Growing up in rural West Virginia where the African American population is only 3.5% of the overall population (and that’s mostly confined to the population centers of Huntington and Morgantown), you’d be forgiven for thinking that my exposure to American racial tensions was slim to none. Of course, you’d be wrong. Even before my family became the foster parents for a family of four African Americans from Pittsburgh, we were an anomaly in a small town with a lingering history of racial resentment. Philippi,WV, has a small section of the town known as Chestnut’s Ridge where de facto segregation has caused virtually all of the black and bi-racial citizens to live there. People in Philippi often refer to the Ridge as “(Racial Slur) Ridge.” When my grandmother cheated on my grandfather with a black man and had a bi-racial daughter (who in turn would get pregnant when she was very young by a black man herself), my family was thrust into the racial animosity eating away at our town.
Barbour County’s African American population is almost entirely bi-racial. There are few, if any, solely black citizens. So, of course, it would fall upon my family to quadruple the African American population overnight. Although there were never any outright incidences of violence or bullying against my foster brothers and sisters because they were black, I could still hear faint whispers of the “N” word on the school bus and catch hateful stares at my siblings (who I would eventually be as close with as my biological sister) when they weren’t looking. Our bus driver would hold them to different standards of behavior than the other kids, and there was always hesitation by many to let them fully integrate into the community. I’ve spent my entire life being very sensitive to the plight of minorities in America, and I think my biography has given me that perspective a lot of young, rural white people simply never had.
Perhaps, that’s why I’ve always found Tony Kaye’s 1998 race relations magnum opus American History X so fascinating and so incendiary. If ever there was a film that should have been required viewing in high school’s across the nation when studying racism, it was this (along with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Providing no easy answers or any pat solutions, American History X instead chooses to be a stark portrayal of the harsh realities that produce American racism, and the ways that hate and bitterness destroy ourselves and our families. Although the film has some problems, including a supporting cast that simply can’t live up to the standard of Edward Norton’s phenomenal lead performance, few American films have ever been this brutally honest about the state of racism in America (or at least, racism circa 1998).
Told with a liberal dosing of flashbacks, American History X is the tale of a fateful 24 hours in the life of the Vinyard family. The oldest son, Derek (Primal Fear‘s Edward Norton), has just been released from prison after serving time for brutally killing 4 Crips who were trying to steal his car, including curb-stomping one of the gangstas. Before going to prison, Derek was one of the leaders of a Venice Beach gang of white supremacist “skinheads,” but after seeing how hate and violence have only ruined his life and the life of his family, Derek has a change of heart in prison. Now that he’s out, he’s got a mission to keep his brother Danny (Terminator 2‘s Edward Furlong) from suffering the same fate as himself as Danny finds himself sliding deeper and deeper into the world of the skinheads.
Almost everything great about this film rests on the shoulders of Derek Vinyard. Whether it’s Ed Norton’s performance or the writing, Derek holds the film together when some of its less impressive parts threaten to distract. Writer David McKenna’s decision to make Derek an intelligent, charismatic, and articulate figure was wise because it allows Derek to be more than just a caricature of racist ignorance. Yes, Derek ultimately is ignorant, but he is undeniably smart, and the script uses Derek as a mouthpiece for the sort of talking points that show how impressionable youth fall under the spell of racism in the first place. They use Derek to explore how insecurity and fear and economic downturns can be exploited to make stupid kids believe that blacks or Hispanics or Jews are the roots of all of their problems. And the film makes his conversion to grasping how stupid his views were slow, painful, and tragically realistic.
It also doesn’t hurt that Ed Norton delivers the greatest performance of his career. To be able to turn Derek Vinyard into a terrifying figure of your worst nightmare of modern racism and then slowly chip away at his rough edges til what’s left is the compassionate, caring young man he was before his father was murdered by drug dealers is an incredible achievement. Although skinhead Derek is a human figure, he is in no way sympathetic. He’s very clearly a bad, bad person. Yet, the sensitivity and nuance of Norton’s performance (and perhaps the non-linear nature of the story) means you’re always seeing the dichotomy of Derek’s character and the internal battle between hate and love that allows you to ultimately sympathize with this man. I’ve never seen Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, but his performance must have been beyond stellar to have beaten Edward Norton for this film at the Oscars.
Unfortunately, I can’t generate the same praise for the rest of the supporting cast. Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, and William Russ shine in smaller supporting roles, but other, major players embarrass themselves to the point where I wonder how I didn’t notice these things when I was younger. Edward Furlong’s performance doesn’t just wilt in comparison to the star turn from Ed Norton. It is simply an objectively awful turn in one of the film’s pivotal roles. His cultural capital was still high at the time thanks to T2, which is how he must have landed the role, but he simply comes off stoned and/or utterly oblivious in virtually every second of his performance. The film is meant to be seen from his eyes. We see Derek through Danny, but Edward Furlong has the emotional range of a toaster oven, and when the lenses are focused on him, the film drags (which is to say nothing of equally bad performances from Fairuza Balk or smaller players in the various racial gangs).
For the most part, the film’s cinematography is superb and really draws you further into the film’s world. While the story told at the present is shot in color (with great hand-held camera work to add the verisimilitude of the scenes), the flashbacks are in a haunting black and white. These moments embrace the cinematic possibilities of the story with a sweeping score, more unconventional and high-concept shots, and a greater willingness to play with perspective. One of the film’s best scenes is a basketball game between the skinheads and a local black gang which, if taken at a completely straight face, is meant to come off like some typical Glory underdog sports match, but it’s the ironic and subversive undertones of the game which make you realize how bad it is that you’re rooting for the skinheads in this game. And of course, there’s the brutal and shocking scenes of violence including a prison rape and the now infamous curb-stomping scene which to this day I can barely watch.
Few films have explored racism with such an eye for the truth. Most of the American films that deal with the problems of racism in this country are told from the point of view of those being oppressed. We very rarely see a story about how the racists and the oppressors wind up in their sorry state in the first place, and that was what made American History X so shocking and controversial when it was released. Time has come down in the film’s favor, and it’s often considered a cult classic of the 1990s. I would have to agree. The film may have its share of problems (in addition to the poor supporting performances, it often tries to awkwardly lighten the mood by playing some of the racist tendencies of certain cast members for laughs, i.e. Ethan Suplee), but they pale in comparison to the raw power of one of the most honest and revealing films of the 90s.
Final Score: A