Essential Cinema: American History X (1998)

Other | Tuesday 26th January 2016 | Sam

Tony Kaye’s incredible exploration of neo-Nazism in America is a great insight into the effects of racism on both the victim and the perpetrator. It’s not often that we see the negative effects of racism through the racist’s eyes on film, that’s what makes this piece of cinema so unique and moving. American History X is the furthest thing from light-hearted you could get, many of the scenes are distressing and quite difficult to watch, but that takes nothing away from its brilliance.

After serving three years in prison for viciously murdering two black men who tried breaking into his truck, newly-reformed skinhead, Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton - Oscar-nominated for his performance) is released back outside to the real world on parole.

Through the narration of Derek’s impressionable younger brother, Danny, we learn that he used to be the leader of a gang of white supremacists. However, after realising that there is very little difference between white and black people in prison through befriending a black inmate, Derek changes his ways and is faced with the exceptional challenge of trying to prevent Danny from heading down the same road whilst simultaneously trying to get his life back on track.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film takes place through constant flashbacks to the past, which are shot largely in black and white, accentuating the negativity and bleakness of Derek’s past as well as getting the audience to think about the idea of the tension between blacks and whites. A tension which becomes so clear throughout the various horrific scenes including one of the most horrifying murders I've ever seen on-screen, and an extremely awkward dinner scene, tarnished by extremely intense anti-Semitism.

With a rating of 8.6/10 on IMDB, placing at number 33 on the list of greatest ever films and an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes,  it is clearly obvious that if you haven’t seen American History X, you need to right now. If you have already seen it, chances are you want to see it again, so quit wasting your time, fire up your DVD player, stick the popcorn in the microwave and prepare for 119 minutes of perfectly crafted tension.