Film Commentary [4-12-99]
Skinheads relux - -
American History X
Genre: Drama

Last year I looked with expectation toward the film Pleasantville hoping for a light comedy reflecting the differences between 1950's milktoast television and the realities of the 90's. However, half way through what had been an entertaining movies, it broke down. As the black and white characters began to be shown in color, the film began to preach with a shrill voice that racism is bad; Bad, Bad, Bad; blatantly and with obvious intention to the point of obtrusiveness over all else. This message then continued to be rammed down my throat for the rest of the movie. Like I need pack of Hollywood idiots whose education might at the most consist of a degree in "dramatic arts" to preach to me. I was insulted at their presumption of my lack of intelligence and disappointed overall.

However, although I had heard that American History X was a good film, I expected it to preach. So I avoided it in the theater. I was in the video store on Sunday and as usual on the weekend, the movies I wanted to rent were sold out. So I decided to rent this film. I was very surprised at the power and performances in this movie.

The film follows the story of Derek Vinyard (Robert Norton) and his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong). The film begins with Danny being called to the principal's office for writing a book report on Mein Kampf. Sweeney, the school Principal, played by Deep Space 9's Captain Sisko Avery Brooks who had formally been Derek's principal, assigns the boy the task of writing a new paper with his brother as the subject, who is being released from prison that day. The first part of the movie explores Derek's character and his white power motivation and ideas. The film continues with the story of Derek's evolution from a normal kid to a skinhead and murderer. Derek's and Danny's father was a fire fighter who was murdered on the job by black gang bangers. Derek was then recruited by a local white sepremist leader Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who recognizes Derek's intelligence and ability to recruit and organize the local disenfranchised youth. The violence continues with an attack on a local grocery store that had recently been purchased by Koreans. It seems they fired several of the skin heads who worked there and hired Mexicans in their place. Later, in a pivotal and graphic scene, Derek shots one black gang member who is trying to steal his car. He wounds another and fires at their retreating friends car. He turns to the wounded man and brutally kills him by kicking in the back of his head. As a result, he is convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison. Danny emulates his brother and joins the skinheads, becoming Keach's pupil as his brother had been.

Derek soon becomes a member of the prison's Ayrian Nation gang and enjoys their protection from the minorities in prison. However, he soon becomes disillusioned by them. He sees the leader dealing with the Mexican gangs for drugs and selling them to the white inmates. This is the turning point in his life. Unlike what you would expect from Hollywood, the main character does not suddenly decide that his racism was wrong and that all men are brothers and glory hallolluya (so I don't know how to spell it, neither does the spell checker). Instead, it is his disgust with the hypocrisy with the supposedly believers in his faith through which he rejects his past. He rejects his gang and is attacked by them.

He survives without their protection through the intercedence of the black inmate with whom he works in the laundry and eventually befriends and the Principal. Upon his release he confronts Keach and tells him to leave his brother alone and rejects all his past friends. Now you would think that here the story would end with a happy revelation and the everyone would live in a joyous politically correct world. It doesn't. There is a surprise ending that I did not see coming.

The result is a gripping film with superb acting and imagery. The flashback sequences are avidly and imaginatively reflected in black and white when told by Danny but alternating with color when vocalized by Derek in the present sense. It avoids the preaching attitude of Hollywood and also explores the racism of blacks as well as the skinheads. This is a powerful and entertaining film. It fails only in the transparency of Keach's cardboard evil character and Derek's flimsy conversion, even if it is original. Brooks performance is saintly and seeming uninspired compared to some he evoked in Deep Space Nine, railing against the Dominion. Directed by David McKenna. He avoids the typical straight narrative and tells the story through a controlled mix of present and past time lines.

Having seen most of the performances nominated for Best Actor, Edward Norton delivers the superior performance as Derek Vinyard and deserved to win. It was better than Tom Hanks' and there is no comparison with winner Roberto Benigni. Norton's performance was superior.

Note: At first I thought "isn't that the guy who played Ferris Bueller's best friend?" No, its the guy who played Larry Flynt‘s lawyer in Oliver Stone's The People v. Larry Flynt.

Grade = A

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