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'History X' Makes the Grade

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
Profanity, sex, nudity, rape, shooting, and the spewing of racist venom
Arrestingly photographed, and boasting another intelligent and muscular performance by the chameleon-like Edward Norton, "American History X" is good – but is it good enough?

In recent weeks, the tale of racism among neo-Nazi skinheads has been dismissed as flawed – not by any old carping critic but by its director, Tony Kaye, who waged an unsuccessful battle with New Line Cinema to remove his name from the finished product.

In response to those who pointed out that his imperfect movie was still mighty fine, Kaye was quoted in this newspaper as saying, "Good is the enemy of great" (meaning, I suppose, that if you settle for the merely acceptable, you'll never attain artistic nirvana).

Now, I'm not sure where he got that notion, but it was Voltaire who once wrote, "The best is the enemy of the good" (meaning that when you shoot for perfection you usually only end up with a bullet in the foot). Perhaps it's understandable then why New Line would wrest the film away from a still-tinkering Kaye at the eleventh hour, inviting the film's star Norton to help cut the final version.

All I can say is that these bickering collaborators have nothing to be ashamed of. Trenchant and visceral, "American History X" may not be perfect, but it's a darn sight better than good. And if Norton himself really did as much honing as the producers say he did, then the Renaissance man would appear to be just as gifted behind the scenes as he is in them.

"American History X" is the story of two brothers, Derek and Danny Vinyard (Norton and Edward Furlong) and their doomed involvement with a Venice, Calif., gang of racist toughs. Derek – the shaved-headed thugs' charismatic leader – has just gotten out of prison for the brutal slaying of two black youths he caught breaking into his car.

Having renounced his hateful beliefs during his three years behind bars, Derek now encounters a baby brother who not only idolizes him but is well on the way to repeating his mentor's mistakes. When the film opens, the high-schooler has just turned in a book report on "Mein Kampf," with a flattering portrayal of Hitler as a civil rights hero.

As punishment, principal Sweeney (Avery Brooks) assigns Danny to write an essay on the impact of Derek's imprisonment for a one-on-one tutorial he is imposing called "American History X." That composition provides the voice-over narration for screenwriter David McKenna's increasingly intense and tragic story, which alternates between stylized black-and-white flashbacks and current events in color.

As Derek's tattooed, goateed and chrome-domed former self, the muscle-bound Norton is scarier even than Robert De Niro's Max Cady in "Cape Fear." Over the course of the taut but leapfrogging narrative, we not only see who he has become, but who he was before hatred consumed him. That complex evolution from straight-A student to murderer to redemption is well-limned by Norton, even if the prison sequence that shows how a monster becomes a human being again seems a tad oversimplified. Still, its shorthand sins can be forgiven in the service of dramatic brevity.

Furlong is no less convincing as a neophyte racist, with one foot still set on the side of sweetness and the other firmly planted on the road to damnation. The exploration of his relationship with Derek is the film's most interesting chord, but its resonance is enriched by an equally strong supporting cast. In addition to the dignified Brooks, Stacy Keach is nicely creepy as scar-faced skinhead godfather Cameron Alexander. As Doris Vinyard, Beverly D'Angelo beautifully captures the ineffectual bewilderment of a mother trying to hold her family together, while helping to drive home the point that racism only destroys the racist.

There are moments in "American History X" when Anne Dudley's string-laden score overpowers the stark simplicity of the film's message and other times when the moral of brotherly love is hammered a bit heavily. When Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address about how "We are not enemies, but friends" is intoned by Danny to underscore what the film has already adequately shown, it feels like the movie is pushing a little too hard.

It doesn't need to. At its most forceful when it is not being heavy-handed or preachy, the blunt and brutal "American History X" is ultimately only as imperfect as we ourselves are.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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