The importance of American History X – movie review

At the end of the 1990s, Edward Norton starred in 2 social commentary films in 2 years that are somehow even more relevant today than they were almost 25 years ago.

The second movie was Fight Club (1999). An incredible film about the hollowness of modern life and how one man goes to extremes to break free of the hamster wheel that societal norms would have us run on forever.

The first was American History X (1998).

American History X

The film is about a white supremacist (Derek) who serves 3 years in prison for brutally killing two black men who tried to break into his truck. It is set on the day of his return home where he discovers his younger brother (Danny) is headed down exactly the same path.

I saw this movie many years ago and have been thinking to watch it again since the race riots in the US last year. The problem is – it is a very tough movie to watch. Absolutely brilliant! But extremely dark, violent, and confronting.

What is amazing about the movie

To be honest, the entire film is amazing.

So incredible in fact, that it does a very good job of making you feel extremely uncomfortable and completely baffled about how something like this could happen throughout most its 2-hour run time. And that is exactly what it is trying to do.

The acting

Edward Norton deserves his Best Actor nomination for this role. He perfectly plays two very different characters in the film and you absolutely believe in both of them. From an intelligent teenager who has a lot of respect for his African-American history teacher, to a charismatic and violent neo-Nazi leader, and back again as an older and wiser man. He has always been one of my favourite actors.

The use of black and white

Without giving too much away, the story is told as a series of flashbacks interspersed with the events of the day Derek returns home. It is literally 24 hours that he is back with his family.

These flashbacks are presented in black and white – a reflection of Derek’s black and white outlook on the world where things are either right or wrong. They conform to his worldview or don’t.

The events of the day he returns home are shot in colour. Derek undergoes quite the transformation in prison and the many hues on the screen reflect his more nuanced view on the world.

I love this editing choice!

The use of slow motion

There are several slow-motion scenes in the movie but they all feel right. Not like a gimmick. The most powerful is Derek’s arrest scene.

The slow motion. The camera angle. The ethereal music. His posture and facial expression. All combine into a god-like image of this character as he owns his righteousness and complete belief in the unimaginable act he has just committed.

This quote

Has anything you’ve done made your life better?

American History X

A question that I think we all should reflect upon often.

Rating: A+

Everyone should see this movie.

It is hard to imagine that people like this exist in the world, but simply turn on the TV these days and it’s clear that racism and settling differences violently is becoming more and more common.

I’m glad I re-watched it. And will likely re-watch it again. This powerful movie was a disturbing reflection of the time when it was made, and continues to be a sad reflection of current issues in 2021.

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