Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Abbi of Where The Wild Things Are. She’s also reviewed Kill Bill: Vol 1& Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Thanks for the reviews, Abbi! :-) Now let’s see what she has to say about American History X, IMDB rank 34 out of 250…
There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list of remaining films HERE. See the full list & links to all the reviews that have already been done HERE.
Also, if you’d like to add a link to your IMDB review(s) on your own blogs, feel free to use any of the logos I’ve used at the top of any of these guest reviews.
In probably his most celebrated role, Edward Norton plays Derek Vinyard, one of the leaders of a local White Supremacist group who is jailed after brutally murdering two African-American gang members attempting to steal his truck.
On the day of Derek’s release from prison, his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) is called to the principal’s (Avery Brooks) office after writing an essay on Mein Kampfand its influence on the civil rights movement. Principal Sweeny then sets Danny the task of writing a new essay explaining the events that led to his brother’s arrest and conviction.
As Danny simultaneously attempts to unpick his brother’s past and deal with the fact that Derek has come back changed, both Derek’s former associates and enemies close in with devastating consequences.
As much as American History X may outwardly seem like a study on racism, more than anything it is an exploration of feelings of powerlessness and how they lead to anger and ultimately hatred and destruction. Derek’s prejudice against anyone who isn’t a white protestant has little to do with the actual target of his hatred but rather a desire to belong to a movement where he feels empowered. The irony of Derek’s belief that people of other races and religions are inferior to him is that those he hates are driven by exactly the same feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness that he is and act out with similar impulses… and it’s all a distraction from the way corporate America oppresses its poor.
There isn’t anything particularly unique about this story of a confused young man learning the error of his ways and not wanting his brother to follow in his footsteps but there are a number of elements that elevate American History X above other similar films.
First is the non-linear story-telling. Director, Tony Kaye, slowly reveals what is not only behind Derek’s change of heart but also his original prejudices concurrent with his current post-release experiences with the past shown in black and white. It keeps the audience hooked in until the end wanting to understand who Derek really is. It also adds a level of drama and grittiness to Derek’s past, demonstrating how he sees the world in completely black and white terms. In the present day his experiences are in full colour, showing how his perception has changed. It’s a simple but effective device.
Second is the powerful performances. Edward Norton manages to capture Derek’s power, charisma and confidence but as he enters the prison system and his vision of the world starts to unravel his mask begins to slip and he moves from being a character it is easy to revile to a nuanced sympathetic one. Furlong also gives what is probably the only decent performance of his career as a boy at a crossroads with the potential to build himself and new future that doesn’t include repeating his brother’s mistakes. They are ably supported bythe two men who have the most influence over Derek’s life. Stacy Keach as Cameron Alexander, the fascist leader who lets Derek do his dirty work while he keeps his own hands clean and Avery Brooks as the educator who ultimately believes that Derek is capable of more than his past actions. Guy Torry is also engaging, playing Lamont, a fellow convict who ultimately breaks Derek’s prejudices through friendship.
Thirdly, Derek is never portrayed as stupid. Although his beliefs are abhorrent and there is no way to justify them, it is easy to see how his arguments convince the disempowered around him as well as how he has convinced himself. And the fact that the gangs he directs the majority of his rage at are hardly innocents adds to the believability.
Finally the film does not shy away from showing brutality of its characters, refusing to shy away from who they really are, with one particularly horrific scene proving to be the one thing that everyone remembers turning away from. And this is equally matched by some of Derek’s experiences in prison.
While there is no question that American History X is a powerful, hard-hitting film with a strong and valuable message on occasion it’s a little over dramatic and at times it strays towards predictability. It’s definitely a worthy entry to the IMDB top 250 though and one I would highly recommend. 4/5