American History X (1998)

Directed by Tony Kaye
Written by David McKenna

This is a story of a family in Venice Beach. This is a story about a man and his brother, a boy and his brother. This is a story about a neo-Nazi. The film opens up with a stirring sequence of Derek (Ed Norton) assaulting three black men (and his brother Danny (Edward Furlong) makes it a point to say they are black), who are stealing his car. We are quickly introduced into the world of the Vinyards and their way of life, or should I say the men’s way of life. The women in the film, mother and two sisters, are portrayed as weak and submissive to the two boys, although their eldest sister Davina does stand up against Derek once or twice, but to no avail. The story is really Danny’s story, but Derek is the main character. He turned neo-Nazi after his father, a fireman, was killed. What happens in the film is stirring, disturbing, and ultimately very thought provoking. I felt it did an excellent job of social commentary on hate and race in American society today, or 1998.

The way the film is structured is very interesting, and maybe because I was taking notes for a very specific reason, but the mismashed time and perspective really worked for me. It went from scene to scene and did not always have to flow or be perfect in that respect. What was revealed to the audience, slowly but surely, was delivered at the right time, every time. Who was Derek and Danny’s father? What brought this upon them? What changed Derek while he was in prison? What is the significance of Dr. Sweeney in Derek and Danny’s lives?

It opens in black and white, but the film is also in color. The filmmakers make use of the black and white to portray the past and color is used for present time, but I like to read into it and say that the transformation that Derek goes through is signified by the black and white. The hateful, “wrong” nature of Derek is portrayed in the B&W and when he returns home after learning his lesson while in prison, we see the film in color again. It is a form of rebirth as well as symbolic that his neo-Nazi thoughts and actions were old-fashioned, out of date, and wrong. When we think of black and white we often think of old films and old trends, just like Nazism. Maybe I’m thinking too much on it. But the film overall is quite beautiful, especially the parts filmed in B&W. Tony Kaye pulled double duty and acted as cinematographer and he did a great job.

The ending of the film may not be perfect and happy and let’s hold hands and be proud of ourselves, but it was very fitting for the story that was being told. I saw this once before in the infancy of my movie buffdom. I remember liking it all right, seeing what some people could grab on to and call great and really enjoy from a movie watching standpoint, but given my point of view this time, my thoughts on the film have changed. My perspective allowed me to take in all of the controversy and not pass any personal judgment on it as I had before. I was more interested in why and how and the simply what was going on. I think that is one of the most beautiful things about film, perspective. You can look at something more than just one way or more than just your way, and that is what brings upon all of this discussion and contemplation that we with film whether is be between critics, the casual movie goer, and the amateur film buffs like myself.

Commentary on Anti-Semitism: The film is clearly about neo-Nazis in America which take their namesake and ideology from a national political party in Germany that exterminated 6 million Jews, so I would say that it bears some anti-semetic connotations to it. What makes this film different is that it mainly focuses on the idea of black and white. There are multiple references to Jews in a very negative manner however and at one point Danny’s character professes his hate for all that are not white protestant, which would of course include the Jews. The key scene here that does deal with the issue directly is the dinner scene between the family and their mom’s boyfriend who is a Jew. Derek explodes in a profanity laden outburst that ultimately pushes the man away. There are multiple derogatory names throughout as well. Clearly the neo-Nazi ideals are very Anti-Semetic.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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