Director Tony Kaye has certainly not been afraid of being too graphic in his limited body of work. In his 1998 movie American History X, starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, Kaye doesn’t shy away from explicit detail in showing both the past and present of Derek Vinyard (Norton), a young founder of the white supremacist group D.O.C. and his influence on his younger brother (Furlong). The graphic depiction in this movie, despite making it difficult to watch at times, is what makes it so great, along with the performances by Norton and Furlong. Through these two important aspects of the film, the viewer gets a real look at racism in this country; but more than that, the viewer is confronted with the immense influence — either positive or negative — that either a father or an older brother can have on a young boy.
The movie takes place between two time periods. The present day spans a mere 24 hours with flashbacks to the past that show several years. Each of the flashbacks is presented in black and white, a nice directorial touch to not only make it evident that what is occurring is in fact the past but also to show the ignorance and narrow-mindedness in Derek’s views. Once Derek is released from prison, marking the present day, the scene shifts from black and white to color. At that moment, we find that Derek no longer sees the world in black and white. During his time in prison, due to the help of his unlikely friend Lamont (Guy Torry) and former teacher Dr. Sweeney, as well as a falling out with the Aryan Brotherhood in jail (which culminates in a graphic rape scene), Derek is able to see the world in all its colors and look beyond race and bigotry.
The development of Derek throughout the movie is depicted beautifully by Edward Norton, who packed on a lot of muscle for this role, coming off movies Primal Fear and Rounders in which he played skinnier characters,. His physical transformation — which is in the same category as Christian Bale going from The Machinist to Batman Begins and, soon, Jake Gyllenhaal going from Nightcrawler to the upcoming Southpaw — is analogous to Derek’s transformation from racist criminal to reformed man. Norton was thoroughly dedicated to the role of Derek, and his Oscar nomination for Best Lead Actor for his performance was quite well deserved.
The internal chronology of the film is important as well, as American History X does not immediately show the viewer exactly how Derek became a racist, nor does it show right away why he stopped. Instead, the viewer is immediately thrust into such scenes as Derek murdering several intruders on his property and later curb-stomping the one remaining survivor. Similarly, when we are first introduced to younger brother Danny Vinyard, he has written a paper on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, arguing it to be a work on human rights. We later learn that Mr. Murrary, the teacher Danny turns the paper into, is Jewish and was earlier involved in an unsavory dinner with the Vinyard family which culminates in Derek both physically abusing his younger sister and revealing his swastika tattoo to the Jewish Murray while ordering him to leave his house.
After his father is murdered by black drug dealers while putting out a fire, Derek becomes a full-fledged white supremacist under the manipulative Cameron Alexander. It is clear that his father’s influence as well as the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his father’s death create the monster that Derek becomes. Likewise, it is clear that the influence of Derek is what drives the young Danny to follow in his older brother’s footsteps.
Thus, beyond the obvious and well-displayed themes of racism in America today and the ability for anyone to change, American History X accurately and powerfully shows the either positive or negative influence family can have on someone. People are shaped by their families and experiences. For Derek, his family, particularly his father, and his negative experiences made him the man that killed those black intruders. With Danny, the impressionable, adoring younger brother, the ideas of his older brother quickly took hold in him. What younger brother doesn’t seek the approval of their older brother? What younger brother wouldn’t want to follow their brother’s footsteps?
But just as it was easy for Derek to create a negative impression on Danny, it was not altogether impossible for him to help Danny change in the same way as he had. In the end, both Danny and Derek triumphantly tear down all of the white propaganda they have hanging in their room. The movie could have ended there — happily ever after. However, in stories of race struggles, happily ever after rarely is the case. The movie ends with tragedy — moving and, in many ways, necessary tragedy.
His posthumous monologue coming from his paper on Derek to turn into Dr. Sweeney for his new class “American History X” ties the entire movie together and makes the ending message that much more powerful. In his conclusion, Danny states that “Derek says it’s always good to end a paper with a quote”, for “someone else has already said it best”. In this case, Danny himself has already said it best: “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”