that it was his underpants folding friend who ensured his safety until his release. This act of kindness sparks a revelation that Derek carries back to Venice Beach and his family.


    Interspersed with these stark black and white scenes which document Derek's rise to power, and his ultimate demise, are the “modern day” sequences. These follow Derek, now with a full head of hair, as he makes amends for his actions in the past, turning his back on Cameron and the DOC as he continues on his path to redemption. It would have been very easy for Derek to step back into his old Dr. Martin size tens and reclaim his crown as revered leader of the DOC. Instead Derek makes good on his pact with Sweeny, who came through on his promise to reduce his sentence, and focuses on his family and the salvation of his brother. Enraging Cameron and the entire DOC Derek makes his explosive retirement from the group, turning his back on the very ones who idolised him. Danny is initially furious with his brother's insulting behaviour towards Cameron whom he sees as a father figure. Following Derek's confession of the horrors that he witnessed (and endured) in prison, Danny too sees the error of his ways. But with Danny's previous exhibitions of complete and utter distain towards other ethnic groups in his multi-racial school, coupled with his involvement in the DOC in a society where white Protestants are the minority, has the damage already been done?


    'American History X' was one of the most controversial movies released in the nineties and it's raw imagery and thought provoking storyline still packs a powerful punch today. The very strong ensemble cast, led by Norton, are thoroughly convincing throughout. Each character builds on the microcosm of Derek Vinyard's existence and all add great depth to the story as they are affected to varying degrees of severity by Derek's actions and choices. Norton himself is absolutely stunning and, in my opinion, this performance is his greatest to date. The sheer menace and terror that he can generate by simply removing his shirt to expose his prominent Swastika tattoo is astounding. During the opening scenes, as he advances towards the unsuspecting car-jackers I thought to myself “Glad I'm not in their shoes”. One gets the impression that Norton really hates all other races who are not white Protestant. The scenes where he argues with Murray (his mother's boyfriend) and Davina (his sister) demonstrate the vehement hatred that Norton can generate in a wholly believable manner as he perfectly portrays the unbalanced nature of Derek as he loses control over his beliefs. Entirely consumed with his beliefs Derek gradually alienates all those who care about him. Ed Furlong is also impressive in what was the last performance where this once touted prodigy lived up to the hype. Beverly D'Angelo, Avery Brooks, Elliot Gould, Stacy Keach and Fairuza Balk all provide strong support and do a fine job bolstering Norton's scene stealing performance. It's a shame that Norton didn't pick up an Oscar for 'A-X' with Roberto Benigni picking up the accolade for 'A Beautiful Life' in 1999. Although drawing attention for the infamous curb-stomp sequence there really is much, much more to this movie and it's most certainly not another violence orientated one dimensional piece. Derek is multi-layered and Kaye treats his two opposing sides carefully, cleverly deciding to depict the neo-Nazi crown prince version of Derek in black and white, and the reformed family man in colour. The effect is striking with the black and white scenes enhancing the immense hatred that Derek has for all other races. It's as though the colour of the print matches the emotions that Derek is feeling. There is no in between for him, you either want to eradicate all other “inferior” races, or you don't. With no happy medium and no exceptions to his rule Derek lives, and ruins his life (and that of his family) as he follows Nazi propaganda to the letter. In contrast, the full colour scenes are more welcoming and warm in comparison to the bleakness of the black and white segments. Although I've written this review in two distinct parts the main plotline (in colour) switches to black and white at various junctures to retrospectively depict Derek's rise and fall. All of these retro segments are cut at key moments (such as before the curb stomp) thus drawing the audience into their tale. This is a very effective technique and has the effect of creating two exciting plotlines which run in parallel. Coupled with Furlong's narration, which sets the scene based on what he is writing for his “American History X” paper, the entire presentation and manner in which this story is told are both organic and engaging.


    Mirroring the controversy that the content of this movie created, Kaye and Norton also had their own publicised battle following the release of this movie. Norton apparently re-edited the movie prior to its release to increase his own screen time. Kaye, obviously furious over this defacing of his work, disowned the movie stating that the finished product was not how he intended. He later went on to sue New Line Cinema as they would not remove his name from the credits (he wanted his name to be replaced with Humpty Dumpty). Needless to say a director's commentary is absent on this release (as it has been on all previous releases)! 'A-X' accurately depicts one man's revelation that perhaps all the world's problems cannot be pinned upon one cause. The events depicted are completely realistic with Cameron's character based on Tom Metzger who was leader of the White Aryan Resistance, with Marlon Brando originally approached to play this role. Although focusing on Derek's neo-Nazi exploits this movie is ultimately a story of how the ideals of those that one admires/looks up to are often adopted. In most instances these effects can be very subtle and often, once realisation dawns that a loved one has followed your path in life and seems destined to make the same errors, it's too late to save them. Danny's involvement in the DOC and his brainwashed rendition of Nazi mantra hammers this point home. It shows the incredible influence that those who are in power, be that the leader of a group of people or a brother/father, can have on the lives of others. Having someone look up to you and idolise and emulate your ideals can be as dangerous as a loaded gun as they will more than likely blindly follow your path in life, and will also make the same mistakes. Such is the case with Danny as we see him fall into the abyss of race hate and the life-ruining capabilities that this standpoint in society can have. Initially portraying the death of Derek's father, who was killed in the line of duty by some black drug dealers, as the reason for his Nazi orientated outlook we later realise that Derek's father had shaped his son's racist beliefs long before his untimely passing. Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of Norton's performance is the convincing manner in which he uses hard facts and social demographic statistics to argue his points. At times I felt too drawn into his reasoning and began to disturbingly see his point of view. An immensely powerful and engaging movie that is a must see for all movie lovers. Be warned though, there are some very uncomfortable scenes throughout and you will not come away from this one with a smile on your face. Although Lamont does add some moments of comedic relief I came away emotionally drained the first time I watched this seminal piece of filmmaking. In saying that, 'A-X' is still one of my favourite movies of the last twenty years and I would urge those who have not seen it to get this Blu-ray version.