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American History X (1998) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

derek black danny sweeney

Principal social themes: hate groups, violence/gangs, racism/civil rights, immigration

New Line Cinema. R rating. Featuring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Avery Brooks, Stacy Keach, Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Lein, Fairuza Balk, Elliott Gould, William Russ, Joe Cortese, Ethan Suplee, Guy Tory, Giuseppe Andrews, Anne Lamblon, Alex Sol, Jim Norton, Paul LeMat; Written by David McKenna. Cinematography by Tony Kaye. Edited by Jerry Greenberg and Alan Heim. Music by Anne Dudley. Produced by John Morrissey. Directed by Stuart Heisler. Color/B&W. 118 minutes.

Overview

American History X is one of the most intense cinematic examinations of hate movements, their operational methods, and basic influence. It also serves as an excellent study of the cycle of violence. Director Stuart Heisler and star Edward Norton had a falling out over the final cut, but the end product did not seem to suffer. Norton received critical acclaim for his leading role as Derek Vinyard, including an Academy Award nomination.

Synopsis

American History X has an unusual structure: The main plot is depicted in color, and events in the past are shown in black and white. Derek Vinyard, a neo-Nazi with a large swastika tattooed over his heart, is released from prison as the film opens. Derek has served three years for killing a black vandal who had broken into his car. His younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) emulates him, adopting a skinhead mentality. He thinks nothing of confronting a group of black students in the school lavatory. When assigned to write a paper on a civil rights leader, Danny submits one about Adolf Hitler. His teacher turns to Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the principal, for help. Sweeney asks Danny to submit another report for their private seminar to be called “American History X.” The topic is to be his brother, Derek. Unknown to Danny, Sweeney has been visiting Derek in prison. Under his guidance, Derek has abandoned his radical views and now rejects hate groups. When he is released from prison, Derek is greeted as a hero by other members of the hate group, including their remote charismatic leader, Cameron (Stacy Keach). In a private meeting, Derek rejects Cameron and his neo-Nazi philosophy. As he leaves, Derek is hooted down by the others. He then sits down with Danny to explain why he changed his views in prison. He noticed the skinhead clique in jail were into marketing drugs, and he realized they were merely self-serving phonies. After he was beaten and abused by this group, Derek kept to himself and was befriended by a black convict who saved him from being a target of the black gangs behind bars. Sweeney visited him regularly and helped him gain parole. Together, Derek and his brother remove the Nazi paraphernalia from their bedroom, including their collection of Hitler photographs and white power posters. Danny completes his paper for Sweeney, noting why Derek originally turned to hate groups and how he came to repudiate their message. When Danny returns to school to hand in his paper, he is shot to death in the lavatory by one of the black gang members he confronted at the start of the film. As the end credits roll, Danny’s voice is heard on the soundtrack reading the last paragraph of his paper, concluding with a quote by Abraham Lincoln.

Critique

American History X has a complex structure that unfolds on different levels with numerous flashbacks. First, there is the main plot, how Derek tries to help his brother from following his path with the skinheads. Second, the film is a case study of how hate groups operate and the similarity between both the white and black gangs. That is one reason why Sweeney, the black teacher, relates so closely to Derek; because he had been a black hatemonger in his youth. Third, there is the background story of Derek, how he became a neo-Nazi after his father was killed and how he became an effective youth leader of the neo-Nazis. He delivers a lengthy speech against immigration at one point that seems logical, potent, and inflammatory. Interestingly, the script does not provide a counterbalance to this early outburst, as the reformed Derek is quiet, methodical, and prefers to make his points by his actions. The response to Derek’s words only appears at the end of the film, in Danny’s paper. The impact of the story is quite powerful, particularly since the expected outcome of the story is that Derek, not Danny, would be killed. The cycle of violence is then complete.

The production values of American History X are quite high. Avery Brooks, Edward Norton, and Edward Furlong deliver riveting performances. The various social issues are blended expertly in the script, which has a genuine edge. It is a rare film that manages to stay in the viewer’s memory a long time after the picture ends.

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