AMERICAN HISTORY X
US, 1998, 117 minutes, Colour.
Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacey Keach?, Eliot Gould, Avery Brooks, Beverly D' Angelo.
Directed by Tony Kaye.
American History X is a very hard-hitting drama. It was directed by British advertising whiz, Tony Kaye. Kaye, erratic in his methods and approach to films, was in trouble with the producers and clashed with his star Edward Norton. Norton then re-edited the film, Kaye attacking him for editing it to his own advantage for his performance. No matter what the truth of the disputes, the film comes across as a strong drama of American youth in the late '90s. It shows right-wing groups and gurus, the emblems of this kind of protest, the skinhead, the tattoos, the piercings. It shows with some bluntness the squalor of the lives of many of these young Americans who feel oppressed and want to assert themselves against minorities. The film communicates the feelings of these groups.
Edward Norton is striking as the leader of the local group. He received an Oscar nomination for his performance. Norton has shown himself one of the most versatile of the younger actors in Hollywood with different performances in such films as Primal Fear, Everyone Says I Love You, The People vs Larry Flint, Keeping the Faith (which he directed), The Score. He is well supported by Edward Furlong (Terminator II, Judgment Day) as his younger impressionable brother. Stacey Keach appears as an elder guru and rabble-rouser.
The film is disturbing in its presentation of young people blinded from the truth by a firm faith in their own truth, and white supremacist theories.
1. A film of the 1990s? Representing America, the American cities, Los Angeles? The world movement of white supremacists and fanatics during the '90s?
2. The Los Angeles settings, Venice Beach, the scenes at the beach, the suburbs, prison, schools? The contrast between the black and white for the flashbacks, the colour for the present? The musical score - and the singing of the Kyrie Eleison, 'Lord Have Mercy'?
3. The impact of the film on the audience: visual, emotional, cerebral? The experience of the family, the white supremacists, the prison? The film as a message film - sometimes preaching? How necessary for the times?
4. The prologue: the credits and the beach, the Kyrie? The family asleep, Derek and Stacey and sex, Daniel and hearing the noise, the car load of black men? The confrontation, Derek shooting? (And the later brutality of his breaking the jaw of the black man and the memory of the basketball game?) His being arrested and sentenced to prison?
5. The use of colour in the present, Daniel's narrative and perspective? The issue of the essay, its title, Hitler, civil rights? The reaction of Sweeney, of Murray? Sweeney and his giving him a new essay, demanding that he examine his life, his brother, the cause? The importance of the essay, visualised on the computer, spoken by Daniel? Continued after his death? The impact of the final quotation?
6. Daniel and his attitudes, following his brother, young and easily influenced, the influence of Cameron, the tattoos, reading Hitler, the essay? The resentment towards Murray? The respect for Sweeney? The impact of Derek and his fanaticism? The repetition of racist slogans? Yet an intelligent young man, presented with a challenge? Regrets that there would be no fulfilment?
7. Sweeney, his position in the school, his relationship with Murray? His outreach, with the police, showing them the video of Derek? The flashbacks, his influence on Derek, Derek praising him as a teacher, getting them to read Native Son? His visit to the prison, after the rape, his concern for Derek? Derek asking him for help? The plans for the future and his influence on Derek to confront the racism?
8. Derek and his impact, the way that he was photographed? His hair, the Nazi sign, the tattoos? The brutality of his chasing the blacks, killing them, crushing the head on the footpath? His being tough, the smirk, raised eyebrows? The potential for a fascist leader? Going to prison, the impact of the prison? The change of attitudes? His getting out, growing his hair, greeting his family, the clash with Seth, his concern about his mother and her illness? Concern about Daniel?
9. His contribution to Daniel's essay? Their talking together after leaving Cameron's party? His memories (in black and white), the discussions with Cameron and his influence? Murray's visit, the long discussions at the table, the voicing of all the racist issues, the right-wing reasons for the country going down the drain? His ultimate explosion at the table? Davina's reaction? Daniel accepting it? Doris and her reaction? Hounding Murray out of the house and his mother's life? His stances, the violence? As dramatised in the television interview after his father's death? The expressions of loss, grief, hatred, scapegoating all the minorities?
10. The exercise of his leadership? The basketball grounds, his influence, the bet, playing against the blacks, demanding that they leave? His address to the recruits? The plan, the viciousness and violence of the attack on the market, destructive, the woman at the cash register and her humiliation, the owner with the gun? The history of the market and its being taken over by the Koreans? The confrontation with the group and the guns trying to kill him, the revenge on the basketball player? His history of violence?
11. His getting out of prison and telling Daniel not to go to the party, his going to the party, the visit to Cameron and their clash, Cameron and his domination, seductive ideas, being hit by Derek? The encounter with Stacey, her disbelief, her hatred? Seth and his disbelief, turning against him, the gun? Derek getting the gun and getting out?
12. The flashbacks to prison (in black and white): Derek's tough stances, going into the cell, the routines of the prison, being alone in the dining room, showing the swastika at the recreation time, being invited to the white group for the meals, playing sport? His work in the laundry, his despising his co-worker, yet listening to him, association, friendship? The story of his dropping the television on the policeman's foot and getting six years? The ability to laugh? His disgust at the white leader doing drug deals with the Hispanics? His sitting alone, the shower sequences, the brutality of the rape, hospital, six stitches? His anticipation of further threats? The visit by Sweeney, asking his help? Reading, being alone? The transformation, leaving, his thanks to his co-worker - and the theme of fanaticism being changed by friendship and association?
13. The significance of the flashback to the father, the discussion at the table, Derek's enthusiasm about Sweeney as a teacher, reading Native Son? His father's bigotry, praising his sons, influencing - the environment for growth in fanaticism, even in a middle-class family?
14. The themes of water: the shower, the rape and its destruction? The shower and its cleansing? The shower at home? Getting dressed, tie, hair, going for job interviews?
15. Collaboration with Sweeney, ready for the confrontation with the fanatics and with Cameron?
16. Daniel at school, seeing the boy kicked in the toilet, watching the blacks play basketball? The next day, the confrontation in the toilet, his being shot? His having the essay and the slow motion of it falling to the floor?
17. Derek, his return, his grief and cradling Daniel? What was he left with? A new start, the possibility of a constructive life?
18. A portrait of white supremacists in America of the '90s? Their black and white stances? Environment and hatred? Social ills and causes? The importance of friendship and human contact?