Why It Took Me 20 Years to Watch ‘American History X’
Believe it or not, I actually only watched American History X this year. It does seem strange that someone who writes for a film site like MovieBabble, and who generally perceives herself to be quite familiar with the world of film, should commit such a travesty. After all, this film earned Edward Norton an Oscar nomination for his performance, and the fact that he didn’t win is, until today, considered one of the most shocking Oscar injustices.
It is not because I wasn’t aware of the movie, especially since it is a part of IMDb’s top 50 rated movies (it holds position 32). During family movie time, my brother would readily suggest this movie, again and again, and for some reason, I just didn’t feel like watching it. It wasn’t because of Edward Norton, whom I have loved ever since Primal Fear, so much so that I have watched a large majority of his movies.
I just didn’t want to watch a movie about Neo-Nazism. Generally, I gravitate towards movies that are hopeful, and I had a feeling that American History X was going to give a different kind of trip, so I simply wasn’t ready for it. I finally committed to seeing it at the beginning of this year, and the scariest thing about it is how relevant it still is in today’s context.
If you are still with me after that long preamble, let me take you through the movie, and share with you my thoughts on it.
The Choice of Narrator
The film is narrated by Danny (Edward Furlong), Derek’s (Norton) brother, who has grown up idolising and admiring his brother, and has ended up following him down this path because of that. I did like this manner of structuring the film, because ultimately our decisions of hate become more impactful due to who they stir into similar action. Derek’s decision is polluting his brother’s world, where Danny writes papers he doesn’t really believe in, and is part of a group whose ideology is not completely his.
We see glimpses of this during Danny’s conversation with Sweeney (Avery Brooks), where Sweeney consistently hammers in the point that he isn’t like this, that Derek wasn’t like this — it is not too late to get his life back on track. The film is essentially the product of the essay he has to write for his History assignment, which is an examination of the events that led to Derek’s incarceration.
Being an educator, I really liked this aspect of the movie. I believe, just as Sweeney does, that education is fundamentally important in stopping the perpetuation of hate and violence. We see the History teacher’s (Elliott Gould) outrage about Danny’s paper on ‘Mein Kampf’, due to his argument for Hitler as a Civil Rights leader. The teacher’s reaction is understandable, since writing about such ideas is dangerous; words and rhetoric have power and sway, Hitler himself recognized this.
Whenever we move to past events, the film would turn to black and white, I guess to give a distinction between the past and present, as well as submerge the film in a grittier feel. Some online perspectives reflect that the use of black and white could be indicative of Derek’s world view; that’s how the world existed for him in his past. While this technique gives clarity to the structure of the film, it did come across as a bit cliche and jaded, which makes sense since this is a movie from 20 years ago.
Often when the characters are conversing, or thinking, there are close-up shots of their faces. It feels very intimate and a bit invasive. This might be a bit of a reach, but it reminded me of those stand-off moments these gang members have with each other, where they step into someone’s space as a way to threaten and intimidate. I personally felt that the movie’s ideas were similarly invasive, in part because I couldn’t stop thinking about the film after it was over.
Norton undoubtedly gives the best performance in this movie. There is this mania in his eyes when he dons the persona of the Neo-Nazi, in contrast to his softer portrayal post-incarceration. Norton has such a knack for playing these characters with these dual dimensions, as we saw in Primal Fear. He takes it one step further in this movie, with his physicality matching the mania in his persona. He is a commanding presence, athletically (as we saw from the basketball scene) and even sexually, since our very first scene in the movie is his very aggressive lovemaking with his girlfriend (Fairuza Balk).
Edward Furlong, while not lauded as often as Norton, is very good as well. Furlong’s other popular role would be John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, where he held his own among the adults. I went to do a bit of research after my first viewing of the movie, since I wondered what Furlong had been up to since. His real life has been a tragic mess, having fallen into the same pit as a lot of child actors — that of drugs and alcohol. The movie is a reflection of a cycle that never ceases in its perpetuation, and sadly, it was the same for Furlong, though for him, it is the turmoil that comes with fame and stardom.
Interestingly, the film’s director Tony Kaye, wants nothing to do with the film. The issues began when New Line wanted him to cast Edward Norton in the leading role, but he didn’t want to. This is not because he didn’t think Norton was talented, he just felt he wasn’t right for the role. Ultimately, this became a moot point when he couldn’t find anyone else suitable enough.
The finished product then did not sit well with all those concerned, including Norton himself, who gave Kaye editing notes. Kaye’s version of the film lost out to what New Line wanted, and he tried to protest it in every way possible, even showing up at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to convince them not to screen the film. But he wasn’t successful; New Line released the film with Norton’s additions, which lengthened it by 20 minutes, from the original Kaye product of 96 minutes.
I should have seen Danny’s death coming, considering how the beginning tensions with the African American students in the bathroom was never quite resolved. There has to be consequences for Derek’s actions, which took the form of his brother’s death. It is such a poignant moment, because they were going to move on, start anew, leaving the space governed by hate and ignorance — and this is taken away.
Apparently, in the alternate ending, Derek goes back to his old ways after Danny’s death, showing how the cycle is continued and never broken. I personally prefer the current ending. Derek’s time in prison made him realize the pointlessness of his hate, it helped to rehabilitate him and return him to the man he used to be. The alternate ending would just diminish that, and also cheapen Danny’s death, since it would lose its position as the focal point.
For me, the scariest thing about this movie is how relevant its themes still are. America has become more insular than ever, with a fear of the Racial Other taking on a whole new dimension. If you consider the current politics at play, it draws up an image of division rather than inclusion: American needs to build a wall to keep out immigrants so that the jobs can return to where it truly belongs; the country needs to stand firm against dangerous Muslims if it wants to protect its national interests.
As someone who lives in a country which depends on the continued harmony between racially different groups, this sense of tribalism frightens me, especially when I consider what it means for the future. This movie reminds me that division and racism is far from a finished discussion; we have a long way to go, and goodness knows if we will ever get to a good space.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on American History X? Comment down below!
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