American History X is a powerful examination of the destructive allure of racism and hatred. Boistered by some impressive performances, paints a vivid picture of how mindless hatred can tear society, and an individual family, apart.
Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is the perfect skinhead poster boy: he’s handsome, charismatic, athletic, smart, and full of hatred. As a youth, he teamed up with a local white supremacist, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), and organized a powerful skinhead gang in Venice Beach.
However, after committing murder in an ideologically racist zeal, Derek is sent to prison. While there, he reevaluates his life, and years later, returns home a changed man.
What he finds there frightens him. His young brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), idolizes him, and has followed in his footsteps. Danny has become a virulent skinhead, even turning in a school book report on Mein Kampf. Derek’s must struggle to reclaim his brother from the same depths of hatred which ruined his own life.
The heart of this movie is Edward Norton, and he delivers a powerful performance. It’s a gutsy move to make his initially racist character so compelling to begin with. There’s even a point where the movie gets seductively close to endorsing the “white power” platform. However, soon the bottom drops off into a well of self-destructive hatred. Norton is able to show the full evolution of his character, from the innocent, to the hate-filled youth, to the regretful adult…all with a believable intensity.
Many of the actors in the supporting cast are excellent as well. Avery Brooks portrays a passionate high school principal who’s not willing to give up on his misguided students. Edward Furlong gives a layered performance as Danny, much better than his one-note sappiness in Pecker… perhaps there’s a good actor in there after all.
Director Tony Kaye (who wanted his name taken off this film due to editorial differences) also served as the film’s cinematographer, and there his talents truly shined. From the film’s effective use of black and white flashback sequences, to a well-handled slow-motion water motif, the film is always visually stimulating.
The overall message of the film might smack a bit of self-importance (particularly when considering the film’s conclusion). However, although a few excesses are made, the film does have a deserving message, which it effectively delivers.
American History X is a moving and involving film, tackling the tough subject of racism in America, displaying its causes and allures, as well as its ultimate senselessness.