Racists are made, not born. That's the theme of director Tony Kaye's American History X--"theme" as in "theme paper." Passing itself off as a report from the front lines of racial hatred in America, the movie also seeks to understand what turns white boys into white-power boys. Unfortunately, the answer it comes up with is at least as old as Rebel Without a Cause and as young as Boyz N the Hood: family. Like the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story, Edward Norton's Derek Vinyard is depraved on account of he's deprived--in Derek's case, deprived of his father, a firefighter who was shot and killed while trying to keep a crack house from going up in smoke. Instead, Derek's life went up in smoke. Almost overnight, he transformed himself from an honors English student into a guy whose favorite book is Mein Kampf.
The movie opens with a sequence in which Derek shoots two black gangbangers who are breaking into his car and then, in a gesture better left undescribed, makes sure neither of them will ever steal again. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, these scenes take place in the past, and at first we're a little confused about whom to pull for; Derek's defense of his home seems both heroic and horrific. Next, we're transported to the present, which takes place in living color. Derek, after serving three years, is about to be released from prison. Meanwhile, his kid brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), has just turned in a book report titled "My Mein Kampf." Danny's principal, who's black, once taught Derek, and he's not about to lose a second brother, signing Danny up for a one-on-one tutorial called American History X.
Danny's first assignment is a theme paper on why Derek had to go to prison, and the rest of the movie unfolds as, page by page, Danny tries to make sense of what has happened to his family. That's a perfectly fine thing for a movie to do, of course, but it can be done well or not so well. I'd give American History X about a C. Though its heart is in the right place, its head seems stuck in a social worker's case file. And for a movie purportedly about kids today, it sure comes on like an adult, teaching and preaching the evils of neo-Nazism. Does the average moviegoer need to be told that? No, but the average teenage moviegoer may, and American History X seems directed at boys and girls who might want to try this at home. Despite some cinematic razzmatazz, it's a just-say-no movie, like Reefer Madness.
But like most just-say-no movies, it says no by first wallowing in yes. The camera all but salivates as Derek, having just delivered a lecture on illegal immigration (complete with statistics!), takes his skinhead class on a field trip to a local Korean-owned grocery. Later, there's a rape-in-prison scene that seems straight out of a gay S&M porno movie. Throughout American History X, Kaye lingers on Norton's buff (and often in-the-buff) body, fetishizing the large swastika that's tattooed over his heart. As the pinup boy for white supremacy in Venice Beach, Calif., Norton, who's a smart actor, radiates intelligence, but intelligence isn't exactly the first quality we associate with neo-Nazi skinheads. They're dumb almost by definition, and they certainly don't need statistics in order to terrorize a Korean-owned grocery.
Are skinheads today's Dead End Kids, the latest in a long line of street punks, or are they something new under the sun? It's a question Kaye and his 28-year-old scriptwriter, David McKenna, answer by default, falling into any number of clichés from the gangster movies of the '30s, the juvenile delinquent movies of the '50s, the New Jack movies of the '80s and '90s. Movies about troubled teens can be roughly divided into those that want to unlock their minds (e.g., Rebel Without a Cause) and those that want to lock up their bodies (e.g., Blackboard Jungle)--liberal and conservative, to put it bluntly. American History X is what I'd call knee-jerk liberal. Its story is completely dictated by its politics--the message it wants to convey. And its message is as simple as one-two-three: Can't we all just get along?
Maybe we can, maybe we can't, but the movie tips the scales to prove first one and then the other side of the argument. Kaye and McKenna sometimes bend over so far to understand why white kids turn to neo-Nazism that they have trouble getting back up. And Kaye, for whatever reasons, keeps staging scenes that will have certain white audience members standing and cheering--e.g., an interracial basketball game in which Derek and his boys win back territorial rights to Venice Beach's outdoor courts. (White men can jump!) If we learned anything from the O.J. Simpson trial, it's that white people and black people can look at the same pile of evidence and draw entirely different conclusions. Perhaps black viewers won't think American History X gives them the short end of the stick, but I sure do.
The filmmakers cover themselves with some positive portrayals of black people. Avery Brooks' high school principal has the regal bearing of Paul Robeson. And Guy Torry nearly walks away with the movie as Lamont, a black inmate who inexplicably reaches out to Derek. (The prison, like the one in HBO's "Oz" series, is both tough and tender--horror with a heart of gold.) Right on schedule, Derek is reformed, partly thanks to Lamont, partly thanks to the white-supremacist inmates, who finally show him where to stick his self-righteous ranting and raving. Does that give you any idea how confused the movie is? In his defense, Kaye was fired during the reediting of American History X and tried to have his name removed from the credits. But, if you ask me, the problems aren't in the movie's execution but in its conception.
We all want to understand neo-Nazi skinheads better; but the fact is, there may not be much to understand. I've read that many German skinheads barely know what Hitler stood for, although they worship him. It's that kind of willful ignorance, beside which Derek seems as earnest as a Boy Scout, that someone needs to get up on the big screen. Australia's Geoffrey Wright came close with 1993's Romper Stomper, but he too succumbed to sensationalism, romanticism and all-in-the-family explanations. "He's just a boy without a father," Derek's chain-smoking mother (Beverly D'Angelo) says about him, and American History X is basically about Derek's search for a new father. But can it possibly be that simple? Are neo-Nazi skinheads just a nation of orphans in search of a Fatherland? If so, where did all their fathers go?
And what about the fact that Derek, as we see in a flashback, learned racism at his own father's knee? Especially when it comes to race, American history is littered with simple answers to complex questions. Alas, so is American History X.