A Review of American History X

How do I do this?  How can I possibly review this film?  At least, how can I without entering into a discussion about race relations, something I have absolutely no right or reason to discuss?  I suppose this is where the power of the film lies.  It is the most effective commentary of the current state of racial relations in America.  No character is stupid, but every character is flawed.

The story is about Derek (Edward Norton), a smart kid who is caught up in the Neo Nazi movement.  We discover that his father (who was a bit of a racist himself) is caught in the crossfire of a drug feud.  He is killed, and his death resonates deeply with young Derek.  Derek soon finds his newfound hatred causing him to be drawn to the white supremacist movement in his community.  He is involved in many acts of violence against the blacks in the community.  After a dispute over a basketball court, he kills some and is incarcerated for manslaughter.  After his release, he tries to prevent his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from making the same mistakes.

I said in the previous paragraph that Derek was smart.  And I mean.  Yes, his views are absolutely despicable.  But they appear to be well grounded, in the sense that such views can be grounded.  He speaks like a politician trying to rally up the ire of his supporters, not like an uneducated redneck who has a messianic complex.  Norton is where the strength of the film lies.  He plays the character like someone who maybe senses that what he is doing is wrong.  He just can no longer admit it to himself and especially to his family.  It is much simpler to purge them from his desires than face his demons.

“I want you out of this house”  his mother says after he uses racial slurs against her Jewish boyfriend

“No problem, I’ll be gone in the morning” he says, not yielding yet slowly coming to realize exactly what his actions cause.

But what about the rest of the cast?  Is Derek a demon? He is not portrayed as one.  The black people he meets (with two great exceptions) are exactly the sort of caricatures that he abhors.  This is another strength of the film.  I have said before that a film should not moralize.  The best give us something to think about, and never tells us how to think.  Even items that are as clear cut as the themes of this film deserve reflection. What causes a man to fall this far?  Luckily, the film does give time to reflect on this.  We see Derek’s exact progression from a mild mannered youth into a cold-hearted racist.  We also see the world from his perspective.  His actions are not justified, but he is humanized in a way I did not think was possible.

All of this is emphasized by the narrative structure.  Like Memento or, ironically, a Toni Morrison novel, only small glimpses of motivation are offered at a time.  The fact that Derek’s father was a racist, for example, is not revealed until the tail end of the film.  Don’t worry, its a relatively small detail.  But this sort of narrative is effective.  We hate the Neo Nazis, but slowly grow to understand them.

This has become one of the more popular films in the past decade.  Everyone who has seen it proclaims it as one of their favorites. I can understand why.  This is one that requires multiple viewings; I have barely scratched the surface in terms of it’s themes and treatments of race.  Alas, some things are..well, some things are beyond the discussion of a simple film review.  I will say that I am not entirely sure about the prison sequences.  It felt that Derek needed to be redeemed, needed to be healed.  A good premise, but this seemed to happen out of obligation to the screenplay rather than a desire on the character’s part.  It just feels a little underdeveloped.  I, personally, am not sure of the moment that really changes Derek in prison.  There are several candidates, but the film never says exactly.  Considering it had done so well building up the rest of it’s themes, well, this felt a tad underwhelming.

A small complaint though.  I am sure you have already seen the film and appreciated it.  You should do so again in the future.

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