Racism will always be an uncomfortable subject for modern storytelling, because we like to tell ourselves that we live in a post-racial society, lest we critically examine how things are and get real awkward. There are moments in American History X that are sickening, and practically impossible to watch in a multicultural audience (it’s a solo view, for sure), and while the preposterous story is just as fabley as our last on the countdown, strong performances, sweeping set pieces, and a searing message make what could’ve been Birth of a Nation 2 into American History X.
It runs that risk not because of the subject matter, which doesn’t automatically guarantee risk, but because of its self-importance, which might also be described as ‘searing.’ The director once described himself the best British director since Hitchcock (after just two movies, no less), and this movie is a big-issues story that doesn’t let you forget it. A movie from the perspective of Neo-Nazis is bold, definitely, but thankfully it also makes sure to deliver an actual film, and not just a sensationalized premise.
American History X is the inverse of a revenge story like Oldboy — where Oh Dae Su begins a relatively good man and ends a monster, X is the opposite. The non-linear timeline tracks this journey in a back-and-forth that gives us exactly what we need to see next, chronology be damned. That’s how information in story should work, although maybe the color/black-and-white doesn’t add much.
But the slow-motion does, and overall, the visual approach to this film is as satisfying as its structure. Edward Norton in the shower is perfect in that slow-motion, and taking down the Nazi flags and posters will feel like dramatic slow-motion in hindsight. What starts as a blood-boiling gangster story slowly evolves, as Derek does, into a cathartic, teary-eyed drama.
A friendship is depicted in strokes perfectly paced for a feature film, as is the mentor-student relationship running alongside it. Derek’s rescue of his younger brother from the Nazi HQ is a dizzying scene that pays off so much of what has been built up. And while it’s all huggy and nice, American History X is a classical tragedy, proving that for such heinous individuals, redemption isn’t enough.
For the next generation, for history yet to be made, the cycle must first be broken.
And scene. Although, the ‘cycle’ is sort of spurious. In a deleted scene, Ethan Suplee and Stacey Keach are also gunned down by black hoodlums, and that completely wreaks of some Bioshock Infinite bullshit — black gangsters and Neo-Nazis are not even close to the same thing. Don’t go there, and I guess I’m glad they didn’t.