Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo
Director: Tony Kaye
Running Time: 119 mins
American History X is an American film about a former neo-Nazi who, after being released from prison, tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same path.
Race relations and the deep-rooted problems that cause tensions in contemporary society has always been – and will always be – a point of major focus for Hollywood films, but there are few out there that have ever taken on the topic in such direct and unrelenting fashion as American History X.
With a striking and disturbing look into the underworld of far-right white supremacism, the film proves a harrowing watch, yet thanks to fantastic performances, calm and measured directing, and a screenplay that lends due attention and focus to the individuals who find themselves caught up in such a terrifying world, it’s also a deeply moving and powerful film throughout that will engross you in the topic in a way you’ve never felt before.
There is so much that makes American History X a truly amazing film, but the one thing that really stands out to me about it is just how direct and frank it is when tackling its topic. Taking the unorthodox route of looking at race relations from the side of extremist racial supremacists, the film provides an eye-opening and thought-provoking look into a side of society that most people are completely unaware of, presenting it in both harrowing and genuinely well-rounded fashion.
So, on the one hand, the film hits hard with its unrelenting depiction of the violence and extremist ideologies of white supremacists in the modern world, with a devastating opening scene alone grabbing you in seconds, and then developing throughout to give a deeply disturbing context to all of that anger. It’s a risky approach from director Tony Kaye, but in avoiding glorified, excessive violence and instead using it as an effective narrative tool, American History X will shake you to your core, yet keep you entirely engrossed in its wider social narrative.
And that’s where the excellent screenplay comes in, because while the film’s main topic is that of race relations and the world of white supremacism, I was hugely impressed by just how much focus the story lends to the individuals who find themselves falling into this terrifying world, something that allows you to understand their side of the story – and thereby better understand the route of the core problem.
Rather than a simplistic attack on violent extremism, American History X combines riveting character drama with ingeniously written examples of how racial supremacism comes to endure to this day, bringing the topic out of the hysterical land of the media and into the real world, where real people’s lives are totally devastated by the presence of racial supremacism, whatever side they’re on.
Of course, the topic still holds as much relevance today as it did twenty years ago, and as such the film’s carefully chosen focus allows you to relate what you’re seeing to your own experiences, something that hit me really hard as it opens up a genuinely thought-provoking demonstration of just how real a problem serious racism remains, even if it doesn’t come in the form of outright violence.
That’s what makes American History X such a striking and affecting watch, a well-rounded and cleverly focused perspective into a world that’s far more complex and real than is often made out, and thanks to deeply moving lead performances from Edward Norton and Edward Furlong in particular, the emotional effect of what you see happen throughout this film is really second to none, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.8 overall.