American History X (1998)

Happy Birthday, Forty!

I decided, though it wasn’t officially requested, I would review a movie in celebration of the birth of my friend Forty.  One thing you must know about my friend Forty is that he’s a white supremacist, but it’s okay because he’s Mexican.  He’s an enigma.  And a racist.  So the movie I decided I should review is a movie he likes for the racism, but apparently ignores because it has an anti-racism message to it.  I think he just picks and chooses which parts he’s going to pay attention to.  But I’m going to pay attention to the entire thing as I present my review of American History X, written by David McKenna, directed by Tony Kaye, and starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Avery Brooks, Stacy Keach, Beverly D’Angelo, William Russ, Guy Torry, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk, and Jennifer Lien.

This is another one of those movies I don’t like reviewing because the story is told out of order, going back and forth between the present day and flashbacks.  I’ll try to work it out though.  A while before the movie proper starts, the firefighter father (William Russ) of Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) is killed while trying to put out a fire in a drug house.  This leads to Derek turning to racism and join a neo-Nazi street gang called the D.O.C, led by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach).  While banging the bejesus out of his girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk), Derek’s brother Danny (Edward Furlong) comes in to inform him that three black guys are breaking into Derek’s truck.  Derek shoots and kills one of them, wounds another, and the third escapes.  Derek then brutally kills the wounded black guy by curb stomping him.  Derek goes to jail for three years.  In jail he joins the Aryan Brotherhood, but leaves them a year later after finding that they have friendly dealings with a Mexican gang member.  For the insult, the brotherhood rapes him in the shower.  Derek befriends a black prisoner named Lamont (Guy Torry) and starts rehabilitating with the help of his black former English teacher Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks).  While Derek is turning from racism, Danny is joining the DOC and writing reports on Mein Kampf.  I guess you could call this a sticky situation.

It probably wasn’t the greatest decision to review this movie.  Not because it’s a bad movie as it’s actually a very good movie.  I just think I’ll probably find it fairly difficult to say anything funny in relation to this movie.  At least not without becoming pretty damned offensive myself.  I’m not above being offensive though, so we’ll see what happens.  It’s a compelling and thought-provoking story, but I don’t feel like it’s really a pleasure to watch for pretty much any race.  Non-racist white people like myself feel a little embarrassed and guilty about the movie, but no one’s really portrayed in the best light.  While simultaneously making us realize that stereotypes are bad (mmmkay?), it’s also showing us a pretty good amount of people that are fitting those stereotypes.  When they mess up a grocery store because it hires illegal immigrants, it’s actually populated by illegal immigrants.  The guys breaking into Derek’s car are definitely black guys.  They’re also very good at basketball.  Of course, the white people are mostly unlikeable too.  Two of Derek’s family members are okay, and that’s about the entirety of the good white people in this movie until Derek and Danny turn to the lighter side of the force.  The movie is a riveting watch, but the subject matter keeps it from being something I really enjoy watching.  It’s all this racism and sides of humanity that I like to tell myself doesn’t exist, but I secretly know it does.  I don’t come across it very much as a white guy, but I’ve actually seen it alongside my dirty wetback friend Forty.  I remember one time we were at a gun show in town (the perfect meeting grounds for white trash) and a particularly white trashy lady asked him – with no noticeable sign of being intentionally racist – if he was an anchor baby.  I don’t remember the response Forty took, but I’d guess that he just admitted that he was and we went about our day.  I’ve gotten distracted.  Another thing that makes the movie not a pleasure to watch is the ending as it’s thoroughly depressing, and always made me wonder if Derek would return to racism after what happens.  The thing that is most responsible for me not finding this movie an enjoyable experience is the curb stomping scene.  Starting with the sound made by the teeth touching the curb, every part of that scene makes my skin crawl and upsets me.  But, again, this is still a really good movie that I respect, but I like my movies to be fun and this is far from that.

The thing that I think sells this movie the most is Edward Norton.  That guy’s amazing in this movie.  He really immerses himself in his roles and it works out phenomenally here.  I was particularly impressed by him physically in the movie.  In the flashback scenes when he was talking to the news station about his father, where he looked physically unimpressive.  Then we jump to the middle of his racist times where he’s friggin’ yoked.  Can’t say I was that impressed with Edward Furlong in this movie though.  He never did anything that I found impressive, and the times that he tried to do something emotional, I remained unconvinced.  Ethan Suplee was hilariously racist in this movie.  Though I would never sing it aloud in public, I actually remember that entire song he’s singing in his van about how the “white man marches on.”  His character in this movie is a stark contrast to another time where I’ve seen him, as he was innocently spending an entire movie trying to see a sailboat in a Magic Eye picture in Mallrats.  Also, you can see Fairuza Balk’s boobs in this movie.  I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve always had a thing for her.  Something about her just does it for me.

American History X is a fantastic movie with an engaging story, thought-provoking moments, and a good message at the end.  But it’s also not something I’d call a pleasure to watch.  It’s depressing and full of people I like to think don’t actually exist.  But it’s a great movie that deserves to be watched, especially for Edward Norton’s fantastic performance.  I hope Forty enjoyed his birthday present, ‘cause I’m gonna go start cutting myself.  American History X gets “I’m the most dangerous man in this prison.  You know why?  ‘Cause I control the underwear” out of “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

My friend Forty would probably appreciate it if I pointed out that my comments about him being racist were done for the sake of comedy, and are only about 80% true.

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