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The film American History X is rated by the users of IMDB.com (Internet Movie DataBase) as one of the 50 best films ever made. It is a crime/drama, a very violent film; not for the faint-hearted. American History X was released in 1998, and it is directed by Tony Kaye.
-Edward Norton (Derek Vinyard)
-Edward Furlong (Daniel Vinyard)
-Avery Brooks (Dr. Bob Sweeney)
-Stacy Keach (Cameron Alexander)
-Beverly D'Angelo (Doris Vinyard)
-Jennifer Lien (Davina Vinyard)
The setting is in Venice Beach, USA, and tells the story about Derek Vinyard, taking place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Derek Vinyard is a very bright and charismatic student, who is drawn in to the neo-Nazi gangs when his father gets killed at work (a fire-fighter) by a black drug-dealer. Derek believes that blacks are the reason of every problem in the USA; Crime, poverty, etc., and when his father is killed by a black drug-dealer, a “social parasite” in his opinion, his hatred against blacks gets even stronger.
He becomes second in command in the Venice Beach neo-Nazi gang DOC, The Disciples of Christ, and they do what they can to take Venice Beach “back”, currently it is dominated by black and Mexican gangs. Cameron Alexander, the number one DOC, uses Derek to recruit young whites, and as soon as they are numerous enough they start attacking the Mexicans and the blacks, it almost develops into a race-war.
Derek's hatred becomes a crucial breaking factor at home in his family life as well. When his mother Doris invites a Jewish man to dinner after the death of Derek's father, he becomes more and more obsessed with white supremacy, and over an argument at dinner, his anti-Semitic ideologies gets obvious. He loses control, attacks his family and throws out the Jewish man, who leaves the house shocked and offended.
The same night some black guys try to break in to Derek's car. He kills them, and gets sentenced to three years in prison, charged with voluntary manslaughter. The life in prison changes Derek's life. He joins a white gang for protection, only to discover that they do drug-trades with the Mexican gangs. Shocked and furious by this, Derek stops talking to the white-gang. They decide to teach him a lesson, and rapes him in the shower. Derek is now alone, he has no friends.
Dr. Sweeney, his black, former principal, visits Derek, and has therapy sessions with him. During those sessions Derek's neo-Nazi ideologies and hatred against black, disappears. He is no longer a racist.
After a while he makes friends with a black inmate, Lamont, whom he works together with in the prison laundry. Derek discovers later that his friendship with Lamont is the only reason Derek gets out of prison alive.
Once he has finished his sentence, he returns home only to find that Danny, his little brother, has joined the neo-Nazi ranks, following Derek's footsteps. The rest of the film is about Derek trying to convince and persuade Danny off the neo-Nazi path.
The title “American History X” derives from Dr. Sweeney's attempts to get Danny to abandon his White Supremacy ideologies. When Danny hands in a controversial essay on “Mein Kampf”, Danny's teacher (who happens to be the same man Derek threw out of their house three years ago) takes him to the principal. Sweeney forces Danny to write a new essay about the life of his brother, with the title “American History X”, and he must hand it in the following morning to avoid expulsion.
The main character is Derek. He is extremely intelligent and bright, and has great charisma, which he uses a lot in the attempt to recruit young whites to the DOC. After the killing of his father, he becomes a white supremacist. Upon his release from prison he has abandoned his neo-Nazi ideologies, and we follow his struggle to keep his family together, and stop his brother from following his footstep.
Derek is tall, well-trained and strong, both physically and mentally. He has a swastika tattooed on his chest, and before he is sentenced to prison he is a skin-head. After his prison stay he lets his hear grow back.
Edward Norton does a great job in the role, portraying Derek in an excellent way; he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. He is said to be one of the greatest actors in the world in his age-group.
Comments and personal opinions
When showing scenes of Derek's life before prison, it is in black and white, no colours. This is brilliant, it is easy to follow the progress in the film, and to figure out what is past and what is present. This could have developed in to a lot of sentimental talk and massive clishès, but fortunately the director manages to avoid that trap.
Danny is the narrator in the film, he tells the story of Derek's life while writing the essay about him. This is an interesting way of telling a story, makes it very “alive”.
American History X is a “one to watch” film. It touches on several important and controversial topics, such as racism, illegal immigration, gangs, the fact that neo-Nazi groups exist, conflicts between different races, prejudices and other topics that split society, all put to their most extreme form. Another important topic is people's ability to change as individuals
Many of these topics are big American problems, and not so familiar for Norwegians and other Europeans, but issues like racism, prejudices and illegal immigration are problems in Norway as well, so the situation and story in the film is not too distant.
The bottom line is that American History X is a very good film, one you really should watch. It is informative, entertaining, intelligent, political and of great present interest, all the ingredients needed for a great film-experience. This film provides a lot of discussion after you have seen it, it should be on every high school curriculum. You do not want to miss American History X.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature” -Daniel Vinyard (quoted from Abraham Lincoln)