American History X is a film that speaks to young audiences. In much the same way that white-power groups seduce the impressionable (a tactic efficiently dramatized in the film), American History X draws in young viewers with a disturbingly charismatic DeNiro-esque performance by up-and-comer Edward Norton placed in a context of a world of terrible violence and madness. Punched up with that violence, and as seen through the eyes of a teenager, American History X is propaganda that won't turn teens off like those chintzy, badly rapped dramatic screeds on not smoking, avoiding gangs, and staying in school, though those messages are all here.
Norton received an Oscar nomination for his work as Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a young man just released from prison after serving over three years in Chino for voluntary manslaughter. The incident in question was the culmination of Derek's indoctrination as a white supremacist, begun in the lessons of his father (William Russ), slain at the hands of black men, and picked up by Venice Beach's white-power kingpin Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach). Derek's high-flying stardom within the latter's organization crashes in prison, where Derek slowly learns the error of his ways and builds a resolve to keep his younger brother Danny (Eddie Furlong) from following in his footsteps.
Most of Derek's story is told in black-and-white flashbacks. In the present-day, color sequences, the chain-smoking Danny has learned to idolize Derek and befriend Cameron, the mentor Derek now angrily calls a "chicken hawk." Breaking ties with hateful dimwit Seth (Ethan Suplee) and girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk), Derek dangerously cuts ties with his past, while trying to reach his troubled brother. Principal Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks)—Derek's former English teacher—remains committed to slumming at Venice Beach High to make differences in young lives. After Danny writes a paper called "My Mein Kampf," the African-American Sweeney appoints himself history teacher for a private class he calls "American History X," insisting, "He learned this nonsense...and he can unlearn it too. I will not give up on this child yet."
And so legacies of hatred face off against men determined to make a change. American History X is deceptively simple in this way. Because of the issues' complexity, though, this story needs the clean lines of melodrama—if didactic and overwrought at times, it's also powerful and persuasive. It's also about persusasion, with racists and skinheads spouting arguments (harping on crime, immigration, and affirmative action) with enough passion and tortured logic to turn the "insecure, frustrated and impressionable" toward a purpose they're sorely lacking. Norton particularly excels in the film's centerpiece scene, a family dinner that descends into such argumentation and, eventually, unreasoned violence. Beverly D'Angelo adds significant value to the drama as the ailing mother in the background, alongside daughter Davina (Jennifer Lien) suffering generations of hurtful men (Elliot Gould does a nice turn as D'Angelo's Jewish boyfriend).
The flip side to the skinhead" persuasion" comes with the efforts of Sweeney, who in a prison visit asks Derek a devastating question: "Has anything you've done made your life better?" It's a great credit to writer-director Tony Kaye and Norton (who clashed in the editing room, causing Kaye to disown the finished product) that the film never takes for granted anything about the process that made Derek and Danny neo-Nazis, and the process that unmakes them. Also key to the film's success is the resonant work of Furlong, who watches quietly over the years before scarily coming into his own. We share Derek's delayed terror at where Danny is heading, and though his late-picture conversion is hastier than Derek's, Furlong sells it. Cumulatively, Kaye, Norton and Furlong powerfully capture the insanity bred of racial hatred, its consequences, and the very real hope of changing hearts and minds.
On Blu-ray, American History X looks much better than I expected. Though a hint of horizontal wobble is apparent at times, the picture is film-like with a pleasing, light grain; colorful in the present-day sequences, and nicely detailed all around. Certainly, the film looks newer than its decade on the shelf. The Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital 5.1 options are more than up to the film's aural demands
The bonus features are limited, but welcome. We get three "Deleted Scenes" (6:54, SD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:29, HD).
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