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American History X (1998)

March 4th, 2008 · 8 Comments

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Synopsis
In Venice, California, Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) interrupts his skinhead brother Derek (Edward Norton) having sex with his girlfriend (Fairuza Balk). “There’s a Black guy outside. He’s breaking into your car.” Derek guns down two of the thieves on the lawn. Moving ahead a couple of years, Danny is called in for a chat with his high school principal, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks). Though hyper intelligent, Danny has taken after Derek in dress and ideology, selecting Adolf Hitler as the subject of a paper on civil rights.

Danny is instructed to write a new paper with his brother as the subject. Released from state prison after three years, Derek reunites with his ailing mother (Beverly D’Angelo) and progressive minded sister (Jennifer Lien), but is also paid a visit by a repulsive White Power lug (Ethan Suplee). Writing his paper, Danny recalls how his charismatic brother rallied displaced kids in the neighborhood and fed them messages of White Empowerment fanned by an ambitious gang organizer named Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach).

Derek emerges from prison a hero to some, but pays a visit to Cameron, tells him he’s done with the movement and to keep away from his family. Danny doesn’t understand why his brother has changed and to explain, Derek relates what happened to him in prison. It occurs to Danny that racism has been a part of their family since it was passed down by their deceased father. Both brothers begin to see things differently, but may have already made too many enemies to leave their old life behind.

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Production history
Graduating from San Diego State, David McKenna set out to write a screenplay about the impact of racism. Most of the movies he could think of had presented racists as “stupid and moronic rednecks.” McKenna wanted to create a racist who “we could sympathize and maybe understand.” Buyers weren’t interested. When New Line purchased McKenna’s script Jello Shots (ultimately released as Body Shots) president of production Michael DeLuca decided to roll the dice on American History X.

The studio’s choice to direct was Dennis Hopper. When Hopper passed, DeLuca was able to hire his choice, Tony Kaye, a director of TV commercials for Nike, Volvo and Guinness Stout among others. Kaye had yet to make a feature film. He proposed some unconventional ideas, including serving as his own DP and camera operator, and casting a non-actor from the streets as Derek Vinyard. Edward Norton wanted the role bad enough to submit to a screen test and to cut his salary in half. He was cast instead.

Put before a test audience in the fall of 1997, Kaye’s first cut of American History X scored surprisingly well. New Line made the unusual decision of allowing Edward Norton to supervise his own cut of the movie. According to Kaye, Norton padded the film by 40 additional minutes, while New Line maintained they could hardly tell the difference between the two versions. In June 1998, a new cut by Kaye that incorporated changes by Norton also tested well. When the studio proposed releasing the film, Kaye threatened to remove his name from the project.

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DeLuca compromised by giving Kaye eight weeks to work on the film. But instead of bringing in a new cut, Kaye came to a meeting with a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk (“I was looking for some help from God, anything that would give me the 10 extra weeks I needed to recut the picture.”) New Line released the film without Kaye’s consent. He was also denied by the DGA in a bid to be credited as “Humpty Dumpty.” Though Norton received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, American History X went unseen in theaters.

Opinion
Before sabotaging a promising film career, Kaye demonstrated a sharp eye for close-ups and for stirring angles, yet most admirably, never lets style get in front of story. The fact that American History X has endured in spite of the furor between the director and studio speaks volumes about how good the movie is. No amount of bizarre publicity diminishes the strong material by David McKenna or the riveting performance by Edward Norton, one of the most memorable from any actor during the ‘90s.

What’s unique about the film is its gripping narrative, which uses a term paper to jump backwards and forwards in time. The story is bold in both its structure and its ideas, chronicling a racist’s path from impressionable teen, to intelligent yet volatile youth, and then as an adult who is confronted by truth. Edward Norton commands the screen, but receives excellent support as he does from the cast, particularly Furlong, and from Joe Torry as the convict who enables Derek to face the lies he’s conditioned himself to believe.

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Jon Kern at Jiminy Critic writes, “American History X goes wrong when it relies on such hammy story points as a prison life education of reality. The film veers off into schmaltz in such moments. The emotionally obvious score by Anne Dudley and Kaye’s array of cliched ad techniques borrowed from Michael Bay leave an equally super sweet taste in your mouth, leaving you feeling bitter and cheated out of a potentially great movie.”

“When you think about it, American History X almost seems like what a very clever, very subtle white supremacist might produce. It seems like it is a riff on the problems of racism, but under the surface, the movie carries a slightly different message … In the end, because the filmmakers weren’t willing to delve deeper into the brutality of Derek’s deeds or the banality of his thought, the movie undercuts its own message,” writes The Warden at Prison Flicks.

Joshua Klein at The Onion A.V. Club writes, “Hype or no hype – or, for that matter, good movie or no good movie – it’s impossible to deny the power of Edward Norton’s portrayal of a young skinhead leader going through a moral metamorphosis … Where the movie falters, though, is in its tedious moralizing, cartoonish bogeymen, and ultimately naïve take on race relations in America today.”

“Can we just drop this Rodney King thing?” Edward Norton earns his Academy Award nomination in a scene from American History X.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Brother/sister relationship · Coming of age · High school · Master and pupil · Mother/son relationship

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Mar 4, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Wow, what a fantastic choice, and great write-up. I bet people would name 20 great movies from the 90’s before naming this one. Nice work.

  • 2 Fletch // Mar 4, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    I too am a lover of this film, though if I recall correctly, I was lucky enough to see it in the theater (albeit a discount theater, but a theater nonetheless).

    Norton not winning the Oscar for this performance will always go down as one of the all-time snubs in my book. His performance was beyond deserving.

    I, like others, do have some problems with the movie. It’s not perfect, after all. I’ve never cared all that much for the ending – I don’t hate it, but it smacks of melodrama rather than actual drama. Still, that’s a minor complaint.

  • 3 Chuck // Mar 5, 2008 at 7:11 am

    American History X is undeniably intense and effective, but, despite the interesting intention of a more relatable racist, the film, to me anyway, has always had a kind of B movie stacking of the deck thing going on.

    It feels too neat and closed at the end. The term paper as narrative thread is a bit hokey, a bit too after school special. These characters should be allowed to break away from the tethers of a strict morality play. The picture’s biggest asset is also probably it’s biggest weakness: that intensity. You feel as if Kaye, Norton and whoever else are continually clubbing you over the head with the MESSAGE, MESSAGE, MESSAGE.

    But if one had to make an after school special, this is certainly the way to make it. I haven’t seen X in years but I can recall many sequences, which is saying something (particularly that gruesome murder on the sidewalk). And Norton is wonderful.

    Good work here Joe. And I didn’t know about Hopper being offered the part, I didn’t think he was that viable in the Hollywood game at that point, though I could certainly see the director of Colors taking on American History X.

    And, of course, Daniel and Fletch just said many of the same things I did. I should really read the comments before tooting my own horn. Sorry guys!

  • 4 Elizabeth Bohn // Mar 5, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    This is a fantastic movie and a great review. I’ve always liked it, but I had no idea what went into the making of the film. I can always count on your reviews for background that I wouldn’t find anywhere else. I don’t think the movie would have been the same without Edward Norton, he is a fantastic actor.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Mar 5, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Daniel: I could hardly find a single review of this movie that didn’t have some problem with it. The lone exception was Gene Siskel, who was recovering from brain surgery at the time. Movies that deal with racism seem to still make people very, very uncomfortable, as evidenced by all the bile directed toward Crash. In terms of narrative and casting, few films of the ’90s were this excellent. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment!

    Dylan: Roberto Benigni was awarded Best Actor over Norton, so in terms of miscarriages of justice by members of the Academy or their wives or whoever actually votes, you’re right, that was one of the biggest boners in Oscar history. I really hate Life Is Beautiful and Benigni’s work in general. I need to relax here. I’m glad I’m not a minority on my opinion for American History X and welcome your comments here. Thanks!

    Chuck: The case you made about what doesn’t work with American History X is the most cogent I’ve read yet. Strangely, I didn’t feel like I was being clobbered with messages while I was watching this particular film, but do detest that facet in other dramas. As for Hopper, he seems to adopt more mainstream acceptance the older he gets, from Blue Velvet to Speed to now starring in commercials for Ameriprise Financial. Who ever saw the Easy Rider dude selling retirement plans?

    Elizabeth: Don’t flatter me. You could find this information in three or four other places. Thanks as always for commenting.

  • 6 Nayana Anthony // Mar 20, 2008 at 9:28 am

    This movie is why Edward Norton is my favorite actor.

  • 7 carolina // Aug 28, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Edward Norton is so sexy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The movie is a cool one.

  • 8 stian h // Sep 1, 2008 at 6:57 am

    i love that movie:D

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