Skip to main content

As it seems I've been lax on this diary series and let it go just a wee bit to far. So many movies with so many points of view its difficult to point them all out. Just so many great movies with so many message points, it is so very difficult to pick any one movie to analyze and share.

I have drafts on The International, great movie on how deep a rabbit hole can go and how it applies to this era's banking disaster and a recent diary on the Dark Knight for which I think is prudent to just shut my pie hole regarding the film in recent light of the Colorado tragedy. So I figured tonight lets watch a movie we maybe haven't seen in awhile but has such a remarkable impact on cultural significance that it really needs little introduction.

Join me after the parole squiggle for a peek into what is one of the of more powerful racial messaging movies in modern history.

American History X was released on October 30th of 1998 and netted a total of 156k dollars its first week. It was one of those rare movies that releases to limited release and then eventually due to attraction goes to a wider release. There is a limited stable of movies that can claim this mantle, indeed the film ballooned to an increase in 450+ screen release 30 days after its premiere. For those unfamiliar with the goings on of Hollywood and how movies are screened amongst theaters, it was a BFD as Joe would say.

It was one of those rare movies to, and I grab a modern term not yet known then, to go viral. People talked about it, they shared about it, and it spread like a virus. I remember living in Chicago going to school and having a friend of mine drag me to the theater to see this movie, him literally screaming to me at times "You HAVE to see this movie, it GETS IT"

The movie did get it, and we'll get to what the it is here in a minute but first lets look at the history and fall out.

Edward Norton, who in my honest opinion is one of the finest actors of the modern era, garnered a nomination for best actor. He was that year up against stiff competition and the academy decided that Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful was more deserving that year. While Life is Beautiful on technicality was a better film, I felt American History X should have gotten a cursory award because of its poignant look at racism, but that's the Academy, for who I am quite convinced they put the nominations on a dart board, down a fifth of Jack Daniels and throw darts to figure out winners at times.

The movie stars obviously Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a boy turned twisted man getting drawn into the white supremacy movement through the tragic death of his father. His actions as he becomes this ball of hate land him in prison where by he undergoes a transformation and throws down his violent and racist ways. The movie starts on his impending release from prison, and through flashbacks which very importantly are done in a very stark black and white while the present is done in color. On his exit from prison we see Derek with purpose, attempting to influence, nay save, his brother Danny, played by a weak performance IMHO by Edward Furlong. It is not just his brother, we see Derek through his transformation trying to save his family.

The film has a bevy of other good parts and actors as well. From Beverly D'Angelo as Derek's mom to Fairuza Balk as Derek's girlfriend. And side line here, how does Fairuza Balk play crazy so well? In any event one of the more powerful supporting cast members in this stable of great characters is Avery Brooks as Dr. Robert Sweeney. He plays Principal for Danny in the present but then in the past Honors English teacher of Derek. Sweeney helps Derek in being his rock amongst the storm, very often without Derek even realizing it.

By the end of this movie, you'll be asking yourself how could you miss obviously racist things. Its a powerful point on how deep racism actually goes. We don't get to see this till late in the movie, right near the end indeed. For the entire trip of the film we think of Derek as having a profound transformation from the loss of his Father. A disillusioned youth who gets his mind poisoned from the likes of Cameron Alexander, played by Stacy Keach. But at the end of the movie we are shown this is not the case. The seeds of racism had been planted and indeed had started to already grow that vile plant. It was only Cameron who recognized the seedling and gave it water and sun, and in doing this with the reveal at the end it is pointed out to us how deep racism actually is.

You see, despite the fact that we have elected a black man president, racial tensions still exist; they existed then as they do now. It is both horrific yet ironic that despite making so many leaps and bounds against racism in the past twenty years that it took electing our first black president to point out just how abjectly racist people still are in this nation. Sure it's not as overt and blatant as say Alabama in the sixties, but does it make it any better when politicians get on a podium and scream dog whistles like 'foreign' at a president who is more indicative and in line with our American history?

I feel I am getting ahead of myself, so lets reverse course and analyze some very strong scenes in the film and how they move the thematic point and purpose of the movie, we'll also touch on the history of the movie as well.

I won't rehash the plot summary in full here, go on over to the wiki for a quick summary.

In the history of Hollywood a film like this should have flopped. It had a director who all but disavowed the film and had a third party bring it to tertiary cut of the film. This third cut used what was left on the floor the first and second time, something that often means a death knell for a movie. Typically when you have such a dysfunctional production you end up with a mess, a mushed together mash that neither entertains nor gives a message of any sort. It was considered so horrific of a production that the studio literally threw whatever they had at the wall and hoped it would stick, a large reason it got such a limited release in October of all places. If you are not familiar with typical Hollywood release schedules, you don't always release a drama on Halloween weekend. That this film had this hurdle yet still drives a stake home should ride roughshod over the idea that racism was and even still to this day, an issue in this nation.

Lets get to the meat of the film and analyze some of its most important scenes.

Derek is a teenage in turmoil. He is troubled by his fathers death, a fire fighter having been shot by addicts while attempting to put out a house fire. We are led as the audience thinking that this is his turning point; but really it comes later; ys we will get to that later, for those that have seen the movie. We are led through this moment through the narration of his brother Danny as he tells his brothers story, as an assignment for Sweeney for having turned in a paper on Mein Kampf.

For the rest of the movie, up until the end, we get to see Derek's life through the eyes, words, and mind of his brother Danny. The flashbacks are presented to us through narration of Danny and Derek. These flashbacks literally are the paper Danny has planned to turn into Sweeney. Like miniature chapters we are presented the character Danny had grown to look up too, love, and eventually planned to emulate. As Danny writes the paper the movie moves along until we get to Derek's narrative into the paper. Derek goes on to explain his experience in prison and how it transformed him as a person.

Eventually we see Derek turn his back on the Aryan Brotherhood, befriend a black man while on his prison job and confide to Sweeney who it seems has made it his mission to save this family from destruction. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is here, the exchange of dialogue between Derek and Sweeney after being raped by his supposed 'leader'. Sweeney delivers one of the more powerful exchanges in cinema history.

Bob Sweeney: There was a moment, when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw what happen to my people. Used to blame everybody. Blamed white people, blamed society, blamed God. I didn't get no answers 'cause I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.
Derek Vinyard: Like what?
Bob Sweeney: Has anything you've done made your life better?
Derek breaks down at that point, realizing the summation of his life and actions has done nothing to benefit him nor his family. Its a powerful moment and I dare anyone to watch it and not tear up just a little.

Another great moment in the movie is where Derek is released. As he exits the prison he meets his now friend from the laundry room. For the entirety of his turning the back on the Brotherhood he had expected to be at the mercy of the remainder of gangs, yet nothing comes. It's not confirmed by his friend, but Derek had suspected all this time that his friend was the one vouching for him and keeping the gangs at bay. It's a touching moment where both men realize how deep of a connection they have and how selfless Derek's friend was, and how deeply it has really touched Derek.

The movie is rife with so many symbols as well, along with great metaphors. On one of the closing scenes of the movie we see Derek in the shower, as Danny finishes his paper for Sweeney, they just having torn down every racist propaganda in their room in a great family epiphany. As Derek exits the shower he looks upon his visage in the mirror. His large and prominent swastika tattoo on his chest a marker of his life and actions, he then holds his hand over it; despite attempting to wash himself clean, the shower, there is nothing that will erase his history.

The movie concludes with the finality of Derek's choices. I will not give away the ending, it needs seen to grasp the power of the film, but in totality of the life that Derek chose, indeed what Sweeney got him with earlier with the line "Has anything you've done made your life better? " this very pivotal scene drives the point home of the horrors of hate and racism in the final moments of the movie.

Indeed, you could apply Sweeney's line across all the scenes of the movie, especially a very powerful dinner scene mid movie. I will not ruin the power of that scene with a description. If you watch any of this movie, this scene next to the one between Sweeney and Derek, the dinner table exchange is second to none. A line from that movie strikes a sword into the heart.. "Doris, you don't know the world your children live in"

Every scene in this movie uses very strong and huge use of film making tactics. We see things like slow motion to emphasis a moment of a character, from the moment Derek murders the car thieves to where Derek is raped in prison. These slow motion moments help to amplify the importance of the scene not only to the participants but to more importantly the narrators. Because remember we are hearing the story of Derek through the mind of Danny for the most part.

There are also subtle tricks of film making at play. Things like auditory isolation such as when Derek is giving his magnum opus in front of the grocery store claiming it a battleground but yet birds sing in the distance; battleground in Derek and his thrall's mind yet obviously a serene neighborhood in ours. One final film making trick that hammers the theme home is the use of focus, and this comes into play during that exchange with Derek and Sweeney after the rape. The camera focuses to such a sharp clarity on Sweeney, yet when on Derek we see only face with the bust out of focus. This was done on purpose to represent a man with a purpose and a man out of focus; Derek being awash and amidst turmoil while Sweeney having already tread that path of hate is laser focused.

I could keep espousing so many of the scenes in this movie and how many things they touch both on racial, family, class, just name it; but obviously if you have read to this moment I have already gotten a bit wordy about this movie. So with that I'll move into the closing.

The movie ends with Furlong in narration; he is closing his paper up and narrates this.

So I guess this is where I tell you what I learned - my conclusion, right? Well, my conclusion is: Hate is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it. Derek says it's always good to end a paper with a quote. He says someone else has already said it best. So if you can't top it, steal from them and go out strong. So I picked a guy I thought you'd like. 'We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.'
Yeah, that quote? Abraham Lincoln, who also suffered a great sacrifice for doing what should come naturally to all of us, a recognition that as another great founder had said "All men are created equal".

If you haven't seen it, watch it it. It's a powerful redemption story with a realization of what costs our choices in life have. If you have seen it, watch it again. Realize how far we've come, yet how far we have yet to go.

Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 7:23 AM PT: Responding to comments and just realized its on the spotlight. Thank you rangers! For those interested I'll attempt to respond to every comment...assuming my break times cooperate.

Originally posted to Hoosier Progressive on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 08:48 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (22+ / 0-)

    --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

    by idbecrazyif on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 08:48:14 PM PDT

  •  It didn't help the film's initial reception that (5+ / 0-)

    Tony Kaye was calling himself the greatest director since Hitchcock - before finishing his first film - and trashed every other person who worked on it, including Norton.   People were lined up to hate it, then surprised it wasn't bad... And a lot of the credit for that goes to Norton, not just as the lead, but as the co-editor of the completed version.

    For what it's worth, I think it's an okay movie.  It gets overt racism a bit better than it gets tolerance, and it's hard not to cringe at the way Norton's conversion comes through selfless black people, although there's a Dostoevskian element in the defeat of rational racism by irrational tolerance.   The main attraction is Norton, and the Academy was right to nominate him for the performance (and wrong to give the award to Benigni, given he was up against great performances by Norton, McKellen, and Nolte.)

    I think most people only remember the curb stomp.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 09:52:58 PM PDT

  •  Not much fun, exactly, but a punch (4+ / 0-)

    It was my first time noticing Norton, and he astonished me. When next I saw him as a nebbish in "Fight Club," I knew, as you said, I was seeing one of the most subtle anc omplete actors around.

    It's a horrifying, powerful movie. It must be seen. I own it on DVD, and yet it's so strong in its violence and its dark society that I find it difficult to watch again. It's rather like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind": it must be watched, and it will change the viewer, but it's hard to go through that door twice.

    Everyone is innocent of something.

    by The Geogre on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 04:48:19 AM PDT

    •  I agree with you totally (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Geogre, FindingMyVoice, koosah

      Its a movie that needs watched for at least a second time. I've seen it several times so far, and I keep picking up on nuances every single time, credit to the editing of the movie.

      This is third in my favorite movies with Norton, second being fight club and first being Leaves of Grass. If you get a chance, check this one out it really nails the hammer home on how good of an actor Edward is. I think he will end up in the history of Hollywood like an Anthony Hopkins. Subtle in his early years and remarkably powerful as he ages and builds his resume.

      --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

      by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 05:20:01 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Norton & Macy: masters of the internal (4+ / 0-)

        What I like about Norton and William H. Macy is that both of them move and gesture and reveal in their physical presence and instincts what a character is thinking. It's extremely subtle. Now, I don't think it's "method" so much (the Blu-Ray commentary for "Fight Club" is hilarious) as it's just thinking. Brad Pitt is a better actor than he gets credit for -- his fame obscures his acting sometimes -- but Macy and Norton are two who came to attention at about the same time and who both inhabit the moment of the character.

        When Norton as a character reacts to something, watch the hands, shoulders, and eyes -- he will, without a close up or even a 2 shot, communicate what that character would be experiencing.

        Everyone is innocent of something.

        by The Geogre on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 05:53:57 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Very well put, and you can see this in this movie (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          koosah, The Geogre

          There is a moment where Danny is espousing his race hatred and Derek hears it from beyond the door threshold, you can see the anguish in Norton's face. In those few moments he communicates an entire litany of emotions and meaning.

          Agreed that him, Macy and Pitt are subtle masters at this. Pitt does it extraordinarily well in A River Runs Through It. The pain that Pitt displays while holding his dying wife...just wow.

          --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

          by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 06:09:09 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Also great to watch in Rounders (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        idbecrazyif

        with Matt Damon.

        I'll have to see Leaves of Grass.

        "She was very young,he thought,...she did not understand that to push an inconvenient person over a cliff solves nothing." -1984

        by aggressiveprogressive on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 09:52:14 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Ohh yes, loved Rounders (0+ / 0-)

          Really loved John Turturro in that one, now there is an actor who is literally everywhere but no where in movies. Underrated IMHO.

          --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

          by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 10:19:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    idbecrazyif, Aspe4, koosah

    for this diary.  I just saw this film on Saturday on cable and it has remained with me for days.  And the one scene you pointed out between Sweeny and Derek has given me my goto remark for all young people who I may be able to influence in the future.  Edward Norton is the reason I watched the film to begin with, he is a stunning actor.

    •  I love that line, the run up to that moment just (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koosah

      makes it even more powerful.

      I love it when a movie touches people and gives them something they can share forward.

      --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

      by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 08:37:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I saw this when it first came out. It's hard to (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    idbecrazyif, Odysseus

    watch (especially the 'curb stomp' scene at the beginning), but it's a great movie. My father still talks about it, and said he can't wait for my nephew (who is 11 right now) to be old enough to watch it and understand it.

    Whose interest does ignorance serve? - Carl Sagan

    by spgilbert on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 07:51:12 AM PDT

    •  One of my favorites moments in the movie (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dejavu, koosah

      is not just the revelation by Derek with Sweeney, but Danny right at the end as he cries while writing his paper. Him realizing the summation of his family's life and letting go of the hate.

      Its going to be one of my go to movies up there with To Kill a Mockingbird that I share with my son when he is old enough.

      --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

      by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 08:44:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  great movie (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    idbecrazyif, koosah

    I'm proud to say that my son turned me on to it. We sat down together and watched it (he for the second time) when he was only 16.

    He was contemplating becoming a skinhead at the time, because he thought the look was cool, but he wanted to look deeper before he committed himself. Happy to say he decided to remain a peaceful punk.

    Entertainment is one of the best ways to reach out and educate.

    It's not about the hundred people whose minds you can't change. It's about the two people you empower. ~ Beth Ditto

    by dejavu on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 09:27:47 AM PDT

  •  It's in my top 20 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    idbecrazyif, koosah

    I loved it.  I rented it and was blown away.  The next morning as I was preparing to take it back to the video store (in the olden days), I decided to watch the first few minutes again to review the opening.  I sat there transfixed and watched the entire thing again less than 10 hours after I saw it the first time.  Now that is a great movie.

    Dogs have so many friends because they wag their tails instead of their tongues. -Anonymous

    by gloryous1 on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 10:05:14 AM PDT

    •  If it makes you feel any better (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      gloryous1, koosah

      I had watched this this past sat and wrote up the draft that night. Last night I put it on again to brush up the final draft just so I didn't miss anything, hadn't planned on watching the whole thing.

      Next thing I know its almost one the morning.

      I can count on my hand how many movies that do that to me.

      --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

      by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 10:23:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I saw it on TV a few days ago (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    idbecrazyif, koosah

    (Not the first time)

    What struck me most was that it shows how the Tea Party isn't a new force on the scene of American politics & culture.  It rang very true for today.

    Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

    by Land of Enchantment on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 11:37:16 AM PDT

  •  This movie is like cancer surgery-- (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    idbecrazyif

    No part of it is fun or entertaining, but it makes one healthier by the end of it.

    We own it, of course.  It is just so compelling.  I had no idea it had such trouble getting completed...perhaps that turbulence echoes throughout the movie.  It is difficult to watch, but I couldn't look away.

    I have a handful of movies which I ask other people if they've seen.  This is one.  If they have, it tells me a lot about them!    

    "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Dom Helder Camara

    by koosah on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 01:12:19 PM PDT

    •  Agreed with that line, healthier indeed (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koosah

      The story of how this movie made it to the screen is insane. The first cut rejected and sent for a reshoot ,the director instead cut 18 minutes of film and reaaranged it.

      He submitted it and the New Line rejected it again. He essentially walked off the project and they brought in a third party who picked up everything shot to date and recut the film with Edward Norton assisting.

      Tony Kaye is the definition of insanity when defining insanity in Hollywood. He wanted his name removed from the credits but instead of the typical Alan Smithee he wanted it to read Humpty Dumpty.

      And get this, the guy is making a documentary about the whole drama that it was and guess who gets distribution rights?

      New Line

      Hollywood is weird

      --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

      by idbecrazyif on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 01:28:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  One of the most compelling movies (0+ / 0-)

    I have ever seen, period. Knowing the subject matter, I never really wanted to see it, but I am SO glad I did.

    We first watched it just a few years ago. Came home after an evening with friends, turned on the TV just to watch something before bed, and neither of us could turn away. About a week ago I happened upon it again, near the beginning, and again - could not turn away. It is by NO means an easy movie, but it is so important. And yes - Edward Norton's performance is above and beyond, simply astounding.

    If you've never seen it, please do so. As I said, it is not easy, but you won't regret it for a second.

    ""Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose...there is no reason not to follow your heart." - Steve Jobs, 1955 - 2011

    by txflower on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 04:37:21 PM PDT

  •  Excellent diary (0+ / 0-)

    I remember seeing this movie when it came out.  It was so powerful.  I recommended it to everyone I knew.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site