Saturday 26 November 2022

Movie Review: American History X (1998)

A forceful and violent crime drama, American History X lifts the lid on the evils of white supremacy and racial hatred corroding civil society's fabric.

In the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, white supremacist Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) kills two Black men breaking into his car. Derek started down the path of extremism as a young teenager when his firefighter father was killed by a Black man. Released after serving a three year sentence, Derek is reformed and eager to prevent his 17-year-old brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from following in his footsteps.

Danny is already falling under the spell of local white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) and the boorish behaviour of neo-Nazi Seth Ryan (Ethan Suplee). However, his high school history teacher Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), who also taught Derek, still believes Danny can be saved. With the threat of hate-motivated violence always nearby, Derek has limited time to influence his brother.

A startling exposé of a virulent ideology, American History X is a past-and-present story of attempted redemption. David McKenna's screenplay spares no pain delving into the heart of hatred, and Edward Norton delivers a cunning performance, especially in the flashback scenes, to demonstrate coiled reasoning fed by fear of the other and released through unchecked violence.

Using an obvious but still effective technique, director Tony Kaye films the flashback scenes in black and white and the present in colour. The sequences charting Derek's rise to street level notoriety as a white supremacist leader are stronger, including a dinner table ruckus where his mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and her new partner (Elliot Gould) finally encounter the beast within the young man. A duel on the basketball courts with Black youth and a raid on a Korean-owned convenience store both buzz with the undercurrent of a scrappy movement gaining strength with local victories.

Derek emerges from prison a different man intent on steering his brother Danny away from hate, and the transformation is only partially successful. Kaye takes the necessary time to reveal what went on behind the prison walls, but when finally stitched together, that part of the story remains dubious. Even less convincing is Danny's response to Derek's U-turn, which shortchanges the effort required to undo years of organic indoctrination.

Despite the shortcuts and a clumsy ending, American History X is painful and stark, achieving shock with relevance.

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