More noise than signal

American History X

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Edward Furlong’s Danny Vinyard is in trouble at school, having chosen Mein Kampf as a suitable subject for a book report relating to human rights. Why would he pick such an inflammatory piece of trash? Well, that’s the point, I suppose of American History X, as we delve into the past of the Vinyard family’s attitude to race relations at a critical point, just as his elder brother, Edward Norton’s Derek is released from prison.

He was a prominent local neo-Nazi before his incarceration on assault charges, but he’s seen the error of his ways, for reasons we’ll get to in flashback – spoilers, it’s because Nazis are total wanks, and alongside his old, and Danny’s current, teacher Avery ‘Sisko’ Brooks’ Dr. Bob Sweeney, they try to turn Danny away from the vortex of neo-Nazis that he’s being indoctrinated into, headed by Stacy Keach’s Cameron Alexander.

For a long time I figured the cultural legacy of American History X would be the introduction to the innocent of the concept of the kerb sandwich, however the entirely baffling resurgence of white nationalism brings this an unfortunate return to relevancy twenty years down the line. You could perhaps argue that this film isn’t saying a lot more than Nazis are bad, but apparently that’s a lesson we need to re-learn here in space year 2019.

As to the film itself, well, on revisiting for the first time in close to two decades, I have learned that 1. Nazi’s are still a bad thing, and 2. Tony Kaye really likes his closeups. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Kaye has done apart from Detachment, which, like American History X, I really like in the way that you like movies that are fundamentally unlikable.

Movies about Neo-Nazis are never going to be fun happy times, but while racism and anti-semitism has never come close to going away, maybe ten years ago I could have fooled myself into believing that we were on an arc bending towards justice. Recent years, perhaps, makes me think that this is instead a pendulum currently swinging in entirely the wrong direction.

In that light, American History X perhaps becomes a more important work now that it did on its initial release. Combining that social commentary with a clutch of extraordinary performances from the aforementioned cast and the likes of Elliott Gould, Beverly D’Angelo and even Ethan Suplee and this is essential, if not easy viewing.