Edward Norton, so the story goes, was so surprised to be nominated for an Oscar this year that when someone congratulated him that January morning, he had to ask, “For what?”
For what was American History X, and it’s hard to imagine that Norton didn’t realize how extraordinary his performance was. As Derek Vinyard, a skinhead leader of a white-power organization utterly transformed by a spell in prison, Norton is by turns frightening and heartbreaking, angry and serene. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in film with a more believably wide range. In the hands of a less capable actor, Derek could have been a laughable parody, and American History X a heavy-handed disaster. But Derek never descends to stereotype, and X is a penetrating look at the effects of racism and hatred on its adherents.
American History X opens in stark black-and-white, as Derek’s younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), witnesses Derek murder two black gang members, whom Derek interrupted as they tried to steal his car. It’s the first of many graphic, sickeningly disturbing scenes — not only is the violence brutal, but so is Derek’s reaction to it: He smiles with smug satisfaction while the police bark at him as they place him under arrest.
Flash forward a few years, when Derek, convicted merely of manslaughter, is released from prison and returns home. Immediately, we can tell this is a new Derek — with his demeanor alone, Norton shows us that Derek is no longer the tightly coiled knot of anger he once was; this Derek is calmer, at peace with himself. Through brother Danny, we’ll learn how Derek was remade.
Danny, who idolized his older brother, has picked up where Derek left off: shaving his head, hanging out with a skinhead gang, writing a school paper extolling the virtues of Mein Kampf and declaring Hitler a civil rights hero. The high school principal, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) — a tough, street-smart kinda guy who, in his outreach work with gangs, helped Derek while he was in prison — now orders Danny to write a new paper to replace the report on Mein Kampf: he’s to analyze Derek’s influence on him. And Derek, determined to save Danny from the hell he’s been through, shares with his brother his experience in prison, where he faced harsh realities that caused him to reconsider the path he’d taken.
These two interconnected tracks of memories — Danny’s and Derek’s — show us how frighteningly easy it is for “insecure, frustrated and impressionable kids” to slide down a self-destructive path, especially when given a push by adults who use them. American History X is disquieting because it is realistic — scary racist skinheads aren’t somebody else’s problem, they’re the kids in your neighborhood, maybe even your own kids, whether their heads are shaved or not. The hatred that spews from Derek in the desolate black-and-white flashbacks — as we watch him recruit kids for the local white-power group and berate anyone who isn’t a “white Protestant” — is painfully raw, but it’s never less than credible.
While a trifle preachy at times, American History X is a profound, if harsh, film about how the bond of love between brothers can also be a conduit of hate. The faint of heart may cringe, but this is a film that should be seen by everyone.