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'History X': Hate With a Passion

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 1998

  Movie Critic


American History X Edward Norton is a reformed skinhead in "American History X." (New Line)

Director:
Tony Kaye
Cast:
Edward Norton;
Edward Furlong;
Fairuza Balk;
Keram Malicki-Sanchez;
Beverly D'Angelo;
Avery Brooks;
Elliot Gould;
Ethan Suplee;
Jennifer Lien
Running Time:
1 hour, 58 minutes
R
Under 17 restricted


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Director Tony Kaye has loudly disowned his film "American History X," but he certainly hasn't disowned the publicity he's attracted to it. His berserko series of ads in Variety accusing New Line and star Edward Norton of ruining the film may have destroyed his career, but it seems to have attracted a great deal of attention to the film.

In this case, X marks the splat! "American History X" is a mess. It's a mousy little nothing of a picture, an old melodramatic formula hidden under pretentious TV-commercial-slick photography, postmodernist narrative stylings and violations of various laws of probability. But what's worst about it is its rank, repellent hypocrisy: It not only allows its fantasy versions of American Nazis to spew their blackest, cruelest vomitus of hatred but it takes energy and vitality (and ticket-selling notoriety) from the electricity of that hatred; then it demurely pretends to disapprove in the last few minutes.

The story is set in Venice Beach, Calif., and it begins by establishing the grievances of the white working class against the black working class. Things used to be great, but then "they" began to move in and the neighborhood turned into a 'hood. Pretty soon "they" took over the playgrounds and the schoolyards and pretty soon after that, everything "we" believed in was wrong and "we" were strangers in our own land.

The worst casualty of this incremental tendency toward race mixing is the Vinyard family, a proud tribe whose father is a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Fire Department. Tragedy strikes: One of "them" shoots and kills Dad while Dad is putting out a fire in a crack house.

The hatred implicit in this act transforms the soul of the Vinyards, particularly Derek (Norton), the oldest son. From an A student and athlete headed for the Ivy League, he rapidly becomes an odd, possibly nonexistent mutant: boy Nazi as genius, hero and jock. Norton really gets with the part: He shaves his head, he grows a Satanic goatee, he practices his hardest-eyed glare. Then, strutting around with his shirt off to show his swastika tattoo and the 30 pounds of muscle he put on for the part, he becomes truly frightening, not merely because of his racism, but because of his rock-star charisma. Under Derek's dark command, the Venice Beach skinheads become a power in the community. They trash stores owned by immigrants, hassle people of color and so forth. He even leads them in a triumph of the will against the brothers on the basketball court.

One night, in retaliation for the basketball loss, two black youths attempt to steal Derek's car. Grabbing his 9 mm (but forgetting his shirt), Derek runs out to the street and mows them down. There's a survivor, whom he finishes off with an atrocity so unbearable I find it difficult to describe. It involves boots, heads, teeth and curbs. To make this act both more ugly and more realistic, Kaye films it in black-and-white. See, now it's "documentary." But he really doesn't make it more ugly; in fact, he makes it more beautiful, just as, in his subversive way, he loves Derek for his power and psychotic intensity. The formal part of his intelligence is saying, "Isn't this nasty?"; the aesthetic part is saying, "Isn't this cool?"

This gets at the movie's essential duality: While pretending to loathe the American Nazi movement and to stand for goodness, decency and tolerance, in its visual heart of hearts it loves the style and swagger of the Nazis, the totems of Nazi culture, the intensity of the creed. It loves to break taboos, then back away and pretend to be shocked, shocked at its own audacity.

Meanwhile, for his cold slaughter, Derek gets a mere three years. In the real world a crime this grotesque would lead the national news for weeks and he would at least get life, but the movie needs Derek back on the streets.

When he is released, he is different; he has grown both hair and a conscience. Mysteriously, he has been healed of his hate, and his new task, working in conjunction with his old high school teacher (Avery Brooks), is to rescue his young brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from the same madness while working to undercut the Nazi movement that he helped empower.

The enabling mechanism of this conversion is our old friend from '50s liberal movies, the Magic Negro, as descended from Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones." His job is to prevent the white man from drowning in the bile of his own hatred. So in the racially intense caldron of a California prison, this film asks us to believe, a Magic Negro sees the good hidden in Derek and massages it gently to his surface. He even intercedes with the other black convicts to go easy on this white racist who has killed two young black men. File this one in the "as if" file.

It must be said that Guy Torry, who plays Lamont, Derek's savior, fills the role brilliantly. But the part is just a lie from start to finish; it reflects a secret bigotry that sees black people only in terms of what they can do for white people, but has no other interest in them. And once Lamont has performed his miracle of healing, he disappears from the movie without a whisper.

The rest plays out in fairly melodramatic fashion, as Derek runs about fighting all those who loved him and working desperately to save the wan Danny from his own worst impulses. This involves the usual B-movie tropes: fistfights, screaming matches, gunplay. The movie then contrives to end on an ironic twist that pretty much invalidates everything that came before.

Kaye will cry till he's dead about the "mutilation," in which the final cut was given to the more powerful Norton. If you see the film, you'll wonder: mutilation of what?

   

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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