American History X
A Film by Tony Kaye
Written by David McKenna
The new film from first-time feature director Tony Kaye and first-time screenwriter David McKenna is an ambitious and audacious effort. For established Hollywood professionals, the task of getting a movie with this kind of controversial content and imagery through the "development" process and onto the screen would be daunting. For novices, it would seem impossible. Yet Kaye and McKenna have done it, and made one of the year's best movies out of it.
This is a movie that is sure to rouse much controversy. To fictionalize an issue as emotionally volatile and sensitive as bigotry and hate is a difficult job. To present the brutal reality of racism as narrative, from the racist's point of view, without invoking a high moral tone, risks condemnation. To present such a story in a medium that is, after all, celebrated for shamelessly exploiting any subject in the pursuit of profit invites sniping from a justifiably cynical public.
On top of that, first-time director Kaye has publicly expressed his displeasure with his producing partner, New Line Cinema, and their handling of the final cut of the film, taking it away from Kaye after he was unable to complete it to their mutual satisfaction within the contractual time-frame. They then finished it at least partly under the supervision of Edward Norton, who stars in the film but is an actor, not a director or an editor. Kaye asked that his name be removed from the film, but the Directors' Guild ruled that under their regulations he could not do so.
But all the behind-the-scenes melodrama should not distract from what is on the screen. (It does, perhaps, explain some of the unexpected dislocations in a film that for the most part flows with unusual smoothness.) Kaye's achievement is not overshadowed, however much it may be diminished (or even improved), by whatever meddling - justified or unjustified - may have taken place.
What remains, after the dust has settled, is a remarkably accomplished film from a couple of first-timers. It combines powerful, sophisticated visual imagery with an intelligent treatment of a difficult and important subject. It contains fine performances from a number of talented actors.
The story is that of the Vinyard family of Venice Beach, CA. The father, a fireman, has been killed by a sniper while responding to a call in a black neighborhood. Based on this traumatic incident and an underlying climate of subtle racism, the elder son, Derek, focuses his rage on the minority community and becomes a racist agitator. His blind fury is further developed and exploited by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), a middle-aged, professional bigot who makes his living creating and distributing racist propaganda.
Eventually, Derek's involvement leads him to commit a heinous crime, for which he is sentenced to two years in prison. Within the nightmare world of the penitentiary he begins to see through the racist mythology he has adopted. When he is paroled, he tries to step back into his old world, take charge of his faltering family, and undo some of the harm he has done, especially to his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) who has sought to please him by emulating his racist attitudes.
The story is told in a mix of black and white and color, using the film tone to indicate transitions between the present and the past. Although this is a traditional cinematic device, it is used here with particular effectiveness. The black and white sequences are often heavily shadowed, giving them a indistinct edge, and the dream-like, incomplete quality of memories. And of course, the whole format of back and white, where all people appear in gradations of grey, adds its own metaphoric subtext.
The judicious use of lens distortion and slowed motion further enhance the sense of expanded and compressed time. Kaye does not use the techniques to substitute for content, however, nor does he allow himself to get carried away with them. He brings them in carefully and appropriately to create a visual mood that reinforces the narrative line. Acting as Director of Photography and Camera Operator as well as Director must have been gruelling, but the result is a film that has, with a few exceptions, a very effective visual consistency.
He has also gotten fine performances from his actors. Edward Norton, who plays Derek, is outstanding in a role that is more tragic in the classical sense - a basically good man overthrown by a fatal flaw - than sympathetic. He is not afraid to kick out the jambs and deliver some blistering moments. To viewers who don't engage emotionally with the material, this performance may seem overblown. For those who allow themselves to be drawn into the story, it is simply wrenching.
Edward Furlong, as Danny, gives a naturalistic and understated interpretation of his role, that is a tour-de-force of a different sort. He inhabits the character totally, with a kind of technique that is so good it never shows. The story of the film is told from his point of view and his voice-over narration creates several important bridges as well as the final images of the film. He carries off Danny's mixture of precocious "street-smarts" and adolescent innocence with a sensitive and responsive hand.
In a small but crucial role, that of the convict Lamont, Guy Torrey, best-known for his stand-up comedy routines, does some very fine work. He creates a sympathetic character that seems natural and real, showing with subtle gesture and body-language how his compassion and sense of humor overcome his own resistance and eventually provide a vehicle for Derek to break down some of his reserve. Again, partly to the credit of director Kaye, as well as Torrey and Norton, this transition - that could easily have fallen into melodramatic sentimentality - is handled with emotional authenticity.
Stacy Keach pumps self-interest up to a fascinatingly repulsive level in his portrayal of the manipulative and depraved Cameron Alexander. He makes it possible to see how the sophistry of fascism, mixed with a combination of avuncular flattery and the threat of the withdrawal of affection can turn the heads of the ignorant young people with whom he surrounds himself. The ways in which the racist/fascist impulse reflects and gratifies the inner, personal needs of those who use and are used by it is illuminated by his characterization.
Avery Brooks, as the high school principal, Bob Sweeny, does a good job. In early scenes there is a bit more of his stern-but-caring day-job character - the Commander of the space station in televisionŐs Deep Space Nine - than I would have liked to see. His performance seems to grow with the film, however and in later scenes, particularly a pivotal visit with Derek in jail, he does a fine job of expressing a combination of resolve, empathy and pained confusion that takes the scene beyond the melodramatic.
The rest of the supporting cast work with equal professionalism. Most of them have only one or two key scenes, but each part of this carefully-crafted piece contributes something important. The fact that each of those scenes works so well is proof of the old theatrical saw that "there are no small parts - only small actors." Beverly D'Angelo, as the Vinyards' mother, adds complex nuances to the family structure. Fairuza Balk presents an image of racist-as-groupie compounded of emotional neediness and permanent emotional adolescence that subtly reflects Derek's own limitations.
Jennifer Lien, as the brothers' politically liberal younger sister, Davina, effectively adds another voice to the narrative. In a key scene where she stands up to Derek, her feisty independence and her anger provide a provocative reflection of his. In a single brief flashback sequence, William Russ, as the Vinyards' father, gives insight into one of the roots Derek's reaction - as a good man with bad ideas.
The massive Ethan Suplee, as Seth, adds a menacing physical presence coupled with a self-interested fanaticism born of ignorance and insensitivity that is a counterpoint to Danny's and Derek's attempts to rationalize their bigotry. Elliot Gould, as a high school teacher of both Danny and Derek, effectively evokes the dilemma of rational liberalism in the face of the emotional tidal wave that underlies racism - and all fascism.
The principal weaknesses of the film are in the dialogue. In several scenes, actors are forced to overcome stilted writing to make the emotional truth come alive. There are times when the tone becomes a little "preachy." (This was the criticism Kaye leveled at the final cut of the film). How much of this could have been avoided by a different editing plan, as Kaye suggests, is a matter of speculation.
Kaye's polished visual style is part of what ties the disparate elements of the film together. This will no doubt lead some critics to fault the film as "style over substance" The key distinction lies in that demarcation. Kaye seems to work very hard here to make the story central, and to subordinate visual flash to the telling of that story.
The fact remains that much of what works best in this film happens when Kaye's impressive use of visual flow and composition in the creation of images is allowed to speak for itself - what we witness, rather than what characters say about it. This is what cinema is supposed to be about, the unique power of its visual imagery.
This film walks a thin edge between the authentic telling of a very dramatic story and manipulative melodrama. The surprising skill of these film-makers is that they rarely stumble and never actually fall in this difficult and risky undertaking.
American History X explores the foundations of the psychological construct of bigotry that allowed the Egyptians to enslave the Hebrews and the European Americans to massacre the Native People they found in this hemisphere. It continues in the racial/religionist bigotry of Arab and Jew in the Middle East; Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland; Serb/Muslim/Croatian in Bosnia-Herzegovina; "white" and "non-white" in the US.
The movie draws no startling conclusions and is willing to rest on the compelling truism that "hate is baggage." This is not a cop-out, however. Quite the contrary - the film-makers leave us with a series of powerful, sometimes overwhelming, emotional images and leave it to each viewer to try to find some resolution of the complicated and conflicting feelings they evoke.
This approach will not find favor with those who like to define their lives in simple moral homilies. For those who like to think, however, the film's layered, conflicted, personal approach to the issues will be provocative and challenging, if occasionally painful.
It does not propose an "answer" to the problem of bigotry, nor a definitive and exhaustive examination of that problem. It simply creates an opportunity to consider one version of how and where bigotry exists, in our world, in our own communities, and perhaps in our own hearts. As such, it performs an important service. I hope you will go see it.