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.
There are probably a great many directors who could claim to be “New York directors” or directors of “New York movies”. Plenty of auteurs film in the Big Apple, sure, but true New York movies have more than just the location and the accent. They have the feel, dumb as it sounds. Martin Scorsese is the name most likely to crop up in the present conversation, and in fact the case with Scorsese is such that the relationship might occasionally become reversed: Scorsese made his name depicting “New York things”, and he got so good at it that certain “Scorsese things” are now taken lock, stock and barrel as “New York things”. Take this simple, unadorned, stage-setting shot from James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa:
Doesn’t something about that just scream Scorsese? The obvious comparisons are there in the smokiness, the coloring, the detail in the clothing and the food on the tables. The neon sign in the window. But the staging and perspective, too, seem to recall Scorsese’s camera. This is one of the more straightforward examples of such influence on the young James Gray, but the point isn’t to highlight how Gray made Little Odessa on the foundations laid by guys like Scorsese – he didn’t, and it’s clear even in this debut feature (made when Gray was just twenty-five) that his style is a distinct one largely free of ties to any cinematic giants of note. And the point isn’t even to prove that James Gray is deserving of a prominent rank amongst New York directors like Scorsese, although he is. The point, for now, is that Gray crafted Little Odessa as a New York movie, crafted it with that New York feel, and he did so for a very specific reason.