American History X

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Tony Kaye

REVIEWED: 11-02-98

One of the most troubling and overlooked of recent social developments is the skinhead, neo-Nazi movement, but the only lesson you're likely to learn about it in first-time director Tony Kaye's clumsy and exploitative American History X is to avoid public rest rooms and shower facilities. Young Danny Vinyard (a bland Edward Furlong) has shocked history teacher Murray (Elliott Gould) with his shaved head and research paper on Mein Kampf. So the school's idealistic principal, Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), tutors him in a course he dubs "American History X." Danny's first assignment is to write about his brother Derek (Edward Norton), who's about to be released from prison for killing a pair of black carjackers.

Told in awkward flashbacks (the past is in black-and-white with clumsy voiceovers), X relates how Derek metamorphosed from a bright student inspired by Sweeney's classes on Native Son to a racebaiter and charismatic leader inspired by his dad's ramblings about affirmative action at the dinner table. It's a jury-rigged pastiche of a character, and though Norton is suitably malevolent and fascinating as the swastika'd stormtrooper, no one could bring conviction to Derek's contrived conversions. Brutal in its depiction of street and domestic violence (a scene in which Derek berates mom Beverly D'Angelo and Murray, who's her boyfriend, is especially chilling), this History perversely becomes coherent only when Derek articulates his racist ideology -- arguments, according to the film's press notes, culled from California governor Pete Wilson's diatribes against Proposition 209.

--Peter Keough

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