American History X

Movie/Music Monday…American History X

 American History X (1998)  This is one of my favorite movies of all time, partly because the acting is superb, but mostly because it’s all-too-easy to see the events unfolding in this movie happening.  The subject of race is front and center in this movie, and nothing about it is easy or even palatable to watch.  But it’s real.  We watch Derek’s (played to perfection by Ed Norton) slow, insidious march toward the concept of “white is right” from the time he’s a teen.  It’s nothing overt, just offhand comments made by a father he respects and adores, but those small comments have the power to change an entire community’s fate.  We watch as Derek becomes the poster boy for the local white supremacist movement after a singular tragedy.  When he’s sent to prison after committing a particularly brutal murder, we see his slow and gradual journey from being a “white” man to simply being a good man.  The end is truly heartrending…not something that’ll make you feel good when the credits roll, but will make you think long and hard about your beliefs and your perception of the world around you.

Excellent secondary characters flesh this movie out…Avery Brooks as the teacher who really tries to help his students and his community; Edward Furlong as Derek’s younger brother Danny, who is following too closely in his footsteps; Guy Torry as Derek’s prison mate Lamont, and the man who begins to make him see that the color of one’s skin really means nothing, it’s what’s in your heart; and Stacy Keach as Cameron, the passive aggressive leader of Derek’s secondary “family”.

Interspersed with chilling flashbacks that give the characters their motivation, I firmly believe this film has the power to change perception when it comes to race…on both sides of the color barrier.  Much as I believe Jodi Foster’s role in The Accused did when dealing with what rape really means.

Neither of these movies is pretty, and neither looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.  If you want to watch a movie that’s timely, even though it’s a decade old, then watch this one, if for no other reason than to make yourself reconsider the people you walk beside each and every day.

On a personal note, perhaps one of the reasons this movie struck home for me so much is that I grew up in a community that was very “white”, and with teenagers not so different from Derek’s character, at least in viewpoint (not in violence).  Naysayers will state that the white supremacist ideals and personalities portrayed in this movie are few and far between.  I really, really wish I could agree with them.