This is not an easy film to watch, however, it is massively enjoyable and partly for this very reason. While most would run for the hills when it comes to a story from the perspective of a proud Neo-Nazi living on Venice Beach and leading a race war, the narrative is both powerful and important. With the label of ‘aggressive’, ‘violet’, ‘racist’, ‘Nazi’ and ‘skinhead’, a likable character could seem impossible, and that is the genius of this film.
Our protagonist is Derek (played by Edward Norton), a man recently released from prison after serving three and a half years for the murder of two black men attempting to rob his car. This is greatly important, the portrayal of black people in this story is excellent and by the attack being provoked, we get more humanized characters. It can be difficult to understand a character’s motivation when they are solely insight violence due to race alone, ‘American History X’ puts rational behind racism. Whilst in many race related films racism is a black and white case (even the flashback scenes are in black and white), the ideas around racism are very much inflicted from both parties. The black men in this film are not helpless, nor are they angels, rather they insight the same race hate back at their perpetrators. By the film not having a “bad guy” as it were, rather many ‘bad’ people of different races, the lines become blurred and it makes for a more real and gritty story that really grips you. This is not a film that panders to you, nor does it insult your intelligence by spoon-feeding you a moral message on race, rather it unravels in a way that lets you come to a solid conclusion, and that is that there are bad apples in all races and it can be easy to type-cast and give into hatred when provoked no matter your race. To even begin to describe this film this would be spoiler galore, which if you know what happens at the end will really take away from its impact so please if you can try to avoid even searching up images of this film so you can be just as shocked as you as an audience member were supposed to be.
You could call the film uplifting, this is probably the one that you weren’t expecting that title to be awarded to but it is oddly heartwarming at times and by the end, you come out of it distressed but also hopeful for the future. With race relations appearing to take a step back in the US and lines of segregation being drawn yet again by both sides, this film I would argue is necessary for any watch list. It allows for an actual racial dialogue between what needs to change rather than who. It gives us complex and deeply sympathetic characters, something which is harder to find in white characters in stories told in such films as ’12 Years a Slave’ where the narrative is far more clear cut. You will find yourself agreeing with different speeches throughout this film and your ideas will change as the characters do, it perfectly sums up the hate that can be created out of ignorance and crime, whilst also showing how we are all the same underneath if we give each other a colourblind chance.
It is also important to point out the cast performances being on top of their game, especially Edward Furlong as Danny, Derek’s younger brother. He melds rebellion, innocence, and malleability together to create a teenage character that actually feels like a teen, angst, easily influences and yet progressive in nature. To claim that anyone stood out as bad casting would be near impossible, the characters that infuriate you are supposed to, the ones that touch your heart are played by charming actors and overall the feel of ‘American History X’ is authentic throughout. As someone who believes it is important to come into contact with people and ideas you may not agree with on face value to re-evaluate your own and also get an insight into how others think, this film is brilliant for anyone. It is NOT a film made for Neo-Nazi, white Americans, men or black people. It IS a film means for all people of all walks of life and is a great insight into people you may believe are the fringe of society. I can not recommend enough, to me, it is flawless and a repeat watch.
Side photo credit: Flickr/ ‘racism’ by rwdowns
If you have watched ‘American History X’ and have any thoughts about its discussion of race, please let me know! I would love to discuss in the comment section below.