Taking up a burning social and topical issue, and dealing with it in a mature manner, calls for a lot of grit. This is especially true when the issue is at the root of social unrest. What becomes imperative for the director, is to strike a balance. American History X manages to do just that with the issue of racism in urban America. An explicit narration, coupled with excellent performances, puts this movie above the ordinary.
It tells us the story of Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a man scorched with hatred for the racial minorities in his country. As an expression of his angst, he tatooes a Swastik on his chest. The trouble for him is that he finds it hard to bridle his feelings.
One night, he brutally kills two blacks who look to vandalize his car. Three years later, as he is about to be released, his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), also gets drawn in the mire of racism. When asked to present a paper in school on any book, he submits one on Mein Kampf.
His principal, Sweeney (Avery Brooks), asks him to present another paper on his brother's influence on his life. The paper is to be called American History X.
Derek is released, and even as he appears to be a changed man, Danny starts recollecting the events that led to Derek's incarceration. Here on, the narration shifts back and forth and most of the retrospective scenes are shot in restrained color, giving them an identiy of their own.
Derek finds it hard to sever his relations with 'nigger-hating' gangs as they now bestow upon him the status of a demi-god. But that is not his only mission. He has to save his brother from the same people and compensate for the misery he brought upon his family.
All that we witness is shocking, poignant and even enraging. Danny's reminensces are a pointer to the genesis of the racism, and Derek's are a pointer to how misplaced the notions are in the first place.
The two Edwards - Norton and Furlong - are brilliant, to say the least; especially the former. All the hatred and passion of his character, as well as the anguish over his past actions, show through his eyes. They brim with rage and sadistic contentment after being arrested. Furlong is a wonderfully balanced actor and it helps that he is not as cute as Leonardo. His character is as important as Norton's, in revealing to us the social roots of racism.
The direction is superb and well complemented by some slick editing. The jumping narration adds to the dramatic feel. Watch it. But be wary of some shocking violence!