#36: American History X (1998)


Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) sits down in the principal's office. Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) tells him, in no uncertain terms, that his appreciative book report on Hitler's Mein Kampf is unacceptable, and he is now to begin a new regime of history lessons: American History X. We the viewers feel like we're in the same boat. We're treated as though we've never noticed America's race problems and we need this lesson too. So, I'm going to use this post to decide what kind of implement American History X uses to hammer home its anti-racist message.



The Sledge-Hammer:
This film does not shy away from making lots of big points in very quick succession, and incompletely too. Hatred, ignorance and anger are paraded on screen until we begin to feel this film is something of a one-trick pony: look at how bad people can be. Edward Norton carries much of this in his role as skin-head, murderer, and general scumbag Derek Vinyard, Danny's influential older brother. Norton brings a vital energy to the screen which gives the film a vague momentum, but the responsibility is too much for one character to bear alone. As such, watching American History X feels like being repeatedly pounded with the same arguments, and our initial optimism that the film might arrive somewhere useful slowly ebbs away.

The Gavel: 
In this film, power has a lot to do with who gets the final say. This is most obvious during an argument over the dinner table, where insults fly and claims to authority on (i.e. understanding of) social issues are the main points of contention. Whose opinion is more valid? We're never given any room to consider who is right - that's not a question that needs asking, and I think the film does well in not seeing a need to cover this. Still, power seems to rest with those who can wrestle the gavel from their opponents and shout their judgement the loudest. I need to be careful with spoilers here, but this is perhaps the film's weakest strategy: if you're going to sit someone down to hit them over the head with a moral message, don't then go and highlight the futility of that same message. It doesn't show depth - it's appears badly thought-through, and more than a little pointless. 

My challenge assistant for this instalment, Tom, points out that these two hammers could represent violence and the law/justice, respectively. It's valid, but we'd need another analogy structure for it to work here. Instead, in my framework, this idea indicates that American History X gets mixed up in its own intentions: it aims to pass judgment on racist violence, but instead it loses its own voice in the deafening cacophony of racial slurs and becomes mindlessly brutal in hammering home its own views. So, with valid foundational arguments and some interesting ideas in treating American racism, on the whole American History X is... ineffectual? This seems a harsh charge, but I'm going to stick to it. Feel free to disagree.

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