In the 90s as well as today, racism is seen as a social evil and a plague upon society. Agreed upon almost universally, racial prejudice is a very, very bad thing. However, it exists and it deserves to be talked about, if only for the sake of finding a way to work through it and move forward. It’s not often that an intolerant, violent individual is studied and analyzed objectively, especially in the medium of film. Tony Kaye’s American History X takes a look at Neo-nazism in Venice Beach, California and pulls no punches when it comes to exposing both sides of the issue.
Disturbing in its grit and realness, American History X tells the story of Derek Vinyard, one of the most respected members of the Venice Beach White Supremacist movement. If you’re not a white Protestant, he has issue with you. At the top of the hierarchy, Derek’s influence spreads to his surrounding cohorts as well as his younger brother, Danny. His lover, Stacey, and his fat friend, Seth, are his other closest companions. Derek’s own mother, Doris, is one of the only voices speaking against her son’s fervent racial hatred and fears for his safety as well as his soul.
After an attempted break-in and car theft, a group of black youths are confronted with Derek’s anger in the form of deadly force. In one of the most disturbing scenes in film history, Derek stomps one of the assailant’s jaws on the curb in front of his house. As a result of his unnecessary force, he ends up serving a three year prison sentence.
While serving time, Derek is betrayed by a white supremacist prison gang and ends up being brutally raped while showering. Afterward, Derek is visited by the principal of his old high school. With the principal serving as a bit of moral guidance, Derek begins to learn slowly from his new mentor. Also, within the walls of the prison laundry room, Derek is forced to work alongside a black man who teaches him some harsh truths about the other side of the racial coin. Emerging from his jail stint with a changed attitude and the desire to spread his new message, he finds that changing people’s minds is not as easy as it seems.
While in no way an overall survey of racism, American History X effectively represents some of the personal reasons for racism as well as how attitudes can be changed with an open perspective. It also serves as a study on the ways that these hateful feelings can tear a family apart and how putting the broken pieces of a life back together isn’t as easy as simply renouncing your former self. There is always a price to pay. The twist at the end of the film shows how the issues and consequences at hand are the furthest thing from black and white.
The acting is solid, the score is fitting, and the story is intriguing. While Derek is really the only character who is fully fleshed out in terms of the script, Edward Norton’s twisted, sympathetic portrait of him really gives the film legs. While I wouldn’t describe it as perfectly-executed, American History X is a film that will stay with you long after your first viewing. For that reason as well as the fact that these themes are not often explored in popular media, American History X is worth at least a solitary viewing.