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American History X

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American History X is a no-holds-barred look at the very real underbelly of racism. This film is not about skinheads or white power. This is a searing contemporary tragedy that grips one working-class family. The story is set in Venice Beach, Calif., and it begins by establishing the grievances of the white working class against the black working class. As Danny said in the movie “Things used to be great, but then "they" began to move in and the neighborhood turned into a 'hood. Pretty soon "they" took over the playgrounds and the schoolyards and pretty soon after that, everything "we" believed in was wrong and "we" were strangers in our own land.” (American History X) The story follows an intelligent young man named Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and his decline into the world of disillusion and hate known as White Supremacy. Once a thoughtful and easy-going teen, he soon begins his change when his casually racist fireman father is killed while trying to put out a fire at a suspected drug den. He (Derek) develops a simplistic and unoriginal philosophy blaming immigrants and minorities for what he calls a deterioration of American values. Falling under the wing of a neo-Nazi named Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), a villain who enlists alienated, disillusioned youths into his white supremacy group. Then he stands away and manipulates them into doing his bidding, never himself taking an active hand in the corrupt activities he orchestrates.

Derek soon becomes a recruiting agent for that local white group. While the local movement grows, Derek's soul withers further and further away, polluted more and more by hate. This moral deterioration culminates when Derek kills two black gang members who try to steal his truck. He is caught and sent to jail, where he is shown the error of his ways, the hard way. With the help of one of his former teachers (Avery Brooks), Derek begins to reform. It, however, may be too little too late.

While Derek was in prison, his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is starting to head down the same path Derek did. On the day of Derek's release from prison, Danny hands in a schoolbook report on Mein Kampf. The school principal (Avery Brooks), enraged by this, demands Danny to write a new paper called “American History X,” on the events that led to Derek's incarceration. As Danny pecks into his computer a tale of danger, intrigue, and the politics of gangs, which turns up the flames to show the source of hatred, which prompts Derek to tattoo a swastika across his chest as a vivid symbol of his extremist ideology.

Now, aside from trying to leave the world he (Derek) helped create, he also has to try to save his brother from making the same mistakes he made. So as the movie goes on Derek has to go through a lot of trouble to keep his kid brother from being in this white supremacy group. Some of those troubles include beating Cameron almost to his death, pulling guns out on what use to be his friends and just betraying the views in which he once believed in. The film then goes on with Derek telling Danny about the things that he had seen and had done to him while he was in prison. Derek tells Danny that he is “tried of being pissed off” he doesn’t want to be like that any more and Derek hopes that Danny will change his ways. He sees all the destruction that hate causes, not only to society at large, but to his own family. Therein lies the lesson: Everyone suffers from hate crimes."

As the first day of Derek’s freedom comes to an end it has Danny and Derek taking down all of Danny’s Nazi paraphernalia and Danny wrapping up his paper to turn in the next morning. As the next morning comes around Derek walks Danny to school. Where before class Danny walks into the bathroom and while he is finishing up in there, Danny turns around and behind him stands a black kid who, the day before Danny was starting stuff with, has a gun pointed at Danny. The black kid pulls the trigger and kills Danny and the film comes to an end with Danny saying a quote.

I believe that first-time director Tony Kaye keeps things from going into clichй land by giving the film a (at-times) documentary feel, with tight close-ups and some fast camera movement (Kaye was also the film's director of photography). He does go a little bit overboard with some rather splashy effects. No matter, however, for whatever tricks he uses, it cannot dilute the power of David McKenna's adamant screenplay or the incredible performances that Norton gives Derek’s layers of intelligence, pain, rage, redemption and humility. It is definitely a role he could have gone over the top with. But self-control is Norton's ace in the hole, and he plays it beautifully. He is given solid support from Furlong, who is starting to show some real promise as a young actor, Brooks as the teacher who refuses to give up

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