American History X, released to cinemas worldwide in October 1998, is a violent commentary on racial stereo-typification and violence. Brilliantly directed by Tony Kay starring Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard. Derek is a skinhead with a difference, rather than choosing to portray skinheads as being radical gangs who commit unjustifiable actions, Derek is portrayed as an extremely charismatic and eloquent individual with very well thought-out views and beliefs. The movie uses Derek's life to illustrate the horrors of racial prejudice and violence. It is an extremely powerful movie, and portrays the gruesome reality of racism and hate-crimes.
There was some controversy that arose around the film when the director, Tony Kay, disowned it. Kay claimed that Norton had had the film re-edited without Kay's permission and therefore it did not match his original vision. Regardless of this, Norton's intense and stunning performance netted him an Oscar Nomination.
More Detailed Review with Spoilers
In order to illustrate just how horrific and gruesome racism and hate-crimes are, the film uses some incredibly powerful and moving scenes. One scene portrays Derek brutally murdering two black people, shooting one dead and splitting the other's head over the pavement.. Another scene shows the gang of skinheads ransacking a store run by an Asian man and terrorizing him and his (illegal) employees. It is extremely graphic in places, yet interspersed with those are scenes of tranquility and peace – showing Derek and his younger brother when they were care-free kids playing on a beach.
One of the finer aspects of the film is just how they chose to represent the main characters. Neither Derek nor Danny are the stereo-typical racist “skinhead punk” unlike representations found in other films, and indeed in our general mindset – we always prefer to think of such radical, racist movements as being unjustified, or at least with very little justification that stands up to reason. Derek and Danny were honors English students, both are highly intelligent individuals. With Derek, you saw just how intelligent he was when he spoke out in defense of the police officers who were attacked by the media for their violent arrest of Rodney King. In this manner, you can understand that he is far different from the usual thug.
As the story unfolds, Derek has been sent to prison for the murder of the two black men and he joins a group of similarly white, racist men inside prison. He eats with them, hangs out with them and exercises with them, but most of all he is protected by them – they have all found safety by forming one gang within prison. Inside the prison he is also required to do the laundry, his partner for this job being a black man Lamont.
As time passes within the prison Derek's relationship with the Lamont goes from him completely ignoring him to what could pass for a friendship, the two discuss women and baseball teams and whatnot. Derek's relationship with the gang starts to disintegrate as he notices the leader conducting contraband trade with the leader of the Mexican gang. He raises his opinion on that, and when he is told to "stop preaching" he leaves the gang, choosing to sit by himself in the cafeteria and spend no time with them. This disrespect for his former gang culminates in his being anally raped in the showers by his former friends.
While in the infirmary, Derek is visited by Professor Sweeney (his old English teacher and Danny's current one). Sweeney, who has taken an interest in the two, expresses his concern for Danny starting to go down the same path that Derek did. Sweeney asks him, “has anything you have done made your life better?” That line marks the turning point in the film, Derek suddenly sees the error in his ways and promises to change.
The film, having done such a brilliant portrayal of up until this point by making it clear that Derek's views are held because he can understand and argue them in a valid way, now does a sudden u-turn. Derek went straight from Racist to not-racist, there was no middle ground, and certainly no stirring argument similar to the ones that were put forwards to defend his racist views. This would have to be the film's main failing, this part of the film felt weak and uninspired – Derek's motivation was no longer as clearly defined as it was before. After we learn that the seed of racism was planted into him by his father so many years before, it becomes even harder to believe completely change his views in such short a time.
The rest of the film concerns Derek and his family's life now that he is out of jail, Derek tries to leave the gang and is met by cries of “Nigger Lover” and an attempt on his life. From this point onwards the films argument against racism is expressed only through the imagery and actions. The skinheads hate him, and a gang of black men want to kill his family because his brother insulted a one of theirs (who is just a kid Danny's age) at school.
Major Spoiler and Conclusion
If you want to see the movie, yet have read this far, do NOT read this.
Near the end of the movie, everything seems to be going well. Derek and Danny are out of the gang, Derek is getting his old job back and the whole family is planning to move to a different city - one where Derek (who was a very prominent skinhead) will not be recognized. The film's stunning conclusion leaves the audience reeling, it literally came as such a shock. Danny is shot three times by the black kid he had insulted in the bathroom and the walls are red with his blood. Very graphic and extremely moving, nothing could have made the realities of racial hate-crimes more horrifying.
I remain confused as to the exact message of this. The film's conclusion seems to show us that racism will exist regardless of our actions. Or that despite the actions of one party, the other parties have to reciprocate or such madness will continue to exist. Above all the entire film and its startling conclusion serve as a message against racism and violence, and the constant flash-backs to scenes with Danny and Derek in their infanthood serve to remind us of how innocent we once were compared to how jaded we have become.