American History X (1998) starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Jennifer Lien, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk, Guy Torry directed by Tony Kaye Movie Review

American History X (1998)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard in American History X (1998)

A Different Prison Redemption

Racism is a tough subject to make a movie about, a powerful subject which brings out strong feelings many of which are shown in "American History X". In fact "American History X" shows you a lot of things when it comes to racism because this is a movie of understanding, yes you did hear that right but don't mistake understanding as sympathy. What I mean is that this movie which features some brilliant cinematography and sublime acting manages to almost explain racism, what drives racism, what the consequences are both immediate and wide reaching as well as the cyclic futility of it. "American History X" is in fact an amazing movie because it manages to make you think about the tough subject and understand certain things about it.

Having served time for killing two men who were trying to steal his truck Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton - Rounders) is out on parole and a changed man. He is changed because when he went in he was a neo-nazi who was a leader of a group of skinheads but has learned a lot inside especially when it comes to those who he thought were his friends. But now out he has to deal with the consequences of his actions none more so his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong - Terminator 2: Judgment Day) who is following in his footsteps as a neo-nazi.

Edward Furlong as Danny Vinyard in American History X (1998)

"American History X" whilst narrated by Danny is the story of Derek how he came to be a neo-nazi, how he came to be seen as a leader with a real hatred for anyone not white but also what he experienced inside which lead him to change his ways. Part of those reasons is that Danny is heading in the same direction he was and wanting to save him before it is too late. That is the story but in truth this story of Derrick is a vehicle of understanding and one which is surprisingly compelling.

Now I am not going to go in to detail but "American History X" manages to show many things starting with how racial attitudes can be passed on through the family from father to son to a brother who idolises his older brother. We also get to see how the social situation can fire up racist attitudes when people see the government helping those who come in to the country whilst others suffer because of it. It does a good job of explaining how someone can start to have racist feelings and how others can manipulate them by tapping into anger.

But then we get the bigger picture and we see the consequences of being part of a racist gang, the consequences for the family, the consequences when you try to leave and go it alone and how betrayal means no protection. All of this combines not only to deliver some of the movies more graphic and disturbing scenes but also highlight the cyclic and futile nature of racism. I could go on because "American History X" from start to finish covers so many aspects of racism and what it means to the individual, to the family and the far reaching consequences of it.

Now as a debut movie Tony Kaye has done an astonishing job as director; the pacing is perfect so that whilst scratching the 2 hour mark this movie flies by and his styling as he flicks between black and white to colour is brilliantly used to deliver great impact. But Tony Kaye has the benefit of Edward Norton who for me is one of the best actors from his generation and his performance as Derrick highlights how good he is. There is the visual side, the shaven head and tattooed body but the way he delivers the character from the consuming hatred to the sense of fear is stunning. It is because Norton is so good that not do only some other good performances from Beverly D'Angelo, Edward Furlong and Stacy Keach get overshadowed but the actual understanding aspect of the movie comes across.

What this all boils down to is that "American History X" is an astonishing movie because it manages to explain racism in a way which makes you understand aspects you may never have considered. Yet at the same time it manages to be entertaining in a disturbing sort of way yet also with a level of visual artistry.