Sunday, January 20, 2008

American Hisotry X, a film by Tony Kay (1998)

Without realising it, I saw some of this on TV a couple of weeks ago: it looked awful. This horrible skinhead with Nazi insignia tattooed on his body was having a row with his family - making his mum feel awful for daring to date a Jew, making the Jew in question leave the house, hitting his sister. Worse, his brother was saying "I still trust you". I did not know the movie, but if I had known it was American History X, there is no way I would have taken the DVD out of the shop. As it was, when I saw it, I though "hmm, that's supposed to be good, I'll give it a go".

And it was good, the performances were spot on, even by minor characters such as Stacey, although I don't know that I completely buy the transformation that overcome Derek Vinyard (Ed Norton) while he was in prison. He'd been put there for killing a couple of African-Americans - one he might have got away with, as it could have been self defence, but the other was a gratuitous, hate-inspired killing. It didn't help that Derek
was caught up in some sort of white supremacy outfit. He had the fellow put his head on the kerb, mouth open, and just stomped him on the back of the head. In jail, his early alliances were with other white supremacists: naturally, he lived in fear of the African-Americans in jail with him. He seems to have spent quite a bit of his time inside assigned to working with one, but refusing to talk with him.

But things change for Derek when he realises that his fellow supremacists are tossers and decides to go it alone (is the prison population really made up of just white supremacists and those they hate?). Only now do things start to lighten up between him and his co-worker: I think the idea is that Derek finally gets to see him as being a human being, rather than some black cypher, and that this transforms his whole world-view. Mind you, the co-worker does seem to have done a lot to deserve Derek's admiration, by keeping him safe.

Derek is revered by his little brother Danny, so Danny naturally follows in his footsteps. The film is largely told through his eyes, with flashbacks: he is writing an essay for his teacher about his relationship with Derek, just after Derek has been released from jail. This is a huge moment for the white supremacist group: somehow word has not got to them of Derek's change of heart, and so he is welcomed as a hero.

I think it would have been incredibly easy for Derek to just fall back on his old ways, take the worship that was being offered. Instead, he takes the hard road: his old "friends" now see him as being "no better than a nigger". Of course, the big thing for him to worry about is Danny: he wants him out, he wants to maintain his relationship with him and the whole relationship is based upon their shared hatred. When Danny confronts Derek, Derek sits him down and just tells him what happened while he was in jail: the honesty is supposedly enough to have Danny reverse his attitude. It all seemed just a little bit too contrived to me, as if this transformation could be so easily achieved. Of course, as anyone who has seen the movie knows, it was all a bit too late: the last sequences of the movie have such a feeling of foreboding to them, that it was obvious something bad was about to happen.



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