American History X (1998) **
I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me in 1998. I first saw American History X right when it was released to home video, and I thought it was pretty damn good. Maybe not as good as the bits I’d caught from Romper Stomper (which I wouldn’t see in its entirety for several more years), but still plenty impressive. Really, though, American History X has only a ton of foul language, a moderately graphic prison-rape scene, and a quick flash of Fairuza Balk’s breasts to differentiate it from a network television Movie of the Week. It is completely without subtlety, it aspires to seriousness by slathering cheap psychoanalysis all over the world’s easiest targets, and even so, it can’t manage a coherent position on its sensational subject at any level below the most purely superficial. It’s the film Mr. Mackie would make in the hope of convincing us all that “Hating people is bad, m’kay?”
We begin A Long Time Ago. It’ll be a while yet before we learn exactly how long, but the opening scene is shot in black and white, and in this stratum of the film industry, that’s like stringing up a bunch of black and yellow tape marked, “CAUTION! WAY-BACK MACHINE IN USE!” Three gangstery-looking black guys are cruising around in a pretty sweet early-60’s Chevelle when they evidently spot what they’ve been looking for, and come to a halt in front of what will later be identified to us as the Vinyard house. While Doris Vinyard (Beverly D’Angelo, of The Sentinel and Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills), Davina Vinyard (SLC Punk’s Jennifer Lien), and Ally Vinyard (Tara Blanchard) sleep, and while Derek Vinyard (Red Dragon’s Edward Norton) is too busy fucking his girlfriend, Stacey (Fairuza Balk, from The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Craft), to pay attention to anything else, two of the men in the Chevelle clamber out; one takes up a position just outside the front door, while the other starts smashing the windows of the truck parked out front. The only person in the house who notices what’s going on outside is Derek’s little brother, Danny (Edward Furlong, from Pet Sematary II and Terminator 2: Judgment Day), and he quickly goes to rouse Derek. Naturally, neither Derek nor Stacey is pleased with the interruption, but the older Vinyard brother changes his tune when he hears that there’s somebody messing with his truck— especially when Danny mentions the race of the perpetrator. Derek, you see, is a neo-Nazi skinhead, and from the look on his face when he pulls his pistol out of the night stand, I’d say he’s been itching for years for something like this to happen. Derek mows down two of the burglars, fires the remainder of his ammunition into the fleeing getaway car, and then curb-stomps the gangster who isn’t quite dead yet to finish the job. That’s about when the cops pull up, presumably in response to the neighbors’ reports of gunfire on their street.
Derek spends a shockingly brief three years behind bars; either he had a fantastic lawyer or the medical examiner who determined the curb-stompee’s cause of death was a moron, because we eventually learn that Vinyard was convicted merely of manslaughter. Right around the time Derek is released on parole, Danny gets in big trouble at school for turning in a paper on Mein Kampf to his history teacher, Mr. Murray (Elliot Gould, from Capricorn One and Night Visitor). Murray being Jewish, this is plainly meant to push his buttons, and Danny looks to be on the fast track to expulsion. But Murray’s boss, history department chair Dr. Sweeny (Avery Brooks— Captain Sisko on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), intervenes to keep the boy in school. Not that Sweeny has any more sympathy than Murray for Danny’s “politics,” you understand— he just doesn’t think seventeen is too late for somebody to push Danny off of the path to becoming his brother. Sweeny pulls Danny out of Murray’s class and appoints himself the lad’s one-on-one tutor for American history. Danny’s first assignment will be to write a new paper— due tomorrow morning— on Derek’s role in shaping Danny’s outlook on the world.
That, as you might have guessed, is an excuse for much of the film to play out in monochrome flashback, showing how Derek came under the influence of local white power agitator Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach, from The Mountain of the Cannibal God and Class of 1999) and forged a bunch of dead-ender white kids pissed off at the influx of black and Latino gangs in their neighborhood into a mob more fearsome than any of their darker-skinned enemies. (Hilariously, one of the flashbacks to Derek’s minority-terrorizing glory days concerns a blacks-vs.-whites basketball game played for control of the courts where it takes place. It’s handled exactly like the climax of a “hurray for the underdog!” sports movie, as if some twisted bastard had shot a white power remake of The Bad News Bears.) The flashbacks also show how the double murder that finally put Derek away had its roots in an earlier gang conflict, and how Derek’s hatred of people browner than himself grew out of his firefighting father’s less ideological racism (oh, goody— daddy issues), rising toward its later lethal pitch in response to the death of Dennis Vinyard (William Russ, of Death Bed: The Bed that Eats and The Unholy) in a shooting outside a blazing crackhouse. Then when Derek comes home from prison, and gets a chance to speak for himself in the present tense, they show what happened to him in the lockup, and how a black small-time hood named Lamont (Hood Rat’s Guy Terry) turned out to be a much more valuable ally than the prison gang of white racists with whom Derek initially fell in.
As for the present, the neo-Nazi skins of Derek’s old crew have learned that he’s back on the outside, and they’re all eager to have him at their head again. What none of them— not Stacey, not Cameron, not Derek’s old right-hand man, Seth Ryan (Ethan Suplee, from Evolution and The Butterfly Effect)— realize is that “Father Vinyard” didn’t grow his hair out just to put forth a pleasing appearance for the parole board. Derek has had a change of heart, and he wants nothing more to do with his old gang, his old ways, or any of the noxious bullshit he used to preach when he wasn’t actively kicking the crap out of “border jumpers” and “social parasites.” None of his former associates are happy to hear that, and neither, for that matter, is Danny. And if there’s one generalization you can make about skinheads, whatever the color of their bootlaces, it’s that telling them things they aren’t happy to hear is frequently a dangerous business.
There are basically two reasons to watch American History X (apart, I mean, from the fact that Fairuza Balk makes a disturbingly sexy racist psychopath): Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. Both of those guys act as if they’re under the mistaken impression that this is a good movie, and it is almost entirely due to their efforts that it occasionally manages to be one for a few minutes at a stretch. Norton succeeds equally as a charismatic creep and as a troubled penitent determined to make up for the mistakes of his past, and he does a surprisingly effective job of faking a range of different ages, from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties. (It’s worth pointing out, of course, that he’s helped considerably in the latter department by the fact that he just naturally looked and sounded a good deal younger than his actual age in the late 1990’s.) Furlong, meanwhile, has grown enormously as an actor since his turn as the insufferable junior high school version of John Connor in Terminator 2. The core of the story here is (or at least ought to be) Danny’s conflicted attitude toward Derek, whom he both idolizes for all the wrong reasons and semi-consciously fears and resents for all the right ones. The inter-sibling dynamic is the most honest and authentic thing in a script that otherwise falls all over itself in its drive to be tritely “important,” and Norton and Furlong collectively nail it.
Now let’s talk about trite “importance” for a bit. You may recall that what I loved most about Romper Stomper was that it refrained from overt editorializing. That movie’s makers had the courage not only to tell their story from the perspective of the neo-Nazis, but to allow both the events and the thinking behind them to speak for themselves. What’s more, writer/director Geoffrey Wright did it that way even though there wasn’t a single clear-cut hero or villain, nor more than a handful of unambiguously right or wrong actions, depicted in the entire film. American History X, in contrast, is all about editorializing, but the conflicting demands of the story make it impossible for writer David McKenna and director Tony Kaye to do so coherently on terms with which they could be comfortable. On the one hand, the skinheads have to look irredeemably evil, lest anybody— no matter how stupid— come away with the impression that Derek, his father, and Cameron Alexander are speaking for the filmmakers during their bigoted tirades (which strangely tend to be fairly eloquent in Derek’s case, suggesting that maybe an earlier draft of the screenplay didn’t stack the deck quite so blatantly). However, because Derek’s redemption is precisely the point, an exception has to be made somehow for him and Danny, and it’s the cheat creating that exception that proves nearly fatal to American History X. Kaye and McKenna essentially wind up saying, “Nazi skinheads are rotten to the core, and there’s nothing you can do to change or rehabilitate them— unless, of course, a couple of tough but beatific black guys take it upon themselves to give one a mental makeover for no terribly sensible reason.” I can almost buy into the idea that Dr. Sweeny would want to bring Derek back from the Dark Side, given the investment that committed teachers are generally assumed to make in their more gifted students, and given also that a reformed Derek would be the most effective imaginable agent for setting Danny straight. But what the hell point would Lamont see in trying to change Derek’s mind about race relations, let alone in shielding him from the prison’s black gangs after Derek has his falling-out with the white power crowd? The question becomes even more baffling when you consider why Derek falls out with the imprisoned neo-Nazis— Vinyard considers it an act of race-treason when he finds out that one of his pals behind bars is in business with a Latino drug dealer to serve the dope-related needs of the white prisoners! Seriously, how hard up for excitement does a brother have to be before it sounds like a good idea to try befriending the guy who broke with the big-house neo-Nazis because they weren’t racist enough?! That they actually do become friends of a sort is an absurdity so vast that even Edward Norton can’t sell it, and because Derek’s conversion is the pivot on which the whole movie turns, everything sort of falls apart once the mechanism of that conversion is revealed.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabal’s month-long look at counterculture exploitation movies. Click the link below to see how my colleagues are faring in their encounters with the various restive youth tribes.