Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Avery Brooks, Guy Torrey, Stacey Keach, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk
Rated R for Graphic Brutal Violence including Rape, Pervasive Language, Strong Sexuality and Nudity
I first saw "American History X" on July 12, 2008 according to my review on iMDb, and all I could say is "Wow." Upon second viewing, the effect of this film has lessened slightly, although this is a hugely powerful film. No other film that I've seen has taken such a frank and brutally honest look at racial hatred.
Three years ago, Derek Vinyard (Norton) was the poster child for a white supremacist gang in Venice Beach, California. He is highly intelligent and a fiery orator, which makes him the right hand man of Cameron Alexander (Keach), the group's unofficial leader (he stays in the background to keep his hands clean). That all changed when he was convicted of manslaughter for killing two black men who were trying to steal his car. It is there that he sees the error of his ways, but when he gets out he finds that redemption is not easily attained.
Whenever someone mentions this film, Edward Norton's name is going to come up within seconds, and for good reason: he gives a tremendous performance. Although he has a reputation for being difficult to work with (most sources claim that he took control of the picture from director Tony Kaye in the editing room in order to give himself a better shot at an Oscar nomination…one that he received), Norton remains one of our most electrifying performers. Derek Vinyard is a fascinating individual; it would be too easy to make him a simple racist, but Norton is too smart for that. Instead, he portrays him as a smart kid with a bad childhood. His father (played by William Russ) was murdered by black men and he fell in with Cameron Alexander, who was all too willing to groom him into a recruiting tool.
Norton is surrounded by an able supporting cast, including reliable character actress Beverly D'Angelo (best known for playing Ellen Griswold in the "Vacation" franchise) as Doris, Derek's mother, who both loves and fears her son, and Edward Furlong, who plays Derek's kid brother Danny. Danny is well on his way to ending up right where Derek did, something that Dr. Sweeny (Brooks), the one black man that Derek respects, urges him to prevent. Both do excellent supporting work.
While Norton deserved every bit of praise that he got, two performances that are unfortunately overlooked are given by Avery Brooks and Guy Torrey. Brooks plays Sweeny as a man who understands Derek and is unwilling to give up on him, but at the same time is unwilling to flinch against his hateful rhetoric. Guy Torrey plays Lamont, a fellow prisoner whom Derek is forced to work with. Initially, Derek clings to his racist beliefs, but time and Lamont's personality wear him down (the guy is impossible not to like…he finally breaks Derek's barrier down with an impromptu description of a sexual encounter that's laugh aloud funny).
What makes "American History X" such a powerful film is what may turn some viewers off. The film refuses to turn any of its characters into caricatures. They are allowed to be intelligent and make points that, to someone in their circumstances (no one has much money, jobs are being taken by illegal immigrants, and gangs have trickled in from other cities) may seem valid. But the film takes great care to show how through twisted logic and pent-up frustration, a kernel of truth has been distorted into an ugly lie. At no point does the film endorse any of the racism in this film, but it does allow us to see how these people think and understand why they think that way. It puts an easy label on societal dysfunction and gives a sense of belonging to those who feel alone and vulnerable.
There times when Kaye uses too many close-ups and too much slow motion, but those are few. There's also a rather big plot-hole that allows a crucial scene to take place, but since only the circumstances, not the content, are hard to swallow, I'll let it slide.
"American History X" is not easy to watch, but like "The War Zone" and "Lilya-4-Ever," it deserves to be seen because it's a powerful experience that sheds light on something we need to see. Even if we'd rather not.