Review on American History X

BY: Nemo Karlsson Asp, MU1. 2010.


The 1998 motion picture “American History X” begins with a view of the ocean outside the state of California. Dramatic music is played and the image is in black and white. After a while, the camera takes you into a car. You see buildings and streetlights passing by. You can guess that something dramatic is going to happen. The car stops outside a house in a suburb and in the next scene you see two young people inside the house, having quite violent sex. You see symbols related to Nazism on the walls, and it all seems like a very raw human climate, although you can see that the young ones love each other. The young man who is having sex with his girlfriend is Derek (Edward Norton). Derek's younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), is in his bed in another room trying to sleep although he is being disturbed by the couple. However, the car outside the house contains two people with brown skin colour. They try to break into a car next to the garage at the side of the house. Danny sees them and interrupts his brother, telling him that “there is a black guy outside breaking into your car”. Derek gets something wild in his eyes. He takes a gun, and the following things happen very fast, yet in slow-motion. Derek kills the two men and is caught by the police. His brother Danny sees it all, and does not know what to think or do. The introduction is intense, but not too much for one to take in. Tony Kaye, the director of the movie, also acted as cameraman. You can see that he is shooting, since the emotions of the characters is very well shown to you and the different angles contribute a lot to the films high emotional quality. Derek and Danny's father, a fireman, was shot and killed a few years earlier during an attempt to put out a fire in a part of Venice Beach which is full of drug addicts. Derek cannot see the connection between a bad start in your life (that probably many of the drug addicts have experienced) and violence and drug abuse. He only sees the violence as a “race related” problem. An old man named Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), an old supporter of Nazism, draws Derek into the ideology. With Derek, he later starts a team called “D.O.C.” which major “task” is to “secure the white people from the gangs”. Three years after the incident with Derek killing the two men, Danny has written an essay about civil rights in school, and the text is named “My mein Kampf”. It agitates for Adolf Hitler as someone fighting for civil rights. His principal Sweeney says to Danny's former stepfather (and teacher) that there “is still hope for this child”, meaning that he will keep dragging Danny out of the grasp of racism. Avery Brooks who plays the role as Sweeney, makes a strong acting achievement in this movie. He uses his strong voice and compassion to act as some sort of father-figure to the people he wants to help. Sweeney becomes Danny's history teacher, and Danny's first task is to write about his brother's deeds and what these did to his family. The history class will be named “American History X”.

The scene with Danny and Sweeney got very intense. This entire movie is literally bathing in intense scenes, and you might complain that the intense scenes get a little too much sometimes (especially since the entire movie takes place during only two days), but it contributes to the films feeling of reality. One of the reasons that Sweeney wants Danny to write the text is because Derek is being released from prison this very day. Derek has a completely new way to look at things when he meets Danny after three years. He has been Danny's “hero” and a symbol among neoNazism in California, and shocks him when he has grown a haircut (he had a shaved head before), changed attitude and says that he isn't into “white-power” anymore. Danny is himself nowadays into the D.O.C. And Danny, once again, does not know what to do when he realizes that his brother talked with Sweeney about Danny soon after Derek's homecoming. Edward Furlong is very good here, showing that despite Derek's changed attitude and because of this Danny's confusion, Danny is very happy that his brother is home. He shows this with strong life energy, emitted from almost everything that Danny do compared to the meeting with Sweeney when he really looked tired and down. Where part of Derek's racism come from is seen in one of the black and white scenes. It came from their father. The actors really act very “natural” as if this were a documentary. You get a glimpse of how racism can appear at the dinner table just any day in any house. The makers of this movie probably wanted to show that fear of the unknown and prejudices is out there almost everywhere in the society, spread like a virus. The mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and Derek does an exceptionally well emotional outbreak in one of the dinner-scenes, but since you only see moments from the past, these outbreaks seem almost a little over exaggerated (you do not see what is happening between them since the scenes are flashbacks). What happened to Derek in the three years he sat imprisoned is shown in the longest flashback in the movie. He finds out that some of the people in prison who share his ideas do not follow them correctly. And who can fully follow such a strange ideology as Nazism? The moviemaker's illustrates this very well when Derek sees one of his “Nazi-friends” in prison talk with a man from Mexico about “favors”. Derek can't possibly understand how it can happen, and gets confused and angry. Derek gets to clean the prison laundry. He happens to have to co-work with another prisoner. He has got brown skin. Perhaps it is quite predictable that he would meet a man with brown skin colour, and that they would become friends. But it is interesting to see how the friendship between the two young prisoners evaluates. In the beginning is Derek quiet, perhaps to show that he does not like the other man... Or does he really dislike him so much? As time passes, Derek finds out that the man by his side when he's sorting laundry isn't so bad. He's quite funny to talk with actually. But the real change of Derek's mind comes after a brutal thing that Derek experiences.

Sweeney comes to visit him, and here is one of the most interesting scenes: Sweeney asks him if anything he has done has made his life better. And what more than “no” can Derek really answer? You see that Derek's hatred and “white-power” thoughts more and more start to crumble and vanish. And you see so well how disgustingly Derek's life has been used by these destructive thoughts; and by Alexander. Of course Derek understands this and later in the movie he gets into a confrontation with the old man, trying to save Danny from him. It is very moving to see Derek's attempts to draw Danny and his family so far away from Venice beach and the clutches of Nazism as possible. Edward Norton sometimes shows an almost desperate need to do it. Even if it would be more interesting and good to see how Derek instead of just “running away” would talk with the D.O.C. members. But he manages to draw Danny out of it. And after that, you can see that some peace is given to Derek's mind. One of the most beautiful and strongest scenes in the movie is when Danny and Derek are standing in Danny’s room, looking at the wall full of Nazi-symbols. Danny makes the first move, and starts to take down it all. Derek helps him. I saw it as “pulling apart Nazism”; that they protest against all the hatred they have been through and are now laying those days behind them. American History X is a very honest movie in many ways. It showed very well how people can have racist thoughts and how others react to them, and it did let these thoughts be said. It was not afraid to show the consequences of hatred. The ending of this film was very sad, and you can interpret this movie in many different ways. But I saw it as one of the best movies about racism I have ever seen; because it dared to show you the reality of it. Like a virus it is spread across humanity and it kills you slowly and painfully from the inside. Such a destructive and nonsense way of seeing things does not belong in being a human. We can do better than that.

//Nemo! 2010.

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