American History X (2006): Cautionary Tale Starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong

Tony Kaye’s American History X provides an instructive example of the simplistic approach taken by movies in the all-too-rare occasion of tackling a social issue, racism.

Well-intentioned, writer David McKenna’s cautionary tale centers on Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton), a skinhead neo-Nazi whose body is covered with tattoos and a swastika on his chest. Derek is presented as an intelligent former honors English students, whose life has been shaped by a personal tragedy and a neo-Nazi guru, who uses propaganda to convert insecure, frustrated kids into racism.

A budding neo-Nazi who idolizes Derek, younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) has written a report celebrating Mein Kampf. The black principal instructs Danny in personal tutorial (which he calls American History X), assigning him a paper about his brother’s influence on their family. The narrative switches back and forth between past (in black and white) and present (color), with Danny’s narration commenting on the action.

A vicious killing of a black teenager, who tried to steal his car, sends Derek to prison. After three years, he returns a totally reformed person: He lets his hair grow, encourages his mom to watch her health, and urges worshipful brother Danny to give up smoking and skinhead ideology. He is presented as a thoughtful fellow who’s worked through his rage and has come to recognize the errors of his ways. Nonetheless, Derek’s conversions seem more dramatically convenient than psychologically coherent. The script is full of one-dimensional explanations for radical changes in behavior: Derek’s rage is explained by the murder of his racist father.

The Newsweek critic David Ansen pointed out that the material is charged enough without piling on hysterical melodrama and stylized violence (shot in slow motion to religious choirs). The movie sacrifices reportage for a showoff filmmaking, a possible result of Kaye’s background in commercials. Kaye stages an attack on a Korean grocery and sexual violence in a jazzy way: When a black boy is killed in a public place, the scene is empty, because it would mess up a cool shot.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actor: Edward Norton

Oscar Context

In 1998, Norton competed for the Best Actor Oscar with Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful), who won; Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, and Nick Nolte in Affliction.