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 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.
Derek Vinyard: Like what?
Bob Sweeney: Has anything you've done made your life better?
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.