American History X

Distributed By: New Line Cinema

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            In the late 1990s, I came across a powerful movie about racism starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong American History X contained some excellent acting and the script was incredibly dramatic.  Anyone who saw the movie was moved by it and discussed it with others, spreading the word about its message, a message very similar to that of Higher Learning, but presented in a much different way.  Since seeing American History X for the first time, I have watched it every time I could find it on television and had the movie on VHS.  I recently purchased a copy on DVD and sat down to watch it again.

            American History X stars Edward Furlong as Daniel Vinyard, a troubled teenager who has made hate a way of life.  Dannyís brother, Derek (Edward Norton) is his idol and he has just gotten out of prison after three years incarceration for murdering two black gang-bangers.  Danny has learned a great deal from his brother, including his views on race in America.  He has even followed in Derekís footsteps by joining up with the local Neo-Nazi group run by Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach).  Determined to save him from Derekís fate, Dannyís Principal, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) assigns Danny a paper to write called American History X in which he is to discuss his brother and what influenced his views on society.

            Derekís return from prison is quite an enlightening experience for his family and his friends.  Prison has changed Derek.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see how Derek became a skinhead consumed by anger improperly directed at any race that was not white Protestant.  The Derek we see now is much calmer, more accepting and willing to make amends for past behaviors.  But first, he must renounce the skinhead gang he belonged to and get his brother Daniel pointed back in the right direction.

            As Daniel studies his brother, learns what happened to change him in prison and thinks back on what might have pushed Derek to the violence that sent him to prison in the first place, he realizes that racism is something learned, often through family.  He remembers statements made by a respected firefighter to his impressionable son shortly before being murdered by someone of the very race he was speaking against.  The realization is hard on Daniel, but he realizes that hate is nothing more than baggage and life is too short to carry all of that hate around.  The movieís dramatic ending leaves one wondering what may be in store for the newly reformed Derek Vinyard.

            Some say that Edward Nortonís best work was in the movie Primal Fear.  Otherís cite his work in Fight Club.  I think that his performance as Derek Vinyard in American History X exhibited some of the best work I have ever seen from Norton.  Apparently, Iím not only one.  He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for this role.  Edward Furlong is also very good in this film, showing excellent promise for the future - a shame that a history of drug abuse and domestic issues have overshadowed his acting over the years.  Stacey Keach was perfectly despicable as the leader of the skinheads who prefers talking others into doing his dirty work, leaving his hands squeaky clean.  Other notable performances come from Avery Brooks as a former English teacher who never gave up on the Vinyard boys and Guy Torry as a co-inmate of Derekís with a gift of gab.  His character adds some levity to what is otherwise a very deep and dramatic film.

            The cinematography of this film was awesome.  I loved the way the flashbacks were done in black and white.  Some say folks remember things in black and white and that could be one reason that the powers that be decided to present the film in this way.  In my opinion, having the flashbacks appear in black and white makes  the scenes stand out and therefore appear much more poignant.  Rightly so - these are flashbacks into events that shaped the man Derek Vinyard would become.

            The message of American History X is very clear.  The hate of racism is something taught, often passed down from family member to family member.  The hate of another race is a result of an individualís perception of events.  In this case, things Derek had been told by his father, coupled with the murder of his father by a black man while he was attempting to put out a fire in the projects and the proddings of Cameron Alexander, gave Derek the misguided perception that all other races, especially blacks, were nothing more than ungrateful criminals leaching off of the rest of society.

            As the film moves forward, Derek learns just how misguided his perceptions were.  He realizes that he has wasted three years of his life in prison, and a great deal longer than that before prison, hating people who had never done anything wrong to either him or his family, simply because of the actions of one or two individuals.  It is this realization that helps him to become a better person and inspire that growth in his brother Daniel. 

            The ultimate lesson - relearn.  No one says you have to like everyone, but you must be able to understand that, as individuals, we are all different.  Be it race, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, we are all individuals who deserve tolerance for our uniqueness.  Lumping people together and labeling them based upon what a few bad eggs might do is wrong and we would never want to be treated in the same way.  Some lessons are learned way too late.  Acceptance is an important way of life and key to the growth of an individual and society as a whole.

            American History X is not for everyone.  The movie contains strong language, sexual situations and a great deal of violence.  Despite that fact - and knowing that a lot of parents allow their children to watch horror movies which can be much more violent - I feel that American History X should be required viewing for teenagers at the very least.  The movieís message is best viewed at this age, when bullying and lack of acceptance is at its prime.  The film is incredibly moving and the message is extremely important.  American History X is a terrific movie and would make an even greater teaching tool, spreading the belief in tolerance to a new generation who can teach it to their kids and so on.


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