Film eXcels expectations

I recently had the opportunity to watch an interesting flick.

“American History X” came out in 1998 and was written by David McKenna (“Get Carter,” “S.W.A.T.”) and directed by Tony Kaye. It stars Edward Norton (“Fight Club,” “The Incredible Hulk”) as Derek Vinyard, a former neo-Nazi skinhead that learned the error of his ways while serving hard time. When he is released after three years in the big house, he emerges a changed man, no longer the hateful supremacist he once was. Now that Derek is out he is upset to find out that his younger brother Danny Vinyard, played by Edward Furlong, (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) has been following in his footsteps. Now Derek must help his brother avoid making the same mistakes he did.

One interesting thing about this film is that it does not follow a strict chronological procession of events. It has numerous black and white flashbacks to both what Derek did to get sent to prison and what happened to him while he was there. A lot of these flashbacks are very unsettling, if not outright disturbing.

Throughout these flashbacks the viewer is subjected to scenes of hate crimes, rape and even murder. It’s all very powerful in its execution, though at times it can feel a bit heavy-handed.

In the sections of the film that are set in “modern day” (1998) you’ll see Derek continuously attempt to teach Danny that racism isn’t the answer. It takes a fair amount of time to get through all the brainwashing Danny’s been subjected to, but Derek eventually gets through to him, though the film still has a tragic end.

The film tries to send the message that racism is bad, which is definitely a message worth sending. The problem is that if you trace everything back chronologically, the situation that started Derek down the path to becoming a racist was the killing of his father by some black men. Which inadvertently makes the events of the movie the fault of these black men. While this does somewhat justify Derek’s racist outlook on life and makes him into a tragic character, it also blames the black community in a film trying to combat racism, which is a bit of a mixed message.

Another thing that adds to this mixed message is that throughout the movie, there are only two black characters that aren’t presented as an instigator or a ghetto hooligan. One of these characters is Lamont, played by Guy Torry, a young man in prison who shares laundry duty with Derek. The other character is Dr. Sweeney, the principal of Danny’s school, played by Avery Brooks (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”).

Overall, “American History X” is a good film that tries to send a good message, but gets lost in its own story. If you’re going to see the film, then do so because of the interesting and tragic story, not for the message it attempts to send to its audience.