There is nothing like American History X in theaters or on video. No other feature film takes such a cold hard look at the lure, the culture, and the brotherhood of white supremacy.
Nice guy Ed Norton Jr. (who sang in Everyone Says I Love You) plays Derek, a twenty-year old skinhead. Dad’s subtle racism grew large in Derek, after gang members killed his father. Dad was fighting a fire when they shot him. Now Derek keeps his head shaved and has a giant swastika tattooed over his heart.
Derek is more interested in the ideas of white supremacy than in its culture of violence. At a basketball court, black and white tempers flare. Derek channels the aggression into a game, black versus white, for ownership of the courts. When the choice presents itself, Derek goes for game point instead of the sucker-punch.
Cameron (Stacy Keach) steps in to Derek’s life as a surrogate father. He takes Derek under his wing and nurtures his racist feelings. Keeping his own criminal record spotless, he uses Derek as a leader and organizer for high-visibility racial intimidation. Derek obliges by leading his younger and dumber friends in race-motivated mob crimes. At the bottom of the chain, Derek’s younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong, made famous in Terminator 2) joins the skinheads not for ideological or intellectual reasons, but because he admires his brother and he wants to belong.
One night three black youths break into Derek’s truck, which is exactly what Derek has been waiting for. Outside in his shorts and his tattoo, he shoots them all. The third would-be thief, unarmed, is only wounded. In the key scene of the film, Derek commands the kid into a position where he can be killed with one glorious, enraptured, awful stomp. (The fun-spoiling NC-17 of Orgazmo seems even more inappropriate, considering American History X was rated R. What sort of country is this that says sex comedies are a bigger threat to our youth than brutal, ecstatic violence?)
The police arrive just as Derek kills the last thief. Derek does not resist the cops, and as they spin him around to cuff him, the film slows down. Derek raises his eyebrows and smiles at his little brother in a chilling, sadistic, satisfied grin.
Now in prison, Derek faces new challenges. As the black man in the laundry tells him, “in the joint, you the nigga, not me.” There is a clique of swastika-wearing skinheads, but they are not interested in the ideology of white supremacy. They only use the symbols as a means of intimidation. Derek finds himself truly alone, truly in danger, and truly afraid.
When Derek finally gets out of prison, he finds that his friends from the gang have also changed. Without Derek’s leadership, they have shunned the white supremacist ideology for the white supremacist culture. It is the final factor that makes him realize how badly he’s screwed up. In the end, he spends quality time with is brother trying to undo the respect and admiration he had earlier inspired in Danny.
The film ends a little too deliberately, too neatly after the unchained emotion and violent glee of the rest of the film, but it barely detracts from the overall experience.
Edward Norton gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Although some of his dialogue seemed to be written without enough conviction, Norton’s performance compensated. (An example that comes to mind is his pep talk before looting the store.) He also captured the essence of an older brother. He took his responsibility as a role model to his younger brother very seriously, very lovingly, both before and after his change of heart.
Though clearly not for all tastes, this film is bold and daring. The subject matter is ugly, cruel, and at times hard to look at. Nevertheless its subjects are part of humanity’s great face. Kaye gives us a good look at this fascinating, if distasteful, American subculture.