Monday, June 6, 2011

A Frank Review of "American History X" (1998)

The Short Version? Racism is Bad, but also, shamefully, kinda hard core.
What Is It? Drama.
Who Is In It? I Am Jack's Prelude to Tyler Durden, John Connor, Captain Sisko, Papa Gellar, the mom from the Vacation movies.
Should I See It? Yes.

Having seen four of the five performances nominated, I'm going to say Ed Norton should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his alternately chilling and affecting work on this film. Derek Vinyard is a young man so devastated by the murder of his passively racist father that he falls prey to a surrogate actively pursuing a Neo-Nazi agenda, for which Norton serves as a poster boy. Derek helps build a small army of white supremacists and leads them in hate crimes, until a particularly harrowing confrontation forces the character to reevaluate his direction. Edward Furlong plays younger brother Danny, following in Derek's footsteps as best as he can, and giving the actor's best performance to date. The supporting cast is fantastic in roles of varying size, including Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould and Guy Torry.

Stacy Keach is rather arch as Vinyard's mentor, chewing the scenery in his relatively small part, but he's fun as the primary villain of the piece. In fact, in a movie about recognizing shades of gray, every one of the "bad guys" is drawn as unrepentantly heinous. From Fairuza Balk's vile Venice Beach Eva Braun to Ethan Suplee's loathsome slug of a grunt, you're either misguided but easily swayed to righteousness, or you're possessed by demons that will never be exorcised. Ass-fucking convicts are all hopelessly corrupt and preening enough to telegraph their inclinations, while the African-American adversaries are a black mass of interchangeable aggression units. The only people of color are the magical Negroes sent to guide Derek to the multicultural promised land. It's hard to not see an anti-racist film as being racist itself when the only two blacks not on the business end of Derek's hatred can be written off as "the good ones." Avery Brooks tends to grate as Dr. Sweeney, the double PhD who'll bring the fight to racism with his gravitas, his multi-pronged social work, and his assignments of papers with pretentious names like "American History X." Brooks comes across much in need of a cape and tights, and serves as the figurehead for the more preachy, Afterschool Special elements of the film.

The parts of the movie that work best are the black and white flashbacks, which focus on the wrongs committed by Derek, their motivations, and his slow journey toward recognition. The color segments are more about recriminations, broad gestures, and sermonizing. They basically catch the dummies up with the message, just in case there's a segregationist camp that reads the film as being about a promising radical tragically cut down by the manipulations of the Zionist machine or whatever. Despite its flaws, American History X works very well, and I'm sure that if I bothered to put together a list of my favorite movies, it would make the top twenty-five. It was one of the first DVDs I owned, and I'm hopeful we'll see a more robust edition someday that addresses the different cuts of the film, backstage drama, and the movie's surprisingly lasting impact thanks to a slow, steady crawl into the American popular consciousness.


  • Deleted Scenes There are only three, but one is quite long and very relevant. I wonder how many more there would have been in Tony Kaye's cut.
  • Theatrical Trailer Yes, it's that barren of special features. It's a pretty crumby trailer too, with cheesy music and emphasis on action and preaching. They do their best to hide how much of the footage is in black and white, as well.
  • The Cast & Crew Those little text pieces they used to do on DVDs before people reminded the makers that they hate to read.

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