As shocking as the day it first released, Tony Kaye’s American History X is a high-water mark in the director-as-sadist tradition. The movie pounds the sensibilities of the viewer like a piñata. Everyone is either yelling or cussing (usually both), and since this is a film about race relations, it’s interspersed with a slew of racial epithets. Get used to that and there’s the violence (filmed in slow motion so you don’t miss the finer details). Get used to that and there’s the yawning gap where something profound ought to be. You’d expect a film this inflammatory to at least have a stand about race relations in America beyond “violence begets violence”, but hey, why bother when it’s all so pretty to look at.
Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is a skinhead messiah, someone younger zealots can look up to. He’s all the more dangerous because he has a way with rhetoric – something that white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) recognises and uses to his advantage. It all comes undone when three African-American hoods try to jack Derek’s car. He does what any reasonable neo-Nazi might: he shoots one of them in the back and kills another with a brutal “curb stomp”. He goes to jail, and, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has a change of heart there. Cured of his racist tendencies, he returns to find his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) following in his goosesteps.
American History X has a large number of fans who laud its unvarnished take on what might well be a reality in some American neighbourhoods. Yet, there are questions that one needs to ask a film of this nature. One of the most disturbing about American History X is not so much its unbridled bile but its bias in granting the proponents of hate so much screen-time, while shutting out the voices of reason. There are exactly two of the latter – a school teacher (Elliot Gould), who is shown to be limp and pathetic, and Derek’s prison mate, who’s a comedian. Pitch that against the terrible magnetism of Edward Norton and you have an unfair battle.
In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, an equally controversial but far superior film on race relations, a character called Radio Raheem describes the battle between his two fists: one with “love” tattooed on it, the other “hate”. In his version “Left-Hand Hate [is] KOed by Love”, and though Lee’s film ends with an uneasy truce, at least it gives love a chance. Tony Kaye’s film doesn’t, preferring to believe instead in the circular nature of hatred. The cult of American History X is uncomfortably similar to the one shown in the film: loyal followers seduced by noise and violence, unwilling to ask the questions that matter. You can believe every claim made for Norton’s performance though – there’s no taking your eyes off him. Norton also had a hand in rewriting the film, along with Kaye, and was present during the editing process (unlike the director, whose erratic behaviour earned him a studio ban). Kaye later disowned the film and tried (unsuccessfully) to remove his name from the credits. It would have been fascinating to have him or Norton explaining exactly how their versions differed, but we have to settle for a few deleted scenes and a trailer.
This piece was published in Time Out Delhi.