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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

American History X: Review

With the use of slow motion, black and white, color, intimate angles, and concentrated close ups, American History X is a film that will, with no doubt, stand the test of time. Filled with racism, transformation, reflection, regret, hope, resentment, loss, gain, and acceptance, the film is rich with many emotions that have the viewer attached on the dynamic journey on which the characters travel. With a story that covers many years, the film takes place in a 24-hour time span. Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is told by his principle to rewrite an essay because of his unacceptable report on Adolf Hitler’s, Mein Kampf. With a new assignment to write about his brother, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), Danny goes home to complete the essay by the next day with much frustration.

As Danny begins his essay, the techniques the director and cinematographer, Tony Kaye uses begins his unique way of storytelling in flashbacks. Unlike the usual blurry, soft, dreamlike interpretations of nostalgia, Kaye uses very vivid and focused black and white scenes. With the movie exposing the harsh reality of racism, Danny was brought up in a home of neo-Nazi Caucasian people. His brother Derek, who is his biggest role model, was a leader of a skinhead white supremacy group before he was sent to prison for curb stomping an African-American he disliked. As Danny goes on to idolize his brother, who also comes home that day, he is unaware of the paradigm changes Derek had while in prison.

As the story is switched through his perspective, he befriends an African-American prisoner, and is raped by other neo-Nazi skinheads in the prison. As he reexamines his morals, he realizes that he does not want the same fate for his little brother. Once he arrives home, Derek is greeted by former friends and a girlfriend who are still heavily involved in the white supremacy lifestyle. They begin to notice his new behaviors but don’t really question it because of his status. It’s not until Derek confronts Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) and punches him when he is denied his request for him to leave his brother alone that his former allies turn on him. As Derek talks to the now frustrated Danny, Danny begins to see his brother’s perspective and comes to a new dynamic thought on racism. (SPOILER) As he finishes his story and is on his way to turn it in, he uses the restroom, where he encounters an African-American he has had constant racial conflict with, and is shot in the chest and dies.

Both Edward Norton and Edward Furlong give remarkable performances in the film. With fourteen nominations and only four wins, the film is definitely a great example of film making at its best. It's truly impressive how the filmmakers shrink the passage of time of about ten years into a single day, exposing awakening enlightenments and revealing a new hope to stop racial and gang crimes. Paired with a tragic ending of Derek's brother, whom he began to lead away from the same path as his own but ends up facing the harsh consequences that caught up to both of them by following the footsteps of their father’s racist views, creates a drama that emulates Shakespeare or even a Greek tragedy. Seeing that hate crimes can happen within one’s own group of supposed allies gives Derek a harsh reality check, revealing that all he had done in the past was pointless. The black and white flashbacks also creates a stunning look on the black and white people that are at war with each other.

Before Derek was arrested, most of his actions were vulgar and filled with hate on immigrants and people of color. With a bold black swastika tattooed on his chest, his message was clear to anyone he disliked; they are not welcomed. In the major scenes that show the cruel reality of hate crimes and racism, the combination of slow motion, dramatic music, and strong facial features show both sides of the crime. This creative choice really added a special element to the film. Having the audience feel the emotions from both sides of hate crimes allows viewers a perspective that doesn’t justify, but explains where the hate is coming from and exactly how common and real it can be in society.

The close ups on the facial expressions of Derek show how he is proud of all of his actions, regardless of the consequences. One of the most powerful and memorable scenes from the film is when Derek is arrested for killing an African-American foe who tried to rob his house. As he is filled with hate and disgust by the actions of the man who tried to rob him, he feels no remorse for the murder. As the scene goes into slow motion, we see the horrified look on little brother Danny’s face as he witnesses what his brother has done. But as he is getting arrested, Derek looks straight into his brother’s eyes with a calm and collective smirk on his face and winks, showing that he is proud of what he did. That scene sets a harsh tone in the film that change doesn’t necessarily happen when things go really bad, such as murder. Instead, it shows that change and personal actions and responsibility all depends on the individual’s mindset.

All in all the film tells a great story with a powerful message of racial and hate violence, and the existential view of facing the outcomes of every action one makes, no matter how long it may take. (SPOILER) With the tragic ending of the death of one of the main protagonists, the film is filled with heavy tension and an element of true reality. Combining slow motion shots, black and white, color, and detailed close ups, Kaye gives us a film that has a place in anyone’s movie collection. With the release of the movie being in 1998, the message still relates to today’s society and is (sadly) just as powerful as it was 18 years ago.

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