American History X (1998)

  • Time: 119 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama
  • Director: Tony Kaye
  • Cast: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk


Derek Vineyard is paroled after serving 3 years in prison for killing two thugs who tried to break into/steal his truck. Through his brother, Danny Vineyard’s narration, we learn that before going to prison, Derek was a skinhead and the leader of a violent white supremacist gang that committed acts of racial crime throughout L.A. and his actions greatly influenced Danny. Reformed and fresh out of prison, Derek severs contact with the gang and becomes determined to keep Danny from going down the same violent path as he did.


  • “American History X” is a film that reminds me that movies can be about something important. Edward Norton does a very good job at playing his role of Derek Vineyard who was a very brutal and sadistic being who naturally became an honest but still unstable character. His performance was very believable. Also, the use of black and white cinematography to create the flash backs and the cinematography full of color for the current moments was done very smartly. Certainly one of the best movies ever!

  • American History X is a truly wonderful film. It offers thought provoking discussions, an emotional plot and a story we can all learn lessons from. Over the years, watching movies as a hobby has transformed into a learning experience–one where the viewer is a student who witnesses the events transpiring. As the students, you start to see American History X is more than a single class where insolent children have catharsis; it’s a place of growth where boys become men.

    People argue that you never really value something until you feel pain like the characters in this movie. The relationship issues, pursuit for happiness, thoughts of loneliness and anger that builds up inside are emotions we all feel. Maybe we never actually do realize the importance of others and the values we hold until a traumatic event occurs, but this movie certainly comes close.

  • How director Tony Kaye could have improved upon the final cut of the raw, kinetic work of art that is American History X will remain a mystery until the release of Kaye’s purported documentary of the making and breaking of American History X. For those unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes brouhaha accompanying the film’s arrival in theaters, a recap:

    Twenty-eight year old screenwriter David McKenna fashions the shooting script for American History X. New Line Cinema snaps it up and, after approaching Dennis Hopper and Larry Clark (Kids) to direct, ultimately hires New Line Productions President Mike DeLuca’s favorite choice, Kaye, an internationally renowned commercial director and artist known for his innovative commercials for the likes of Nike and British Rail. Though a bit eccentric (he met a homeless man, housed him in a hotel room and consulted him on the script) in his methods, Kaye delivers a rough cut which impresses New Line. Here’s where accounts begin to blur a bit: McKenna and actor Edward Norton, who portrays the central white supremacist, collaborate on the writing of several scenes. Kaye asserts Norton broached the idea to edit a cut of the film itself. DeLuca states he approached the actor, partly motivated by Norton’s refusal to do press if he couldn’t “stand behind the movie.” Norton contends that he and Kaye had “reassembled the film as per the script. It was not, in anyone’s mind, ‘my cut’ of the film.”

    When New Line successfully test-screened the cut Norton had been involved in, they attempted to convince Kaye, who had not yet submitted his cut, to let them release that version. Long story short, Kaye refused and, though New Line granted his request for an additional eight weeks to work on the film, began to retaliate: first by taking out bizarre trade ads featuring frequently inscrutable quotes to approaching the Director’s Guild to remove his name from the film. Whatever Kaye’s reasoning, the final product is Oscar-worthy proof that he is not being treated like some modern-day Orson Welles. Welles, if you remember, had masterworks like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil (which was recently reconstructed according to Welles’ 58-page memo) badly butchered by studio heads. American History X is a film neither severely snipped nor neutered. However the film was edited, one cannot deny that Kaye’s genius is there. Serving as his own cinematographer and camera operator, Kaye’s images are breathtaking in their grit and aestheticism. I don’t see how Kaye himself could disown this supremely brilliant work.

    The film opens with Norton’s startling entrance. It is the dead of night. Danny (Edward Furlong) is awakened by the grunts and groans of his brother Derek’s girlfriend Stacy (Fairuza Balk), who is clearly in the middle of some pretty rough sex. A car with a gang of black youths stop by their house and one gang member goes to steal their car. Danny goes into Derek’s room and interrupts the sex to tell him what is going on outside. And then we catch sight of Norton. Never mind the fact that it is he who has been performing the animal sex, Norton is as you’ve never expected to see him. Let’s start with the shaved head and goatee and work our way down to his muscular body showing off an array of tattoos: an Iron Cross on his shoulder, a Nazi war eagle on his biceps, an inscription reading “White Power” on his forearm; on his back, the initials DOC (Disciples of Christ), signifying his membership and endorsement of the white-supremacy group. But most prominent of all is the Nazi swastika emblazoned over his heart.

    Dressed in his underwear, he goes outside and shoots the men in pure, controlled, unblemished hatred. The police arrive and, as he mockingly obeys their commands, he turns to the dazed Danny. Wearing a smirk on his face and a wicked gleam in his eyes, he raises his eyebrows in a joking gesture. At that moment, Norton terrifies because one forgets it’s an actor portraying this animal whose eyes are blazing with the power of his hate. That is how deeply entrenched Norton seems to be.

    The film is chock full of gripping Norton moments. Rousing his followers before an attack on a Korean-owned store, Derek spouts statistics which lend a certain weight to his misguided sensibilities: “It’s about decent, hardworking Americans falling through the cracks while the government is coddling the constitutional rights of people who aren’t even citizens.” More statistics are showered upon Elliott Gould’s character, the suitor of Derek and Danny’s widowed mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo, expressing fierce mother love despite her fear and disappointment). The scene escalates until Derek grabs his sister Davina (Jennifer Lien), who had been arguing against his beliefs, by the hair and shoves food into her mouth. Gould conveys the most sublime expression of stunned horror. “What are you trying to prove?” he asks Derek, who tells him that he won’t allow a Jew to invade his mother’s bed and his home: “Not on my watch!”

    Then there’s Derek’s spell in prison, where the film’s unflinching nature reaches a brutal peak. American History X fascinates as it repels in its examination of this culture. At the core of the film is the future of Danny, who shows all signs of following in Derek’s footsteps. Upon his release, a reformed Derek attempts to dissuade Danny from becoming a skinhead but Danny, along with Stacy and the rest of the white-supremacist gang feel betrayed by Derek’s change of heart. When Stacy incites one of Derek’s former friends to shoot him, Derek knows he’s a marked man.

    Complaints have been voiced that Norton is too charismatic and intelligent in the role. Complaints have also arisen that Derek’s reformation feels false. This depends on how you view Derek. The reformation is believable if you take the side that Derek took the beliefs too far. There’s a scene where Derek and Danny quietly strip their walls of the numerous Nazi paraphernalia. If you substituted the pinup posters, either of models or heavy metal bands, the effect may be less powerful but the intent remains the same. Both Derek and Danny absorbed influences around them at very impressionable ages. The film offers their father’s murder as the origin for Derek’s hatred but, as the film progresses, one realizes how the father influenced Derek more than we thought.

    That power of influence is precisely why Derek should be charismatic. All of the great leaders — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi — had charisma in spades. Though Derek’s cause may be less noble than theirs, it isn’t in his mind. That’s what frightens. Even as the character spits out the most hateful things, Norton understands that what may be wrong is perfectly clear to this intelligent monster. To those most impressionable, the attraction is not in the substance of the idea but the magnetism with which it is presented.

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