The story in a sentence: A newly released felon returns home a changed man and attempts to save his little brother from walking the same path he did.
Since I started seriously watching films back in 2004, I have had two films which I considered as my “favorite film.” American History X made a serious run at #3.
In 2004, I took a film elective class in high school and was shown “The Usual Suspects.” The film captivated me to such an extent that I immediately went home and rented it, watching it three more times that night. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.
Three years later, when I was a senior, I watched “The Shawshank Redemption,” without knowing anything about it. The film took my breath away and quickly supplanted “Usual Suspects” in the top spot.
Then, right after I graduated college, Michael Leonberger (a regular contributor to this site) told me I should watch “American History X.” He was shocked that I had never seen it, and then told me that I would love it. To me, this is usually a death sentence for films. Ninety percent of the movies that people tell me I’m going to love, I end up hating (just ask me what I think about “Hard Candy”).
American History X did just the opposite. It didn’t live up to my expectations – it surpassed them.
Edward Norton (25th Hour, Fight Club) plays Derek Vinyard, a young neo-Nazi leader sent to prison for killing three black men who were trying to jack his car. His brother, Danny, idolizes Derek and has already fallen into the same white supremacy gang Derek used to lead. When Derek comes home, Danny is ecstatic, ready for things to go back to normal. Except for one problem: Derek has given up the Nazi lifestyle and wants Danny to do the same.
The story’s progression is aided through several flashbacks and a handful of well-placed voiceovers by Danny, who is played by Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day). The voiceovers are, in fact, pieces of a paper that Danny is writing for his teacher Dr. Sweeny, played by Avery Brooks (best known for his television work in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Brooks gives an Oscar-worthy supporting performance as Sweeny, who has extensive gang knowledge and has made it a personal mission to try and save the Vinyard boys from self-destruction.
Through the aforementioned flashbacks we get a good view of what led to Derek’s prison stint. However, the scenes tend to play with your emotions, making it difficult to know exactly how you feel about the characters.
One flashback shows a basketball game that turns into a racial divide. Derek proposes a “black guys versus white guys” game, with the loser forfeiting the courts to the winning race. Now, I don’t at all agree with what Derek believes in, but your own social stereotypes tend to kick in. As a white male, I always enjoy seeing another white guy succeed in a predominately black sport. During the scene, I found myself subconsciously rooting for the neo-Nazis, which messed with my head on a variety of levels.
The next flashback shows Derek leading a group of skinheads in a raid of a grocery store that has fallen under new management. The manager is a Mexican who Derek claims is hiring illegals. He gives a rousing speech beforehand, one which I can say I found several valid points in. However, the scene quickly deteriorates into mayhem and left me feeling somewhat sick to my stomach. The rest of the flashbacks lead you down the same road, showing you more and more of Derek’s hateful and (let’s face it) evil behavior.
As the past Derek becomes intertwined with present-day Derek, one question gets etched into your mind. What the hell happened to this guy to make him change so drastically? I will say that the prison flashback does not disappoint and might possibly be the best pure character development ever put into a film. For as much as I’d love to credit director Tony Kaye for his masterful work, I really can’t. Kaye had a massive dispute with the studio and Edward Norton during the editing of this film, to the point where Kaye declared the film as nothing like what he wanted. Kaye even tried to invoke the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym which is used when a director declares that he lost control of the film and no longer wants his name in the credits. I thoroughly encourage you to check it out, as the story is as interesting as Hollywood can create.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its ability to deliver a message, without making it cheesy or over-the-top. Some would argue that the theme of the film is about racism and acceptance. I do not agree. To me, this is a film about hate, about how contagious hate can be and how hard it is to eliminate once started. Derek’s hatred started with his bigoted father and spread to his brother Danny. The ending sums this up quite well, and will leave you thinking about how the tiniest of actions can have great consequences.
If there is one complaint I have with this film, it is the change in Danny’s character. The film covers the span of two days and by the end of the first night that Derek is out of prison, Danny has already reformed against his old beliefs. I understand that this is necessary for the limited time constraint of a film and I can see how an impressionable kid can easily sway from one viewpoint to another, but still, if there is any hole to poke in this film, this is it.
I’ve seen a lot of films, many of which have left a lasting impression on me. I love “The Green Mile,” “Sin City” and “The Guardian.” Never once did any of those films come close to supplanting Shawshank as my favorite all time film. American History X almost did, and currently sits in my top five. If you want to see something that doesn’t require you to think, I don’t recommend this.
If you desire something more from your movie-going experience, I think this will be right up your alley.
I give this film 4 ½ well-constructed flashbacks out of 5