#31: American History X (1998)

When and how did I watch this?

April 3rd, 2017, on Amazon.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

I remember seeing previews for this film — probably on MTV or something — when I was in high school. In my naivety, I didn’t understand what was going on, though I do recall the whole thing being very vague.

What do I know about it now?

Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) plays a sharp neo-Nazi young man shaped by his community and his father’s tragic and senseless death at the hands of black men. It is sort of predictable what happens next: after a brutal act of manslaughter, he goes to prison for three years, befriends a black man, and comes back with his mind changed about his racist ways. Unfortunately, the damage of his past has been done. His brother is fully involved in the cause, and a much larger movement has begun, now organized and more vigilant than ever. Norton’s performance is moving, but the screenplay itself is one long public service treatise on the ills of racism with a completely expected ending. What stands out for me, however, is how the characters are portrayed. Derek’s rhetoric from the start is so convincing that we forget that he’s wrong. Ironically, his disdain for handouts and for pandering to the black community is almost identical to a prevailing modern rhetoric in the context of law enforcement and politics today. We already know Nazism and its ideals are bad, so we’re not compelled to switch sides, but it’s interesting that we empathize. No one else really stands out in the film besides Norton.  There’s an attempt to make Edward Furlong as Danny (aka John Connor six years later) a heavier role, but he just has the same expression on his face all the time and recites pre-written lines in his essay.  Regarding this essay, we really don’t care about it; it’s just a plot device, and at the end of the film, a cheap attempt at sentimentalism due to an extremely improbable event. The cinematography leans on a post modern style, which is fine and works for the pace and content.

What are some themes in the film?

Racism, pride, forgiveness, conservative/liberal politics

Did this affect me personally?

Derek’s act of manslaughter is a scene for the ages.

Why is this ranked #31?

Once again, the Nazis are the bad guys. Norton’s performance is spectacular.  Despite its prosaic second half, the film has a relentless agenda of dismantling racism and reckoning with the consequences of your actions, something that appeals to a younger generation. 12 Years A Slave and The Help, both sub-par films, are also on the list for this reason.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She intentionally avoided watching this brutal film, at my suggestion.

Would I watch it again?

Nah.  Got it loud and clear.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Sure.  It’s a nice film, but it’s somewhat formulaic and the content is pretty rough (language and some violence).

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Probably not, and it certainly does not belong sandwiched between Casablanca and Saving Private RyanAmerican History X is propped up by likely Edward Norton’s best work, quality cinematography, and a premise everyone can get behind. Otherwise, it’s a somewhat pedestrian film that takes an interesting idea — a neo-Nazi we understand — and turns it into a public service announcement cleverly veiled in dramatic line delivery and violence.

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