Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I WATCHED American History X (1998), a film about racism, told from the viewpoints of the two Vinyard brothers, Derek (Edward Norton) and Danny (Edward Furlong). They're brilliant students, but you know how brilliance can be a good and a bad thing—you get high grades, sure, but on the other hand, you're exposed to various belief systems, and that if you're not careful enough, you can easily be swayed, overshadowed by the supposed complexity or sophistication.

Derek starts out as a good, straight-A student. He is influenced by a man named Cameron, who introduces him to the concept of the superiority of the white race and the problems allegedly caused by the infiltration of migrants—black, brown, and yellow—in contemporary American society. Derek organizes a gang of white men; together they plunder a grocery store owned by a Korean man and drive away black men from the basketball court. They're like the Klu Klux Klan, really.

One night, a group of black Americans breaks into Derek's car. Derek, fueled by hatred, shoots them one by one. He is jailed for three years.

The younger Danny looks up to his brother Derek. He is witness to the shooting incident. While Derek languishes in jail, he joins his brother's organization. He puts up a large Nazi poster in his room. He worships Hitler and even writes a paper on Mein Kampf, which, when read by the principal Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) himself, gains a lot of speculation. He meets Cameron, too, who later becomes his mentor.

Derek eventually gets out of prison a changed man. He talks to his kid brother to quit the white supremacist organization, punches Cameron in the face, and dishes away his old "friends," even his Gothic-looking girlfriend.

What happened in jail is the big question, so let me tell you what I think. I think Derek is already a confused man to begin with. His beliefs are not powered by logic; they're driven by hatred. So when he meets a black inmate named Lamont (Guy Torry) in the prison laundry, he comes to terms with his doubts and is confronted by errors of his belief system: that not all black people are bad people. Ultimately the battle is waged in the mind. He has been wrong all along. Months go by, and Lamont emerges as his only true friend in prison.

The film is beautifully crafted. If you plan to watch it, there's a lot of violence and foul language. The plots can get overwhelming, but it's well worth the time.

Many thanks to my friend Casti for suggesting that I watch the film and making me promise that I do. I'm glad I did.



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