Tony Kaye's American History X (1998) was far more than a film about the evils of Neo-Nazi skinheads, and the wrongness of views of white supremacists (which is what I mostly expected). It does contain those ideas, of course, but the film explores the concept race relations, and of hate in all its intricacies in a way I didn't expect. In the opening sequence, there is a shot of Edward Norton's character Derek Vineyard, bare-chested, with his swastika tattoo proudly on display as his character turns towards the camera in slow motion, to look at the one of the black men who tried to break into his car. His expression is one of cold, unfeeling triumph. We are not yet aware at this point of why they were breaking into his car (and the first thought I assumed was that it was some kind of retaliation for Derek's white supremacist viewpoints) but in this shot I found captured the ugliness, the vileness that is capable within human nature - our propensity to hate without valid cause, and it is something that scares me.
After this, we jump forward three years and find that Danny (Edward Furlong), Derek's younger brother who narrates much of the film from his own subjective viewpoint, is heading down much the same path as his older brother. He has been called to the principle's office for turning in an essay on Mein Kampf, extolling the virtues of Hitler's philosophy. Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the principle of the school is not ready to proclaim Danny a lost cause just yet. Sweeney, holder of two Ph.Ds and who often does outreach work with troubled youths, states that Danny will now be taking lessons with him; the class will be called American History X and he must hand in a paper, due the next day, about his brother and the influence Derek had on his life. This same day, Derek is released from prison, and to the horror of his former 'brotherhood' members and his younger brother, it is obvious that Derek is a changed person. He no longer wants anything to do with his former life, and does his best to convince Danny to stay away from this brotherhood as well.
Through flashbacks (distinguished by being shown to us in black and white), and Danny and Derek's narration, we gradually learn how Derek was first drawn into this hateful world, what caused Danny to follow him, and what happened that made Derek change so much in prison. It is at times brutal, and difficult to watch, but, as with all powerful films such as this, we are compelled to watch. Edward Norton, nominated for an Oscar for his work here, is a large part of this, I think. The way he inhabits his role makes for an incredibly believable and disturbing performance at times, and a touching one at others. Edward Furlong as Danny is also worthy of high praise, capturing the anger and frustration the character requires. Avery Brooks was perfectly cast as Sweeney - his voice the calm, soothing voice of reason. He is most underrated as an actor. The cinematography is also quite beautiful (Tony Kaye was DOP as well as director. This is what happens when the DOP directs at the same time) - a stark contrast to the ugly nature on display.
As I said above, this film is not simply about skinheads - the message here is strong and clear. As Sweeney says, he used to hate too until he realised it was simply pointless. There is so much pointless hate to be observed, ranging from schoolyard bullies to street gangs to the skin heads, led by a man called Cameron Alexander (Stacey Leach). Two of the most hateful characters in this film are the white supremacists (Cameron and one of his followers, Seth (Ethan Suplee) are incredibly distasteful) but no matter who is feeling the hate, or who it's directed at, we are made to feel the pointlessness of it. It's a bleak, sad feeling.
American History X is one of those films that won't soon be forgotten, and nor should it be. Its message is loud and clear, but one that, even in today in the 21st century, needs to be reiterated more and more.