American History X

I’m haunted today by this movie, which I watched for the first time last night.

Derek Vinyard, played with brilliance and subtlety by Ed Norton, is a skinhead, first encouraged in his racism by his father, who is killed by a minority in the line of duty as a fireman; and nurtured in his hatred by a leader of the local skinhead group, creepily portrayed by Stacey Keach. Derek’s intelligence and physical power (Norton supposedly spent a year in the gym bulking up for this role) make him a natural leader, and his younger brother, Danny (also played with beauty and subtlety, in this case by Edward Furlong, John Connor from Terminator II) idolizes, and idealizes him.

Derek brutally murders two black men with whom he has had altercations in the past, principally over the rights to a basketball court in Venice Beach, and who have come to his house at night to terrorize him and his family and/or steal his car (this part of it isn’t very clear, he seems to be being deliberately targeted, but this isn’t carried out in the action necessarily). Danny has witnessed the whole thing, including Derek’s proud defiance as he is taken away by the police.

Because the two men he murdered had come to his house armed, Derek is convicted of a lesser charge, and is imprisoned for 3 years and change. While in prison, Derek undergoes a gradual but dramatic conversion. He begins allying himself with fellow skinheads, but gradually realizes that the leader of this group is doing “business” with everyone, including blacks and hispanics, and Derek feels betrayed by this lack of ideological conviction. At the same time he has built a reluctant friendship with his partner in the laundry room, a gregarious black man who has been imprisoned for 6 years because he, in the process of stealing a TV from a store, accidentally dropped the TV on a policeman’s foot, and has been convicted of assault. When Derek acts on his disillusionment, and “cuts” the skinhead leader in “the yard,” he is targeted for a brutal attack and rape in the showers, and realizes that there is evil, and good, in all races.

When Derek is released, he sees that his younger brother, now 17, has continued on Derek’s path, and he realizes that he has some work to do; not only to help his family recover from their difficult financial and living circumstances, but to help save Danny from a life of prejudice and hate. Meanwhile, Danny is dealing with some race issues of his own at his high school.

I don’t want to spoil anything by giving away the end; I’ll just say that it is a movie that is well-written, well-acted, and simultaneously haunting and uplifting. Many beautiful moments (i.e. when Derek and Danny silently take down the posters and flags of hate from their bedroom walls, and then sit and look at the bare paneling), some really powerful narrative parallels and symbolism, no clichés.

Beverly D’Angelo and Avery Brooks do a great job in their supporting roles.

Put it on your list of must-sees, along with Crash, The Lives of Others, American Beauty and Amelie.

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