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'American History X' at XXV
The Edward Norton skinhead drama has aged very, VERY poorly.
Unlike Jason X, Fast X, or Saw X, American History X is NOT the tenth entry in a long-running franchise. There is, technically, an in-story reason why the movie is called American History X, but it’s pretty dumb, and clearly, the name was chosen solely on the basis of sounding hip and edgy. I’d wager all the sauerkraut in Germany that some marketing executive pitched a title treatment where the ‘X’ was a swastika, but I guess this was a rare instance of better taste prevailing in Hollywood.
American History X was first released on October 30, 1998 to a whole lotta hullabaloo. The hype was due, in part, to its disturbing subject matter… but was mostly due to its behind-the-scenes drama. While technically the feature filmmaking debut of the British commercial and music video director Tony Kaye (his credits include the extremely popular clip for Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train”), American History X belonged to star Edward Norton - and I do mean “belonged.” Not yet thirty-years-old, Norton had already scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his first-ever movie, Primal Fear, and his star was very much on the rise. When Kaye and Norton’s clashed creatively, the studio, New Line Cinema, sided with Norton. Kaye was kicked out of the editing room, where Norton took over; the director ultimately disowned the film, going so far as to try and have his name removed from its credits (he failed, thanks to the intervention of the DGA) while spending tens of thousands of dollars of his own money taking out ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter that slammed Norton and New Line via the not-at-all-self-important use of quotes by Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon. I suspect he thought this was going to be a case not unlike Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where the studio took the movie away from the director until Gilliam made a big public stink which ultimately persuaded the studio to release the filmmaker’s original vision.
Poor Tony Kaye, however, was not as fortunate as Terry Gilliam. Norton got another Oscar nod, this time for Best Actor (likely to Harvey Weinstein’s chagrin), while Kaye’s career was all but derailed: He’s only made three additional features since, and one of them was never even released outside of a few film festivals.
I was 16 when American History X came out, and at the time, I thought it was brilliant. And while you’d think everything that has happened in America in the past decade would make the movie feel all the more searing and relevant, my big takeaway from a recent re-watch was that there’s a reason we don’t generally value the cinematic tastes of teenagers.
American History X follows Derek Vinyard, the favored apprentice of a prominent neo-Nazi (Stacy Keach). Derek is much beloved by his gang of fellow skinheads, including his younger brother, Danny (Terminator 2’s Edward Furlong, giving a next-level awful performance), his girlfriend, Stacey (Fairuza Balk from The Craft, only marginally better than Furlong), and his best friend, Seth (character actor Ethan Suplee, who comes off as Sir Laurence Olivier by comparison). As the film opens, Derek is getting out of jail for the brutal murder of some young Black men he caught trying to steal his car, and despite receiving a hero’s welcome home from all his old pals, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s no longer invested in the fight for White power. The movie shifts between the present day, filmed in color, and flashbacks, filmed in black-and-white, gradually cluing us in on the origin of Derek’s hateful beliefs, the horrid nature of the crime that sent him to prison, and the experience he suffered while incarcerated that made him see the error of his ways. He spends most of the story attempting to reclaim Danny, lest his younger sibling go down the same misguided path he did, but doesn’t succeed in time to prevent tragic results.
I’ve obviously never seen Kaye’s iteration of the film, which reportedly may have included interviews with real-life skinheads, narration written by the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott, and an even bleaker conclusion in which Derek ultimately reverts to his White supremacist ways. Having said that, I can’t imagine there’s any version of American History X that could ever have been good, unless there was a page one rewrite before they started filming. The didactic, pretentious screenplay is basically a slightly-better-than-average after school special.
Little wonder, that: It was penned by David McKenna, whose other credits include the Sylvester Stallone version of Get Carter, the movie adaptation of the television show S.W.A.T., and a vacuous video game based on Brian De Palma’s Scarface, which imagines that Al Pacino’s Tony Montana survived at the end of the film so that he could go live out a poor man’s Grand Theft Auto. McKenna’s scripts, in other words, are an affront to the trees killed to make the paper on which they were printed. I’m not even sure what Kaye and Norton would have found appealing about the project, other than it gave them the chance to be provocative.
That the potential to shock was attractive to the filmmakers seems evident from the casting of William Russ as Derek’s racist father. Russ is most famous for his role as the all-American dad on the decidedly G-rated sitcom Boy Meets World; his appearance here is stunt casting, like if they’d gotten Florence Henderson to play a member of the KKK in Mississippi Burning. The gambit might have worked, too, if American History X wasn’t so unbearably ham-handed (Beverly D’Angelo plays Derek’s mom, but given that Ellen Griswold from the Vacation movies was never exactly June Cleaver, that casting doesn’t feel as meaningful).
Kaye also served as the movie’s cinematographer, and he came up with some decent shots - by which I mean that, like any second-year NYU film student, he figured out that if you shoot something in slo-mo black-and-white and set it to a histrionic score, it will likely seem affecting.
But every other element of this film is clunky. There’s an expositional scene early on where a school principle, played by Avery Brooks, attends a meeting of local law enforcement officers tasked with shutting down Keach’s operation. Derek was one of Brooks’ former students, and Danny is one of his current students - but that doesn’t explain why the cops would deputize him, let alone why he has so much intel they lack. Half the people in the room seem to have never heard of Keach’s character before. It’s always hard to figure out a way to sneak necessary exposition into a story, but come ON.
In fact, Brooks’ character is wholly extraneous. From a narrative standpoint, he exists to solely assign Danny a paper, “American History X” (ugh), which allows for Danny to provide narration that really hammers everything home for the audience’s slowest members; he’s also the guy who goes to visit Derek in jail after Derek is raped by a gang of his fellow neo-Nazis to convince Derek to give up his evil ways. Which a) again, doesn’t make much practical sense (do they freely let public school administrators into the hospitals at maximum security prisons?), and b) seems especially stupid because, y’know, Derek was just raped, and probably doesn’t need convincing at this point that skinheads aren’t the swell dudes he thought them to be.
I admit I’m being cynical here, but Brooks’ character was written as a Black man, and I think the real reason he’s in the movie is so that there’s at least one person of color in the film who isn’t an awful stereotype. Every other Black person we encounter during the course of the narrative is a boilerplate gangbanger who seems to have just arrived from a very special episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s hard to take a movie arguing against racism seriously when it is, itself, racist.
The near-exclusive portrayal of Black men as a Fox News host’s worst nightmare would be galling enough (not a single prominent member of American History X’s creative team was Black, by the way), even if the movie wasn’t just one long lecture for dumb people who honestly didn’t realize that racism was still a problem and self-congratulatory liberals like the ones Phil Ochs sang about thirty years prior to this film’s release (“I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes/As long as they don't move next door”). Scene after scene, the script finds lousy excuses for Derek to make racist assertions and dismiss the views of those who oppose him. In one sequence, he argues with a Jewish teacher who is dating his mother (played by Elliot Gould, who must be in the movie because he lost a bet or something), and they just outright express every homiletic thought that comes into their head. It feels like a bunch of people screaming op-eds at one another, not a conversation between real human beings.
It’s especially grating because the movie thinks the audience is stupid - there’s not a single thought in any of these debates that hasn’t already occurred to any college-educated adult who has ever given even a fleeting honest thought to the issue of racism in America. As I said - this movie is best suited for people just coming out of a coma and learning about modern bigotry and the kinds of folks who like to listen to sermons and nod their head in agreement (and, uh, 16-year-olds, I guess).
The cherry on top of this shit sundae is Norton himself. He is, indeed, a great actor… but his ego is also all over this thing. The flashbacks are, technically, being seen through the eyes of his adoring younger brother, which helps explain why Norton often ends up seeming so “cool” (for lack of a better word). But it’s still liable to induce a rolling of the eyes. When we first meet him, he’s having sex with Balk’s character, and she… is… LOVING it. He then executes multiple targets with incredible precision. Later, he leads the neo-Nazis to victory on the basketball court by dunking (!!!) on the Black men against whom they’re playing. I have to wonder if Norton disliked Kaye’s original cut of the film at least in part because it didn’t make him seem like a hyper-masculine movie star.
In what I’m sure Kaye sees as karma, ten years after American History X, Norton went on to star in Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk, where he once again tried to assert creative control - only this time, he famously lost. Now it was he who was kicked out of the editing room and forced to sit by while a version of the movie he disliked was released (the WGA also denied him the screenwriting credit he claims he was owed). Adding injury to insult, Marvel sacked him before beginning production on The Avengers, recasting the role with Mark Ruffalo; the Marvel movies in which Ruffalo has appeared have grossed a combined $8.5 billion dollars. Norton’s career isn’t in bad shape or anything, but for a guy who clearly thinks very highly of himself, it has to sting to know he was so easily replaceable.
Meanwhile, in 2020 Kaye announced he was going to make a sort of pseudo-sequel to American History X, titled, I shit you not, African History Y. That project was set to star to Djimon Honsou (Amistad, Gladiator), but obviously hasn’t materialized at this point. However, I freely admit that I’d be curious to see it if it ever does - assuming the script isn’t written by David McKenna.