Forceful `American History X' comments on racial hatred
Scene Movie Critic
It is an unexplained phenomenon that some of the worst movies become audience hits, and some of the most influential movies go unrecognized for years and sometimes forever.
"American History X," a 1998 drama directed by Tony Kaye, contains messages that represent some of the most thought out and progressive ideas about reversing racism. It made 6.7 million dollars, which left its production company, New Line Cinema, holding the bag on the 10 million dollar budget. Since moviegoers failed to embrace "American History X," its availability on video (and this article) will hopefully inspire someone to rent it and share the movie's message with their friends.
"American History X" stars Edward Norton ("Fight Club," "Keeping the Faith") and Edward Furlong ("Terminator 2," "Detroit Rock City") as brothers living in Venice Beach, Calif. Norton's character, Derek Vinyard, has fallen into the seedy underbelly of the town's white power organization, lead by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach).
Derek has become the inspiration for many bored and easily influenced whites looking to blame anyone for their lower-middle class woes. He becomes the mouthpiece for Cameron, and he is quickly idolized.
It is during the movie's opening sequence that the progression of Derek's hatred is mapped out: a car-jacking by two black men leads Derek to commit double homicide and subsequent jail time.
The rest of the movie alternates between Derek's release from prison (and subsequent reintegration into his family) and a series of flashbacks that explain Derek's path to racism.
It is up to the reformed Derek to reestablish himself as an influence in his brother Danny's life, and to save him from continuing the legacy of hate that Derek himself started. Derek must come in conflict with his old leader, his old friends and, most importantly, his old ideals, to rescue Danny from the Venice Beach white power group he helped create.
It is through striking visual examples that Derek's racism is displayed.
Derek organizes the ransacking of a Korean owned store because he believes the words that have been force-fed to him by Alexander.
The scariest part is that, listening to his speech before the militants destroy the convenience mart, his speech sounds almost logical. Derek remarks, "The state spent three billion dollars last year on services for those people who had no right to be here in the first place. This is about your life and mine. It's about decent hard-working Americans falling into the cracks and getting the shaft because their government cares more about the constitutional rights of a bunch of people who aren't even citizens in this country. On the statue of liberty it says: `Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor.' Well, it's Americans who are tired and hungry and poor. And I say, until you take care of that, close the book."
There is one great flaw in this tirade, however. Whatever race, whatever nationality, our country represents opportunity. That opportunity is exhibited only when all races work together for a common prosperity. It is not the blacks or the Koreans that are the whites' enemies, as Derek has stated. Just because Derek's European grandfathers came over and established land here, which subsequently guaranteed citizenship to him upon birth, does not give Derek or any of his white power friends an excuse to exclude people.
This new message is represented in a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which, incidentally, represents Danny's conversion at the conclusion of the movie: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
In prison, Derek at first resolves to adhere to his "white power" ideals. It is only after Derek finds himself at his lowest position in life that he decides to make changes.
Raped and humiliated, Derek is laid up in a hospital. He receives a visit from one of his high school teachers. This teacher, Sweeney, a black man, asks him the question that changes his life: "Has anything you've done made your life better?"
Derek realizes in those crucial moments that his life has been represented so far by a web of lies: lies that Cameron feeds him, untruths in the sermons he preaches and lies that have spread into his household.
It is also in discussions with Lamont, a black inmate and laundry partner, that Derek realizes the absurdity of what he has preached outside of prison. He also comes to understand the correct conclusion that, regardless of race, he should be helping unify our country and embracing its diversity.
When Derek is released from prison, his only concern is removing Danny from Cameron's "club." Convincing Danny to leave this group behind is not easy, but it is an act of utmost love on Derek's part.
In the movie's most touching moment, Derek utters, "I need you to understand. Because I love you and you're my best friend." Derek is tired of everything: tired of feeling mad at the world, tired of feeling empty and tired of not being a proper role model for his brother.
The intervention is a successful one: Danny is reformed. However, he still has a large debt to repay society for all the hate he spread before Derek came home. The movie addresses this fact in much the same way "American Beauty" handled Kevin Spacey's life reformation. Acting reformed does not just wipe the slate clean.
At the conclusion of the movie, Danny's words ring all too true: "Hate is just baggage."
It's never too late to watch an inspiring movie; don't let "American History X's" message go unheard.
After all, it is up to everyone to make America truly a land of "equal opportunity."
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, September 21, 2000