The Truth About White Supremacy: American History X

The Truth About White Supremacy: American History X

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The Truth About White Supremacy: American History X

     As a Hispanic, I suppose I should expect or, be prepared, rather, for racism and discrimination. Thankfully, I have not experienced either.. yet. Our world is not perfect; things take place that we rather not know about, but ignoring the problem seems to only make matters worse. The movie American History X, is an admirable attempt to inform us about these types of malicious ignorance that plague our society. The impeccable acting, artistic cinematography, occasional adrenaline-pumping score, and slightly faulted, though award-worthy script, all combine to create an overall exceptional film. American History X should not be immediately dismissed as an archetypal account of a controversial issue, it provides much more than what an audience would expect from a movie of this nature; it is an innovative drama about the unfortunate consequences of racism in a family that is surprisingly yet, frighteningly realistic.
     The dynamic that greatly contributes to the efficiency of American History X, is the illustrious acting. Edward Norton flawlessly plays Derek Vinyard, the main character in American History X, who is angered by the murder of his father by two African-American persons who then, therefore, turns to the world of Neo-Nazism searching for comfort toward his father’s death and for further justification for the hatred he has towards the murderers. After being released from prison for serving a three-year sentence of manslaughter after brutally murdering two black individuals, Derek comes out a changed man who no longer persecutes blacks and other minority figures for invading and tragically altering the life of “true” Americans. Edward Norton is more than perfect for this role. In his “Believe Me” film review site, Jeffery Huston explains, “With this performance, Norton emerges as one of the very best actors working in film today.” Norton’s performance was indeed electrifying. One particular scene in the film that shows the phenomenal talent he possesses, is the incident that shows us what his character was incarcerated for. After brutally murdering two black victims, police quickly arrive and begin to place Derek under arrest. Norton shines as his character is being seized; as he sets his hands on his head and slowly turns, he meets eyes with his horrified brother, Danny, who witnessed everything, and triumphantly smirks as the sinister expression in his glistening eyes reveals unsettling satisfaction, then smugly raises his eyebrows as if asking his younger brother if he is impressed.

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The look in Norton’s eyes is so disconcerting and so powerful that one might question whether he’s just acting. Not many actors possess the talent to alter the expression of their eyes to suit the emotion they are trying to portray, but Norton does this with ease. Natural talent is invincible. Hutson goes on to say, “[N]orton [. . .] is able to humanize Derek without taking it to a level of empathy. It is a responsible acting effort, one where sympathy is eventually evoked, but not to the extent of absolving responsibility for Derek’s actions.” It is no lie that the audience slowly begins to understand where Derek is coming from, but agreeing with him is a very rare occurrence. In another intense scene, Norton is seated at the dining room table with his family and Murray, his mother’s boyfriend. In this particular flashback, Murray is informing Danny about an incident concerning some black individuals who set off a riot in a neighborhood grocery store. Norton, annoyed by Murray’s later lenient justification for these type of incidents, interrupts the conversation, opposing him by arguing intelligently that blacks must have a “racial commitment to crime”, and that U.S. citizens are “alleviating the responsibility that [minorities] have for their own actions” trying to excuse whatever it is they do with a “it’s not crime, it’s poverty” attitude. The discussion soon becomes heated, and abruptly becomes physical as Norton tries to force his sister, Davina, to sit down once she attempts to excuse herself, by pulling her back by her hair and aggressively thrusts a piece of roast beef into her mouth, forcefully telling her that she needs to “learn some manners”. After much struggle, Davina breaks free. Norton’s hostility is then directed towards Murray as he aggregately rips off his button-up shirt, looks him in the eye and curls his left lip upward to form an ominous, mock-threatened smirk. He vulgarly emphasizes that Murray has no right to enter their household and act like a part of their family, then accordingly lowers the neck of his muscle shirt to reveal the infamous, largely tattooed swastika on his chest and assertively declares, “You see this? It means NOT WELCOME!” Norton’s performance greatly contributes to the immaculate portrayal of Derek as an intelligent man blinded by the discriminatory rage that resulted from his father’s death in American History X. Without him, Derek Vinyard would have been left better as a thought. In his San Francisco Chronicle review, Mick LaSalle sort of parallels Huston’s comment by stating, “Even in the grip of passion, [Norton] acts as though he’s a reasonable guy, leading from his head.” This observation is quite true about Norton’s reasoning. Norton is not just any other skinhead who discriminates against minorities for insufficient reasons; he despises them, fairly justifies for why he does so, and takes himself and the “white movement” very seriously.
Edward Furlong commendably plays Danny Vinyard, Derek’s younger, impressionable brother. Danny idolizes his older brother, and strives to become the legend Derek is in their white supremacist gang. At the beginning, we are introduced to Danny, warning his brother of the black thieves in a flashback, but we do not really begin to get to know him until the movie returns to the present. He is in the principal’s office, being reprimanded for writing a Mein Kampf paper for his history class. As a result, his principal, Bob Sweeny, assigns him a new paper that he is to write on the events leading to Derek’s incarceration, and the impact it and the Neo-Nazi life has had on he and his family. Danny’s paper is used as narration throughout the movie. Edward Furlong’s performance gives us the ability to see Danny as a good kid, who unfortunately, is easily influenced by the life his brother leads. Huston states, “Furlong delivers a sad, poignant performance of a young impressionable kid caught in racism’s crossfire.” I agree with Huston; Furlong does a remarkable job in portraying Danny Vinyard by bringing him to life as a three-dimensional person. Going back to the scene where Derek brutally murders his victims, Furlong meticulously reacts to Derek’s vile actions as if it’s never been rehearsed. While his brother drags the last victim to the curb, Furlong looks on with restrained anticipation. However, as soon as Derek intolerantly instructs the victim to put his mouth on the curb, he immediately tries to take action. Furlong dashes towards his brother with hopes to stop him, but the sound of a skull being crushed against the pavement tells him it is too late. Furlong immediately halts himself as his eyes widen and his jaw drops, horror-struck. The look in his eyes is so shaken, and so natural that it truly reinforces the fineness of his performance. Huston also comments on the quality of Furlong’s character, “Danny Vinyard, is a fully developed, three-dimensional person.” Yes, indeed, we as the audience become attached to Danny because we are allowed to hear the thoughts and feelings he does not verbally express to others. After revisiting the gruesome night that sent Derek to prison, Furlong is sitting at his computer, documenting the feelings he experienced as he witnessed the deaths of the two black victims: “I’d never seen someone die before. The sound of that kid’s head splitting open on the curb went right through me. It stayed in my dreams for months, until slowly it changed to something I couldn’t recognize. The scary thing is, it doesn’t bother me anymore. For a long time, I thought that night was proof that Derek was right.” With the last sentence, the audience can see the transformation from an angry, White Supremacist teenager to an open-minded young man begin. Danny no longer is the annoying, ignorant brat we were introduced to, but an emotionally scarred boy whom we are able to understand entirely.
Besides acting, American History X is also known for it’s exquisite cinematography. During flashbacks, Tony Kaye, who is also the film’s cinematographer, uses black and white to portray the time in which certain scenes took place, and the mental state of being. The artistic idea portrays Derek hateful state of mind, as he sees everything no differently than black and white; there are not any shady areas of gray just as there is no fine line between racism and racial tolerance. This was a superb idea on Kaye’s part. His talent for cinematography brilliantly stands out in American History X, as he helps to develop the characters in a way that others have trouble doing so. His ideas and thought on the controversial matter also are given the opportunity to shine through with his work. After Derek was disturbingly raped in the prison shower, his head is banged against the shower wall and falls to the floor overwhelmed with pain. The camera zooms out to show his body lying helpless on the floor and water flows around him, taking his blood with the current. It then zooms in on his “White Power” tattoo, and cuts to a wide shot, once again, of Derek lying on the ground. These angles show the truth about White Supremacy, as Derek was raped by those he thought were “his people”. The focus on his tattoo shows there is no such thing as “White Power” if fellow skinheads treat each other the same as they do blacks. Kaye’s portrayal of Derek as a White Supremacist messiah is also amazing. As Derek turns with his arms outstretched towards the side during his arrest, after committing the murders that catapulted him into prominence and led others to think of him as a god, Kaye uses slow motion as the haunting score slowly crescendos, and a low, wide shot is used to show Derek, valiant and basking in all his glory, and then cuts to Danny kneeling, facing his brother, one whom he avidly idolized, petrified. The intensity of this scene reaches it’s climax as the chorus’ lingering voices become fortissimo once Derek raises his eyebrows then subsides and remains piano as the officers seize him; his greatness finally defeated. Kaye’s cinematography meshes beautifully with the actor’s portrayal of the characters and artistically enhances their performances.
Although an otherwise well-brandished script, American History X’s storyline does have a few faults in it. The writers do not use the usual way of dealing with controversial issues, they do not lecture and so on, they present the story and allow the audience to develop their own opinions on it. The only fault was that Derek’s transformation occurred too quickly and too easily. Actually, the speed at which the transformation occurred may be reasonable to some, but how Derek changes seems too simple. A rape is certainly disturbing, but seeing as how aggressive and stubborn Derek was, one would think that he would try to seek revenge, or do something to those who wronged him to make them understand, but he did not do so. A black inmate sacrifices his own life and reputation to help Derek out, but once again, knowing how Derek was, he would have pushed him away also. It is a good basis, but a little bit more information on how he changed, or more intense events would have justified everything suitably.
American History X is an unforgettable movie, hands down. Tony Kaye remarkably presents this drama as one like no other. Although we watch the two main characters transform into a better person, the unresolved problem at the end serves as an ominous reminder that racism still and unfortunately, always will exist in modern American society. There will be several more movies that target racists and bigots, but none will come close to the impact and impression left by American History X.
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