American History X

Stars:  Edward Norton, Edward Furlong

This is the kind of movie whose subject matter is so unpalatable that people will stay away in droves. But perhaps they shouldn’t, because the message it tells should be heard by all: that “hate is baggage”; it’s a waste of time; it’s stupid; and, we’re all in this together so you’d just better learn to cope.

The story revolves around a white supremacist, Derek, played by that brilliant actor Edward Norton who was nominated for an academy award, and to my mind, should have won it. Norton went through an incredible physical transformation for this role, from the scrawny kid we’ve always seen to an extremely well muscled man. His plays his character’s transformation from wide-eyed innocent to tough soldier equally well.

Derek is indoctrinated in his extremist beliefs from a number of sources including his father, reverse discrimination, the local big wig Neo Nazi, Cameron, played by Stacy Keach as well as hatreds by blacks for all things white. As we are introduced to Derek, we see that he is a hard-core skinhead, who readily murders a black guy breaking into his car. That action results in his incarceration for three years. When he gets out of prison, he is changed, but we don’t know why. It isn’t until after he quits the group in a violent confrontation with Cameron that we learn why and how.

In an effort to keep younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from following his road to hell, Derek tells Danny the story of his prison experiences and we see the events that shape a new Derek: a prison friendship with a young black man that sets off a series of brutalities and realities about “the cause”. Derek’s is a well told story. Perhaps the single most important element that kicks Derek into a new line of thought about life is a visit from his old (black) high school teacher, Sweeney, played by Avery Brooks who asks him very simply: “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” And what we’ve always suspected about Derek and now know to be true is that Derek is smart enough to understand.

Derek tells Danny that he’s not sorry about what happened to him in prison. He knows he was wrong and wonders how he ever bought into that ideology. He has, in effect, saved Danny from following down that road. But, Derek soon learns that for the reward of salvation, there is a high price to pay.

The first half of the movie deals with Derek’s violent lifestyle and rhetoric which wears thin after a while but it really gets interesting with the prison sequences. Lotta says it may be hard to take for some but the writer got the point across and Norton makes it all worthwhile. Others in the cast: Beverly D’Angelo stars as the mother and Jennifer Lien is the older sister; Elliot Gould has a bit part as the Mom’s boyfriend.