Thursday, September 6, 2018

(White) Power Play

Films: American History X
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

A movie like American History X reveals the tactical error I made regarding my account on Letterboxd. I decided when I started posting reviews there that I would click the “like” button for any movie I rated three stars and above. The reason that’s a problem with movies like American History X is that it’s a movie that deserves in many ways to be rated above three stars (out of five), but it’s also a movie I can’t claim to like. In fact I don’t like the movie at all, and there’s a reason that I haven’t rewatched it until now.

Even if you haven’t seen this, you can guess it’s going to be an unpleasant movie based just on the DVD case, which features Edward Norton with a swastika tattoo. So yes, this is going to be a movie that involves white supremacy, skinheads, and racism. It also comes saddled with Edward Furlong (who is now in his 40s!), who gained a reputation as the annoying kid in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and never really got much beyond that.

Anyway, American History X is told both in the present and the past. Danny Vinyard (Furlong) is a high school student and has followed in his brother’s racist, white supremacist footsteps. His Jewish teacher (Elliott Gould) has turned him in to the principal for writing a civil rights paper about Hitler. That principal (Avery Brooks) has a history with Danny’s older brother Derek (Edward Norton), who has just been released from prison. Danny has done a few years’ time for voluntary manslaughter. Danny’s punishment is that now his principal, Dr. Bob Sweeney, is now his teacher, and his first assignment is to write a paper about his brother.

We’re lead to believe that much of Derek’s racism stems from the murder of his father, killed by gang members while he fought a fire. His thinking has been greatly influenced by a man named Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach). A run-in with a gang ends up in Derek’s truck being targeted. This results in him shooting one and curb stomping the other. Derek enters prison defiant, and we learn of what happened to him and caused him to change.

What’s interesting to me about American History X is the way the story is told. Everything in the past is in black-and-white, with everything taking place now in color. It’s symbolic in the sense that in the past, Derek’s thinking was about issues of, well, black and white skin, and his thinking on those issues was black-and-white. His time in prison mellows him, specifically his interaction with a black fellow inmate (Guy Torry) with whom he works in the prison laundry.

American History X has a deep, deep cast. In addition to the people mentioned already, we have Beverly D’Angelo as the mother of Derek and Danny and the wonderful and terribly underused Fairuza Balk as Derek’s girlfriend Stacey. Also involved are Ethan Suplee as Derek’s white supremacist friend and Jennifer Lien as the Vinyard’s liberal sister Davina.

My problem is that I honestly don’t know what to think about this movie. On the one hand, it has some great performances. Beverly D’Angelo is absolutely tragic in this. It’s a good reminder that Edward Norton was capable in front of the camera at this point in his career. It’s also something lose to vindication for Edward Furlong, and probably the best thing he’s ever done. I’m also an Avery Brooks fan; he delivers some real gravitas to the proceedings. He has the sort of voice that you listen to when he speaks, and that’s exactly what his role needs. It’s also a hell of a role for Stacey Keach, who makes a meal of the few minutes he’s on screen.

But the message is weird, and to discuss it, we need to dive head first into spoilers.

*** SPOILER ***

The message of the movie appears to be one of tolerance. In prison, Derek starts out as the same swastika-bedecked white supremacist hanging with the other skinheads. Eventually, he figures out that the others don’t have the same sort of ideological bent that he does and he splits from them only to be attacked by the other white inmates. It’s his black laundry coworker who evidently saves him from a similar beatdown by the black inmates. And while this is supposed to make us feel good, there’s no getting around the fact that except for Dr. Bob Sweeney, pretty much every black face in this film is the face of a criminal, and it’s a black criminal who puts himself on the line to save a white supremacist.

And then, with Derek deciding to pull Danny back from the brink of white supremacy, Danny goes to school to turn in his paper and gets shot by a black kid. Because of course he does. Because nothing says tolerance like reinforcing the idea that the black kids are criminals.


I don’t want to like this movie, but I do want to at least kind of respect it. And I kind of do for the first roughly 110 minutes of its running time. And then it takes a hard and ugly left turn made all the more ugly because of some potential race problems carried through the entire narrative.

I’ll be honest: American History X feels like a movie about racism written by a white guy, and that’s really disappointing.

Why to watch American History X: Because why not punch yourself in the face with a movie?
Why not to watch: The ending is an extended middle finger that destroys the entire message of the film.


  1. Really interesting review. And now I'm ambivalent about whether I should see this movie.

  2. While the story was definitely hard to sit through, I'm glad I stuck with it as the acting was very good. The sad thing is Edward Norton could have had one hell of a career, but when he and Salma Hayek split up, his career slowly slid downhill.

    1. Norton is still out there--he had a decent supporting role in Birdman, for instance. I'm curious as to what he wants from his career. He may well be in a position to simply not choose to work that often and only take roles that really interest him.

      If you look at the career of someone like Elijah Wood, you see something similar. After the LotR films, Wood has done a lot of indie projects and weird horror movies because why the hell not? Daniel Radcliffe seems to be doing much the same thing.

    2. Edward Norton was once a real leading man. But after Salma, or maybe his "Hulk" debacle, he seems to have been downgraded to ensemble territory and is no longer fully front and center like he is capable of being.

      And while I like Elijah, I never, ever saw him as leading man material, but he has made some interesting films like the short "The Death and Return of Superman" and "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" with Melanie Lynskey.

    3. Daniel Radcliffe might be the better comparison here. Would he do something like Horns or Swiss Army Man were he not in a position to do whatever the hell he wanted?

      The other thing is that Norton has a reputation for being very difficult, and that may simply have caught up with him. That was one of the inside jokes of Birdman--he was sort of playing himself as a talented but assholish actor.