Movie: American History X
Release Date: October 30, 1998
Director: Tony Kaye
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach. Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks, Beverly D’Angelo.
Tag Lines: “His father taught him to hate. His friends taught him rage. His enemies gave him hope.”
“Some Legacies Must End.”
“Violence as a way of life.”
“United by hate, divided by truth.”
“See reality in your eyes when hate makes you blind.”
Relevance: I was born and raised in a small Northeastern city in Pennsylvania. If you are familiar with the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, than you know exactly the place I am talking about. It was a pretty decent, ordinary place to grow up. I was from the west side of town, which really meant nothing to me except for the geographical aspect. It was a peaceful, lower to middle class neighborhood with lots of houses, kids, dogs and places to play with friends. It was also very, very white.
Although I had seen black people on television and in real life, I honestly did not hold any conversations with one until I was eighteen years of age. That was not at all because I was told to avoid them or that I was afraid of them or any other derogatory reason you can think of. It just never presented itself. I was raised in a Catholic home and was taught to love all people no matter the color of their skin. In fact, that first Black man that I had a conversation with was someone that my dad had known. My dad was a recruiter for the National Guard. This man, I sadly forget his name, was a recruiter for the Army. I could never say no to anyone over the phone, so when the recruiter called, he set up a house visit to try to recruit me. I had zero intentions of joining the army, but he tried. He was a very nice man and I never once thought about the color of his skin.
That is not to say that there were not racist undertones throughout my family tree. There were, just like every other white suburban family of that generation. But to my knowledge, it was more generational racism then full on hate. My maternal Grandfather was not fond of the Japenese. He fought them in World War II, although he never once treated anyone of that descent any differently than he did his own kind, at least not in front of me. My maternal Grandmother once made a comment, “There are too many colored people today.” This sentence infuriated me and I argued with her about it. However, her favorite movie was ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’ (a film that will be showing up on this blog very soon) and never once flinched when I brought one of my black college friends to her house. She treated them with the same kindness, respect and hospitality she treated all of my friends. My paternal Grandfather never really discussed issues of race or culture with me and never in front of me showed any signs of a racist attitude. Later in life, when he suffered from Alzheimer’s, there were a few “n-words” that were apparently thrown out by him, but I was never around to hear them. I could only hope that it was the disease talking and not the person, but I guess I will never know that for certain.
By the time I saw ‘American History X’ in the Spring of 1999 via rental, I had quite the cornucopia of friends. Gay, Straight, black, white, Asian, all were welcome. I never thought anything about our differences and focused more on our similarities. I was not naïve however and knew that racism existed. I wasn’t the Pollyanna from Pennsylvania anymore. I had witnessed first hand how racist and ugly our country could be just by being in the presence of my friends. With that said, ‘American History X’ still shocked the hell out of me.
The film was very disturbing, uncomfortable to watch and yet at the same time one of the most important films I had seen in a long time. It deeply affected me and shook me to my core. I wept several times throughout the movie and was completely gutted by its premise. I urged everyone in my life to check out the film telling them it would be the most important movie that they would watch that year. Not only was I entertained, but I now seemed to have a fire lit under my ass to help rid the country of racism. Maybe I still was a Pollyanna.
Racism was alive and well in this country for decades and sadly one that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It baffles me. It saddens me. It infuriates me. It’s something that I just can’t get my head around. ‘American History X’ was definitely a catalyst for me to be more vocal and active about the horrors of racism. 2020 has taught me to not be colorblind, listen more than ever before and don’t just not be racist, be anti-racist. One would think that a movie released twenty-two years ago would not be very relevant to today’s society. Sadly, it is.
Today’s Thoughts: “So I guess this is where I tell you what I learned – my conclusion, right? Well, my conclusion is: Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it. Derek says it’s always good to end a paper with a quote. He says someone else has already said it best. So if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong. So I picked a guy I thought you’d like. ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.'”
‘American History X’ was always an important movie for me, but today, in the 2020 hell that we are currently living, it is even more important. I’ll be honest, it is not a movie that I watch a lot. It’s a tough one to endure. But its message is important and one that needs to be shouted over and over again until it penetrates even the thickest of skulls: Black Lives Matter.
The film is brutal, honest, vulgar, excruciatingly honest and yet at the same time entertaining. The entertainment value comes mostly from the brilliant performance by its lead actor, Edward Norton. He transforms himself and disappears into the racist skin of Derek Vinyard so easily it is almost terrifying. Thankfully the character has a tremendous transformation although the story still ends tragically. This is a full box of Kleenex movie for me. I cry for many reasons, but mostly because this is still real life for some people in our country, and that saddens me.
The remainder of the cast, including Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach. Elliott Gould, Guy Torry, Avery Brooks and Beverly D’Angelo, is beautifully directed by Tony Kaye and are quite compelling in their performances. Each of them have their moments that leave a long lasting memory in the viewer’s mind. The characters’ imperfections are a stark reminder of all of our own imperfections. There is a certain ugliness throughout the movie that you can’t escape and it is seen on every one of the actors’ faces.
One might guess that a movie as real and gritty as ‘American History X’ has a portion of it taking place in a prison. And in that prison, there are naked men showering, which means this film gets added to the “penis list.” For those following along this makes penis number sixteen on my list of most influential movies of all time. You can check out the entire “penis list” (so far) here: 110. Shortbus, 112. A Clockwork Orange, 113. Weekend, 120. Sex and the City, 133. Porky’s, 139. Trainspotting, 144. Fargo, 183. Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 199. Six Degrees of Separation, 209. The Fisher King, 295. Being John Malkovich, 296. Wildcats, 332. The Crying Game, 335. Born on the Fourth of July, 343. Sideways and 357. Amadeus.
Listen, ‘American History X’ is a tough movie to watch. I get it. But it’s an important movie and one that should be required viewing for all high school students. We won’t make change towards positivity if we don’t face our demons as well as the sins of the past. Watch the movie. And more importantly, if you happen to be white, listen to all black voices, raise them up and learn.
Black lives matter. Period. End of topic.
Awards: Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Edward Norton (nomination).
Ways to Watch: iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, DVD Availability.