Thursday, February 04, 2010

American History X: Grade A


American History X (1998)

Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Stacy Keach, Elliot Gould. Director Tony Kaye.

This gem of a movie had slipped by me so I was glad I picked it up from Netflix, which is strong on backlist. Norton, one of the finest actors working today, plays a Crypto-Nazi racist in Los Angeles. But unlike most racist baboons, his character is intelligent and can articulate extremely well the fear, helplessness, and xenophobia that underlie racism. Actually there are a couple of speeches where his mouth is so full of words that we lose the sense of character. That is the writer’s fault, not his.

Intelligent and intuitive though he is, he is nevertheless a violent scumbag, and ends up serving three years in prison for killing two black guys (pretty light sentence, actually). While in the joint (where he is informed that “he is the nigger here”), his high-school aged brother (Furlong), who worships him, drifts ever deeper into the local Nazi movement, led by Keach.

After prison, Norton has a more mature, tolerant attitude. We see his transformation in beautiful black and white flashback scenes that tell a wonderful substory. He is dismayed by his young brother’s extreme attitudes and is rejected by his old crowd, which has become even more violent and crazy than before.

Directing and the script too, are extremely clunky in the first half hour, so much so that I thought the film would be unwatchable, but it is worth sticking with it because it all smoothes out. They must have had a second crew create the beginning as a separate project, because its quality is really out of line with the rest.

The film’s message is overtly preachy (“racism is bad”), and the story is only just barely believable because it does not address the facts that these skinhead types are very uneducated and living way outside of society’s economic and social structures. It takes more than “a change in attitude” to correct those problems. Still, Norton’s character's development is plausible, and his acting alone is worth the price of admission.

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