Many years ago on first viewing, I found American History X to be a shocking watch, but also an exceptional movie. As a teenager at the time, the depiction of racial tension in the streets and schools of Venice beach and stark realities of hate and mindless violence opened my eyes to the evil in this world. And also to the power of film. Twenty years after its initial release, it’s still shocking. But, more importantly, it’s still an exceptional piece of work.
A movie about inescapable hostile tribalism, the need for marginalised humans to belong to a cause, and a doomed quest for redemption, American History X is not for the faint of heart.
Starring Edward Norton in a groundbreaking role, the events follow Derek Vineyard and his family dynamic, with particular focus on his relationship with his impressionable younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong). The scene is set when Danny turns in an assignment to his Jewish teacher based on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. As a punishment he is tasked by his principle to prepare a paper on his brother Derek, or risk expulsion. The same brother who is a former neo-Nazi and who has recently been released from a three year stint in prison. This defines how the narrative is delivered to us – in two separate timelines that intersect constantly as the movie progresses.
First of all, as Danny is putting together his assignment, we have flashback scenes that focus on the events leading up to Derek’s arrest as well as his time spent in prison. Featuring multiple scenes of distressing violence and bitter racism, the initial focus is mainly on Derek and his neo-Nazi gang, racial tensions and the tragic history behind his Father’s death. Following this we get flashbacks to Derek’s time in prison, and these are some of the most important as we are shown the events that lead to him doubting his old ways and naive viewpoints. A breakthrough moment as he strikes up a friendship with a black inmate is particularly well done, with the chemistry between the two coming across as natural and believable. On the other, hand the treatment he receives from other white inmates is nothing short of brutal. There is a real artistic flair to the flashbacks, as many feature booming orchestral music and all are shot in a monochrome black and white style. This helps to portray Derek’s outlook on life at the time, that things could be a simple as black and white (such as race), with very little middle ground.
In contrast, real time events focus on Derek’s attempt at redemption after his release. These are portrayed in a typical colour format, as we conclude that Derek now sees the world from a more complex viewpoint. He is trying to distance himself from past acquaintances, as well as cope with more standard traumas such as his mother’s health. The contrast in colouring is a simple trick but it works beautifully. The distinction between the two narratives is obvious and we get to see how certain characters have bettered themselves, stayed the same, or in some cases gotten much worse.
When looking at the unique directorial style, we have to talk about the troubled history that lies behind the release of American History X. Director Tony Kaye actually disowned the final cut of the film and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get his name removed from the credits. Multi-million dollar lawsuits and legal battles followed, with Kaye jeopardizing his entire career in his bitter fight with New Line Cinema. It’s hard to know the exact edits Kaye wanted to make to the finished film, but all we can do is judge the version given to us. Troubles aside, the overall feel of the direction is superb right from the opening shots as they detail a calm tide on Venice beach with the waves gently lapping at the shore. This tranquility is jarringly short-lived and we are soon introduced to the Vineyard brothers. A distinct sense of dread is created throughout the 120 minute runtime, with the black and white scenes in particular conjuring a truly hopeless feel. It can sometimes walk a fine line in being too overbearing, with slow motion camerawork and the aforementioned dramatic score. Thankfully it never crosses that line. It’s a real shame that Tony Kaye’s career got essentially derailed as early as it did. The potential that we see here is sizeable.
The performances from the entire cast are flawless, but Edward Norton in particular is mesmerising. Deservedly nominated for an Academy award, he showcases an incredible range, especially in the earlier scenes where he frequently projects a look of pure hatred that had me feeling genuinely uncomfortable. Later, this is contrasted by his mild manner when he is seeking redemption, and we truly feel his pain as he strives to stop his younger brother from going down the same destructive path as he once did.
The film is often defined by its most memorable scenes: An impassioned speech at the dinner table, when a truly psychotic Derek meets his mother’s new Jewish partner, the revelation from his father later on when it suddenly dawns on us that Derek’s prejudices were embedded from an early age (in a not so subtle way), the concluding sequence in the school bathroom, and of course the infamous curb stomp scene. These are genuinely some of the most unforgettable moments of modern cinema.
As the final shots revisit the gentle waves of Venice beach, we reflect on a film with few likeable characters and no definite protagonist. Yet the much-told story of “violence begets violence” and the cyclical nature of hate has rarely been done as powerfully or affectingly. Whether the final product was what the director truly envisaged or not, there is no doubt that American History X is a harrowing watch – but also one that feels essential, in any era.