HPPUB MOVIE REVIEW of “American History X”

 

Title: American History X

Release Date:  1998

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 120 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R (“hard R”)

Distributor and Production Company: New Line Cinema (Time Warner)

Director; Writer:

Producer:

Cast:  Ed Norton, Edward Furlong

Technical:  1.8 to 1; Color with some black-and-white flashbacks; Digital

Relevance to HPPUB site:  Political extremism, social class, AIDS

Review:            Here is an intense, social commentary which younger children absolutely must not see (so this viewer took the "X" in the title, although the studio probably is referring to the notion of a "Generation X") but which adults and mature teens must witness. For my money, it does deserve to be on the Best 5 Oscar list. New Line, becoming known for biting political films, has done it again.

            The drama is framed by a situation created when prepubescent 16-year-old played by Edward Furlong (actually 21 in real life) turns in a term paper in high school history class where he claims that Hitler's Mein Kampf is a civil rights document. The African-American school principal gives him a chance to rewrite the paper in one night (or be expelled), and present a view that is more acceptable.

            Well, if you carry collectivism to extremes (that a whole nationality can regard itself as "oppressed" by, in this case, a treaty) maybe the high school character had a point. Which becomes the next point. For the kid's older brother, played by Ed Norton (Primal Fear) has just gotten out of California state penitentiary for voluntary manslaughter, when a few years back he had brutally "executed" two black men breaking into his car and (as best I recall) his mother's home. Norton had, after his father's death, developed this incredible rage which turned into animosity against blacks, Hispanics and Asians and, especially, illegal aliens who (he thought) had been taking away jobs in his Venice, Calif. Neighborhood. He had joined a neo-Nazi group and become a skinhead, tattooing a huge swastika on his chest pectoral, hindered only by a little inconspicuous scraggly peach fuzz. Once, his gang had broken into an immigrant-owned store and totally vandalized it, while brutally spraying clerks with household cleaner.

            Little brother wants to play along, having decorated his room as if he were a future gestapo. But Norton has become a good person, with real charisma. He wants out. It's "wrong." He has to struggle to convince his little brother of this.

            The story is told in flashbacks, in an off black-and-white. In prison, Norton had been befriended by a black and then had ganged up on by a half-dozen men in a latrine in prison, and sodomized by at least one (I thought more, although a friend who recently watched the video assures me that the other assailants walk away and leave him lying prostrate on the shower floor.) (With all his machismo, could he have been infected by HIV?) What is clear about both brothers, probably in part from the limited culture of their upbringing, is that they had derived their entire sense of self from peer relationships with others in their gangs. They had no notion of autonomous self-esteem. At times, there are intellectual discussions that appear beyond their capability. For example, at one point Norton recalls how his deceased father, a fireman or policeman, had resented "affirmative action" for requiring the department to hire a (minority??) backup partner who was not as qualified as possible individually.

            At the end, the little brother is convinced to give it all up, when he meets a tragic end. He is brutally executed himself in a bathroom by a black gang member as revenge, in one of the most graphic shootings since the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

 

            The mood of the movie is hyper-emotional, with symphonic music, schmaltzy Mahler-style, in the background.  It should be possible to view the supremacist hatred in this film with some detachment, to disapprove of the criminal behaviors of the characters and still understand where they were coming from as people. This is a powerful film.

 

Related reviews:

Reader feedback:

 One reader wrote to me in 1999 that I should not characterize this film as unsuitable for younger viewers of suggest that it came close to getting an NC-17. He also objected to my bringing up the issue of HIV in connection with the prison rape scene.

 

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