Sporting a shaved head and a proudly displaying a Swazstika on his chest, Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard takes centre stage of American History X. However, Tony Kaye chooses not to have Derek Vinyard the mantlepiece of this film, but rather Derek’s ideals and their impact on the Vinyard family. This includes Edward Furlong’s Danny Vinyard and the manifestation of Neo-Nazism being a big part of his life.
American History X opens is a strange manner, with the beginnings of that infamous scene shot strikingly in black and white. Fast-forward to Danny sat outside of the principal’s office after submitting a paper on Mein Kampf. His principal Sweeney (Avery Brooks) tells him to resubmit his paper on his brother Derek and his incarcerations impact on his family.
Tony Kaye chooses to drip feed the events of that fateful evening for Derek Vinyard throughout the film, always choosing to shoot these scenes in the similar black and white style. This very deliberate style depicts the differing views between Derek’s views in the past and the present, almost suggesting that the black and white scenes show an old-fashioned way of thinking.
Being set in Venice Beach, there is a wealth of cultures that are seen throughout the film, including a raid on a store that is ran by minorities and during the pick-up basketball court scene with the Crips. Obviously these minorities are deemed unjust by the white supremacists that take centre stage in this film.
Derek is the charismatic ringleader for these white supremacists, but he is seemingly a puppet that professes these ideals on behalf of the top dog Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach). Cameron preys on Derek shortly after the death of his father, who is shot by a ‘gangbanger’ whilst putting out a house fire. Cameron preying on Derek and begins to nurture Derek’s thoughts, that are seen in the TV interview he has about his father. This event, with the help of Cameron’s propaganda, tears the Vinyard family apart as Derek adopts this idealism, eventually having Danny follow in his footsteps.
Rather than having the film follow Derek and Danny profess their beliefs, its more about the changing of attitudes. This change is centralised through Derek as he tries to make Danny adapt to the same newfound belief, which is signified through the scenes in colour. Not only is it the changing of this attitude, but the maturing of Derek as he comes out of prison and disregarding his old lifestyle.
Tony Kaye has created a rather interesting film that bought with it an Oscar nomination for Edward Norton. Having the subject matter quite rife throughout the film, but not focusing on it, but rather the implications of this lifestyle on friends,
family and even schooling was a stroke of genius by Kaye. Instead of just showing the Derek’s previous lifestyle and glazing over it, he adopts this lifestyle and shows the comforting feel that Derek and Danny took away from the D.O.C (The Disciples of Christ – The Venice Beach faction of White Supremacists). Kaye typified this by having quite victorious music play over when they win the pick-up basketball game and shoo away the Crips.
With American History X Kaye has created a film that is perfect for discussions after the viewing due to the hard-hitting messages throughout the film. His ability to navigate through the Neo-Nazi idealisms whilst showing both sides of the coin of Derek is interesting and really effective.
It’s worth saying that the man loves a good slow-motion shot too, as they are rife throughout this film, but they work. Kaye’s ability to make you like and loathe characters is interesting too considering the likeability of Danny and then you meet Seth (Ethan Suplee) who is simply despicable. This comes down the performances from the cast, who really get involved with their roles with Edward Norton of course stealing the show and going through his characters maturation.