Let us get this out of the way before diving into some very deep waters. I am a big Ed Norton fan. One of the things I like most about him is he is not afraid to play an unsympathetic character. I admire this because certain actors--Ralph Fiennes after playing the sadistic Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List is a big example--can completely ruin their ability to play morally decent characters in other films as far as I am concerned. No Fiennes here. It really just means he played the commandant very well. What it means for Notton is he is such a fine actor, I can enjou him in anything and believe his character no matter how polar opposite the character might be from other roles Norton has played.
That said, American History X is one of those films I do not particularly enjoy outside of Norton’s performance. Even with that, I think the film features his worst performance ever. I blame it mostly on the material. American History X wants to say something profound, but just does not have the voice. Some elements come off as far too convenient to be believed. Others are far too preachy. The original ending is so cynical, it wound up being dialed down to the tragedy of the main character’s effort to fail. How depressing is that?
Norton plays Derek Vinyard, the older brother to Daniel, played by the just as troubled in real life as his character here Edward furlong. Derek and daniel’s father was a firefighter killed by a black drug dealer when he was battling a blaze in south Central Los Angeles. His father’s murder compels Derek to join the skinhead movement, for which he fully immerses himself. He hates blacks and immigrants of all races, and justifies his racism by rationalizing they are all prone to criminal behavior and mooching off the wealth of whites.
Derek is arrested one night for curtb stomping a young black man who is attempting to steal his late father’s truck. Derek is convicted of voluntarily manslaughter and sent to prison. In prison, he befriends a black0 inmate. Despite some brutal bullying by the white supremacist population, he shuns them for his new friend. He gains a new perspective on life. When he is released, however, he discovers daniel is headed down the same path towards joining the skinheads as he did. Derek determines to stop him.
I can appreciate much of Derek’s struggle and even some of the hokey symbolism. For example, the film is in black and white until Derek abandons his racist philosophy. The remainder of the film is shown in color enter--assuming you have seen the original ending rather than the usual edit--he reverts in the final scene. But I have a tough time accepting his journey as plausible. Derek is a hardcore racist who gives no quarter and is ready, willing, and able--not to mention does--kill a black man for attempting to steal his father’s truck. Yet in a snap, he befriends a black man in prison and eschews his old ways in a snap. What is the catalust for that/ there is not one other than the necessity of furthering the main plot, which is to save his brother.
The main plot is not particularly dealt with other than scattered bits until halfway through the film. This is still Derek’s story to the point I was not as interested in his brother’s turn towards the skinhead movement as I was Derek’s attempt to shed his old life and fit in with his new. It is not a good thing when you are not as interested in the heart of the story as you are the set up that gets you there. It is doublt bad when Derek fails. Daniel is eventually murdered because of his racist activities. That is sad enough, but if you have seen the original ending in which Derek is shaving his head again, obviously in preparation to rejoin the skinhead movement, even the absorbing part wound up meaningless.
American History X could have been a whole lot more than it is with a better script. There is a profound lack of understanding of human nature on display. I do not believe Derek can cast off his hatred as easily as he did. Nor do I think he would shun other imprisoned skinheads, much less befriend a black guy. I am skeptical a black guy would make friends with him, either, particularly in a prison environment in which inmates of various races watch out for their own. It is a far too optimistic development. However, the course correction towards the opposite direction for the ending is jarring to the point of melodrama.
One often disturbing aspect of the film is how often the racist ideology, spoken adamantly by Derek, Daniel, et al, is not always counterbalanced. In the very first scene, Derek offers an a strong speech about how much illegal immigrants are costing the state of California. Then he complains about immigrants taking jobs away from whites before leading an assault on a grovery store owned and operated by minorities. You can almost hear people agreeing with his sentiments before the brutalization of his violent act tears it all down. But that is a rare moment. In many other instances, racist demagoguery goes unanswered outside of the implausibly fast changing of Derek’s mind, which I do not feel is enough to carry the film.
I do not necessarily recommend American History X. There are other films that deal will racial issues in a far more competent, mature manner. If you want to see a good exploration of the absurdity of racism, seek out just about anything else that does not qualify as blaxploitation and you will be better off. Norton is good in this, mind you, and if you are a fan, you should not miss him. Watching the film will leave you longing for a better creative team to have built the film around him, however.
Rating: ** (out of 5)