American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)


Edward Norton (Derek Vinyard), Edward Furlong (Danny Vinyard), Beverly D’Angelo (Doris Vinyard), Avery Brooks (Dr. Bob Sweeney). Screenplay by David McKenna. Directed by Tony Kaye. Rating: 18. Running time: 119 minutes.

American History X is a damn fine film; as important as it is enthralling and as frightening as it is thoughtful. It is one of those rare pieces of art that blends everything in superbly and leaves you swamped in its web of genius by the end. It has left me as in awe of its acting as it has in worship of its subtle mental provocations. Kaye shows us exactly how to blend raw drama with highly thought-out dialogue, and he knows throughout the film without hesitation who we should be seeing and how they should be reacting to everything that happens in this hell-hole of LA-based racial hatred. The fact Edward Norton merely picked up an Academy Award nomination for his performance here is as scandalous as Scorsese’s snubbing for GoodFellas. He floats effortlessly from his identities before, during and after a prison stretch, that roughly align with staunch, violent neo-Nazism, quiet but tormented contemplation and then finally reformed tolerance dominating his head. The scenes we’re flicked so perfectly through, from a dinner table discussion as a teenager to his first day again as a free man, imply very quietly so much about his mental state and what causes it. We hear him talk the talk at length about the grounds for white supremacy, but then it is a personal encounter that makes him turn his back on those arguments. We see him fuel the fire as an idol for the similarly-minded white supremacists spurred on by his rhetoric in his neighbourhood, before he later refuses to be involved anymore. Most importantly, to him, he has to deal with the power he has over his younger brother and what influence he has on his life.

If any of this sounds like cliché conversion in the quest for cheap cinema then I’m doing a pathetically bad job of trying to write about this film. It packs a punch whilst demanding we think not only about racism and race relations, but alongside it, equally, a bursting handful of other things: the role of social plight in stripping people of responsibility for what they do (if any such stripping should exist at all); the significance of role models in molding us during our youthful vulnerability; the impact of throwaway comments from such people, intentionally or not, on long-lasting perspectives; the issue of what teachers should do with intelligent teenagers explicitly showing positive interest in Mein Kampf

Often I get carried away by movies and, in their aftermath, I am left reeling, before later regretting the excessive force and praise carried in my words. And whilst with time I’m learning when that happens and when flaws in films are likely to arise with lengthier contemplation, I am still occasionally swept off my feet. American History X has done that right here, and I know in a week’s time there’s a good chance I will find flaws in its apparent perfection. But for now, considering only its initial impact, it is cinematic gold. Sometimes, gut reaction speaks volumes.


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