Derek Vineyard is paroled after serving 3 years in prison for brutally killing two black men 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. Written by
Strong performances by Edward Norton & Edward Furlong really make this film for me. The direction by Tony Kaye with his mixture of black & white history contrasting with colourful reality is magic to absorb and shows this film up to be what it is a true American Classic, ironically by a British director.
The film itself is about two brothers, Derek the elder and Danny the younger adoring sibling. Derek has been in jail for three years after killing a black youth who tried to rob the family; the nature & brutality of the crime still shocks me to this day.
AHX tracks Derek's history through the first formation of racist sentiment laid down by the father. These feeling of hate are embedded when later his father is killed in the line of duty. Derek becomes involved in the local Nazi movement, his intellect turned by youthful rage into hate crimes and the rational that comes with Neo Nazi propaganda.
The Nazi-tattoo sporting, egotistical, philosophical younger Derek is a steam train waiting to crash, his propulsion to stardom is eventually embodied when he takes the life of the young thief, the scene is very apt as he calmly lies down and knows he will be a hero to his friends.
Without wanting to spoil the film Derek encounters change in the prison, he meets a black man whom he works with and faces his own demons inside, I will leave it there for those who want to be moved by his transformation. Anyway, he comes out a new man and only wants to be that new person, which means leaving the old crowd, leaving the Anti-Jewish sepal he's been living with so long. The problem lies with his brother who has become a little Derek, getting drunk and being influenced like he was. Derek's cross to bear is that he can't change his life without his brother coming with him and being on the right side of humanity.
I think that this film is less about race and more about our ability to change as individuals, the fact that we can become what and who we want is a gift. Derek becomes the man he always wanted to be, he only wants the same for his brother.
Kaye's use of black & white creates an atmospheric drama that builds tension and has you feeling like a stung out piece of drum leather by mid movie. I love the way that Kaye subtly uses quotes and intellectualises the Nazi Stance, only to watch it being broken down by the same man (Derek / Norton).
Norton is a joy to watch as is Gould and Furlong.
To sum up American History X is a powerful intelligent drama, which provides plenty of discussion after the movie. This film should be on every high school curriculum
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