American History X sucks.
I can’t seem to find this view point anywhere online, like there’s a giant conspiracy afoot in the media (oh no, starting to sound like a looney republican!), but it must be said. This was a horrible movie from start to finish. About the closest I can find to anyone feeling this way is the director, Tony Kaye, who wanted his name removed from the final product.
Right from the opening scenes, and pretty much throughout the whole movie, we are shown the objects of Derek’s hatred, African Americans, as criminals who are ruining the fabric of society. And if this movie was your only source of information (you would be really sad!) you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that was true. About the only positive image of an African American in the film is Danny’s history teacher. Everyone else is selling drugs and stealing cars, etc etc. Then the movie would have us believe Derek is a monster because he kills people who are trying to steal his car. Call me a monster too, but I can’t help but think you should be allowed to kill someone trying to steal your car, break into your home, attack your loved ones etc. Wouldn’t it have made a more powerful, on-point message, if this hateful man had killed a college student who was on his way to his part time job in a library? Or a woman on her way to her job in a hospital? Or a lawyer or a doctor or an innocent high school student? Why build a movie around an event as ambiguous as the killing of a car thief? Yes, Derek hates black people and the man trying to steal his car was black, but really… Is this a great example of his hatred? Even allowing that Derek used an excessive, disturbing amount of violence, the connection to his hateful agenda is cast into disarray by the fact that he was responding to a crime being committed against him and his property. Maybe he didn’t “turn the other cheek” when he was awakened by the sound of people breaking into his car, but this event can hardly be the basis for the events that follow. There were (and are) probably hundreds or thousands of ways we could have been believably shown what a hateful monster Derek was, but all we get is that his father was killed by black drug users, he feels his neighborhood is being destroyed by black people (the film doesn’t present anything in the way of evidence that this isn’t true – some anecdotal evidence that not every African American in the neighborhood was a drug dealing, car stealing thug would have been a welcome relief and would have bolstered the idea that Derek is truly living a life based on a distorted, hateful view) and all we are left with is a disturbing manifestation of a world at war where there are no good guys, only different camps of bad guys. If I could believe the view of Venice Beach we get is Derek’s view of it, distorted through his hateful lens of race warfare, then the one sided view of the African Americans living there would make more sense, but it really doesn’t seem to me that this was the deliberate attempt of the filmmakers. But then again, the director did try to scrub his name from the final movie – perhaps his version and vision was a better movie (?). I suppose we’ll never know.
Again, the premise has promise: Show a man full of hate, show it destroying him, show his retribution, show his transformation. I don’t feel this movie did that effectively, and everything falls apart from there. It seems to want to say that hatred is wrong and bad (hard to argue with that!) and that it will ruin your life, but my problem is that this film doesn’t really say that. That message is there on the surface, but it doesn’t take a psychology degree to realize that this film is actually preaching hate and stoking the flames of hatred and that is my real complaint with this film. There is a strong undercurrent glamorizing the struggle of “the white man” against the (non-white) world. Consumers of media would be wise to learn to “read between the lines” and discover hidden counter-messages in not only this movie, but sprinkled throughout many different manifestations of media. Pay attention to details. Pay attention to sounds and backgrounds, the soundtrack, those little details that get lost in the mix if you’re not in the habit of looking and listening for them.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is no deliberate attempt to portray any message other than the overly obvious message in this movie. In that case, the filmmakers are just plain incompetent and allowed the subject matter to get out of their control. I don’t know, but I can’t think of any movie, before or since, that fails so miserably to deliver its stated package.
There are many uncomfortable movies dealing with race relations: A Time to Kill, Crash, there are even a few uncomfortable moments in Do the Right Thing (which is such a great film that it will get its own post shortly), among others, but these films succeed in delivering their message in concise, emotionally moving ways. What was going through the minds of the team putting American History X together? I’m not sure I even want to know!