American History X (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Edward Furlong) was taken to the principal’s office because he wrote a paper called “My Mein Kampf” in which it justified Adolf Hitler as a civil war hero. Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the principal, thought that the best solution would be for the two of them to meet every day, discuss current events, take what was going on in the world, and put them into perspective. Danny’s first assignment was to create a narrative about how his brother, Derek (Edward Norton), released from a three-year prison sentence the very same day, ended up becoming a neo-Nazi. “American History X,” written by David McKenna, was like swallowing a bitter pill that was good for you. I found it difficult to sit through not only because we were demanded to endure a lot of rhetoric pregnant with hatred, but because it also allowed us to question our own predilections toward discrimination, most of them we might not be consciously aware of, without beating us over the head about the toxicity of racism despite the characters inhabiting a diverse Los Angeles milieu. Regardless of our race, we’ve all experienced passing through a group of African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, or Asians ranging from teenagers to middle-aged and felt threatened in some way due to their appearance and behavior–wife beaters, pants hanging low, profanities being thrown around like prepositions–stereotypically considered as lower-class. The picture was essentially divided into two. The past was told in black-and-white while the present was in color. This was appropriate because in the past, Derek, under the mentorship of Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), considered it his duty to recruit impressionable, young white males who were tired of being scared and beaten by people of color. Derek’s speeches, whether it be out in public or inside his home while sharing a meal with his family (Beverly D’Angelo and Jennifer Lien as Derek’s mother and sister, respectively), were full of zealously executed offensive language disguised as logical reasoning. Although Derek was very smart, he adopted a “white versus non-white” mentality, just like the images we saw on the screen. On the other hand, the present marked Derek’s seemingly sudden change of heart. He wanted out of the neo-Nazi party for the sake of his family, especially when he saw Danny treading a similar path that he’d taken years prior. For a picture that relied on flashbacks to show the roots of Derek’s reformation, the pacing was rather brisk. The interactions between Derek and Lamont (Guy Torry), though awkward and drenched in silence at first, felt genuine as a whole because the screenplay used humor to seep through the cracks in Derek’s armor which eventually allowed him to open up and question. Furthermore, Dr. Sweeney’s presence, Derek’s former Honors English teacher, was utilized sparingly but to a great effect. It was a particularly dangerous type of character, especially in social message movies, due to the wise words that had to be imparted. Dr. Sweeney did not overstay his welcome. However, I wished that we knew more about the neo-Nazi mentor. From what I’ve seen, he didn’t seem such a magnetic presence, how smart young men would be drawn to his evil. Directed by Tony Kaye, although “American History X” touched upon but did not fully immerse itself in the complexity of bigotry in modern urban America, it is nonetheless emotionally involving and it dares us to look within. It argues that if we are brave enough look inside and happen to see something ugly in terms of how we treat others, it’s not too late to change. That message is an important first step.