Tony Kaye’s “American History X” is a lot of things; it’s brutal, shocking, disturbing and terrifying. It’s well shot, the soundtrack is quite beautiful at time and Edward Norton gives a strong and scarily convincing performance as white supremacist Derek Vinyard. Despite all these things, and despite watching the film knowing of its place in pop culture, I watched it feeling largely underwhelmed because as a film, to me much of it felt heavy handed, clunky and reduced the unbelievably potent and complex issues of racism and white supremacy to almost sitcom-esque convenience and simplicity.
Edward Norton plays Derek Vinyard, who returns home to his family after three years of being incarcerated for brutally murdering two young black men. Through a series of flashbacks, the film paints the picture of how Derek became indoctrinated into the white supremacist movement of his local area in Los Angeles and how his experience in prison broke him away from the hatred which had intoxicated him. Upon returning home, Derek is now conflicted between his almost god-like status in the Neo-Nazi world and saving his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from the path of bigotry and violence which he now realises has destroyed his own life and he can’t bear for it to destroy his family’s too.
There are some undoubtedly iconic moments in this film; the scene of Derek shooting and curb stomping the two black men is horrifying and Norton throughout is a scarily accurate embodiment of his character. I think the trap with films like this that are centred around the portrayal of evil or individuals who become engrossed in an evil ideology, is to portray them as total monsters completely devoid of any humanity at all. “American History X” cleverly avoids this trap, and Norton manages to portray somebody who is of course consumed by hatred and the toxicity of white supremacy, but who is also articulate and charismatic in his discussion of politics and race relations, and manages to strike a sense of reasonableness and thought while spouting his ideology.
The most terrifying thing in a film of this nature is where the director or an actor can make their audience in some way identify and sympathise with the villain, most notably so in Charlize Theron’s performance in 2003’s “Monster”. Derek is not a two dimensional caricature of the Neo-Nazi movement (which certainly exist in the film, Ethan Suplee is grotesque and ridiculous as blind follower Seth), but instead as a young and impressionable person who has been manipulated by his father and driven to his beliefs by being surrounded by hatred and anger. What’s particularly effective are the sudden shifts between Derek as a boy, a son and a brother and Derek as the fully fledged skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his chest screaming racial slurs.
I do think that it’s Norton that saves this film, because there is so much wrong with “American History X” as a property in itself. Derek’s transition from committed Nazi to completely rejecting his ideology and seeking to convert his brother occurs almost entirely within one scene where he and a black inmate find common ground in football. I hate it when supposedly hard hitting and insightful films dealing with provocative issues take easy ways out like this; the gradual breaking down of Derek’s worldview could have been a really interesting part of the story and his character, instead it is dealt with in an almost negligently simplistic and reductionist manner. The same things happens with Derek convincing Danny to reject the teachings of the alt-right; this kid has become completely indoctrinated and devoted his life to neo-Nazism and within five minutes and without even a protest or attempting to counter argue, he’s helping Derek take down Third Reich propaganda from the shrine to white supremacy on his bedroom wall. Even the film’s climactic finale didn’t feel justified, but just another easy way to illicit an emotional response from the audience without properly earning it.
As I watched “American History X” and I realised that the incredibly complex issues of racism and white supremacy weren’t going to be dealt with in any meaningful way, I began to doubt the intentions of the filmmakers themselves. If an exploration of what fuels neo-Nazism and then again what it takes to bring a person out of such views is foregone for yet another black and white scene of gratuitous violence and racial slurs, then I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this film was just a vessel through which Tony Kaye could showcase the taboo items in society with a free pass, and feel artsy and provocative while doing so.
By Jock Lehman