American History X (1998)

I generally don’t make it a point to hate things. Sure, there are plenty of things I have a strong dislike for, but I hardly actively hate things. However, there are a category of films I truly hate, and those are films about hate. I just can’t stand them. Why all the hate? Among these films are a large group of films about racism that do nothing for me at all.

Films like Crash, Do the Right Thing, Gran Torino and To Kill a Mockingbird are all films that I don’t care for. The problem with racially related films is that they are so heavy-handed, so bombastic, so permeated with making it clear to the audience that racism is bad. Hey, I think most people have figured that out by now. Remember that whole civil rights movement? It won, right? So why are you trying so hard to prove racism is evil when it’s practically a foregone conclusion at this point?

American History X starts off on this point, the loud, bombastic, annoying film that makes sure that we damn well know that Neo-Nazi Derik Vinyard (Edward Norton) is evil. His entire introduction centers around him doing something really messed up stuff to a black person. And in case you didn’t catch what happens, the film makes sure the voiceovers let you know how screwed up this guy is.

However, the world isn’t that simple, there’s far more to it than one race of people hating another. There are reasons and personal justifications for Derek’s beliefs. While the depictions of racism might be grandiose and ridiculous, the film does something strange: it tries to get at the roots of what actually causes racism. Sure, it’s motivated by hate, but where does that hate come from?

It’s Danny (Edward Furlong), Derek’s brother, who has to ask this question when he’s given an assignment to write about his brother. In order to understand him, he has to understand the racism that drove his brother for so many years and shaped the community and environment he now lives in.

It’s a shame that the film then resorts to using crass, blunt and unwieldy film tools to explore the heart of racism. For all the thoughtful examinations, one has to endure the tedium of excessive slow-motion shots, trite voice-overs and cartoonish characters. It has the great potential to distance itself from the aggressive nature of so many films about racism, but instead falls in line to join the battle cry against racism.

The best moments of the film are the quietest and simplest scenes.  The most profound moment, the moment of revelation, and the most emotionally dark moment of the film is shot with no flairs, gives no huge dramatics. The words that inhibit the scene are simple, yet get at the heart of it all, show the huge gaping problem with the entire issue of racism.

The film should have been more of those moments. It could have started at the point of the typical film of this nature, but then evolved into something more mature, more complex and more compelling. Instead, it’s a film of a few great moments amid a lot of poorly implemented ones. Its high points are fantastic, but they’re easy to miss when the film spends so much time yelling at the audience through a megaphone.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing