Directed by: Tony Kaye
Written by: David McKenna
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach, Elliott Gould
The path to redemption has its many obstacles and can be cut short because it will rightfully not be accepted by everyone depending on the harm done. American History X shows a perspective that unfortunately still exists today and through excellent acting and writing, it results in a tremendous film that forces the audience to sit in the discomfort of everything happening.
This film follows Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) in two separate narratives of his life. One, shot in black and white that shows his dangerous Neo-Nazi ways of the past and then in color, where it shows his path to redeem himself for his past. It brilliantly shows the impact Derek’s actions have had on his brother Danny (Edward Furlong) and how he has absorbed the Neo-Nazi beliefs and have weaponized it at such a young age.
It’s quite interesting to consume this film in this current era where Neo-Nazis proudly march on the streets espousing their views. A reality that we thought was over after World War II continued to fester without much attention and now has flared up once again. Derek represents this rise when the film displays his actions in the past, and this film holds nothing back in its depiction of its characters. Every slur was used, but it was done so with a purpose to show just how dangerous the rhetoric can be from this group. It also shows that these groups, which at times refer to themselves as an Aryan brotherhood, are anything but when one of their brothers steps out of line with their ideology.
The viewing experience may be incredibly stark, but it’s done so with a conviction and meaning. It goes to show that this monster of an ideology still lives and breathes in this nation and will not go away quietly. As much as we like to believe that this nation has moved past having individuals that believe such racist ideologies no longer exist, but that line of thinking feels incredibly naive. Edward Norton’s performance in the film cannot be understated because he threw it all out there. He completely became this terrible person as he showed the juxtaposition of his dark past and the man he wants to reform to be, as difficult as the path to forgiveness might be.
In the black-and-white section of the film that focused on Derek’s past indiscretions, it details his harmful rhetoric and how he killed someone and curb-stomped another, who both happened to be African-American in front of the police. What can a person like that do if they want to be reintegrated into society after realizing what they believed and done was wrong? I do not have the answer, as I have not been a survivor of their attacks. I love how the film does not take a side with this redemption and simply shows the rhetoric and then the unintended consequences that happen towards the end.
Those consequences become generational with how it impacts both Derek, but also Danny. The cause of Derek’s racism and harmful rhetoric goes back to his father and when an inciting incident occurs, everything boils over and it becomes the Derek we see at the beginning of the film. That creates an idealization for Danny that the beliefs his brother espouses shows power and indicates strength. That leads to much of Danny’s storyline and how he takes all of the rhetoric passed down from his brother and father and internalizes for his own purposes. It further reinforces that what we tell the younger generation will leave a lasting impression, and it may be difficult to walk back the effects, as it may be too late. Derek spends much of the second half trying to help Danny see the evil that their words and actions have and after indoctrinating a kid for so long with these beliefs, getting them to go against it may be an impossible task. Edward Furlong’s performance as Danny demonstrates his incredible ability as a young man to take on such a challenging character.
Certainly not an easy watch and it should be left to each audience member to see how they feel about Derek and his attempts to redeem himself for his past endeavors. The film tackles such a difficult subject and it does it exceptionally well in my opinion. From showing what may change someone and just how difficult it may be to walk back one’s words and actions from the past. The consequences are palpable and the effects will forever leave a mark.