Failing 'History' As racial commentary, 'American History' devolves into a generic melodrama. But Columbia native Edward Norton gets high marks for his chilling portrayal of a charismatic skinhead.

November 13, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

The distributor of the film "American History X," reviewed in yesterday's Today section, has delayed the Baltimore opening of the movie until Friday.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Pub Date: 11/14/98

American History X" has been dogged by so much controversy recently that filmgoers may wonder whether they should wear flak jackets and safety goggles to the theater. When New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton began editing the movie themselves, its director, Tony Kaye, asked that his name be removed (at one point suggesting the pseudonym "Humpty Dumpty"). When his request was turned down, he embarked on a vociferous publicity campaign bad-mouthing the movie.

But long before these dust-ups, "American History X" had garnered early word-of-mouth. When a videotape of Norton auditioning for the starring role started making the cognoscenti circuit, tongues immediately started wagging. America's nicest nice guy (give or take the odd psycho-killer role) had actually transformed himself into a foul-mouthed, virulently racist skinhead. And he was frighteningly good.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Well, doff those goggles and unzip the protective outerwear: The good news and the bad news is that "American History X" is nothing to be afraid of.

Early gossip about Norton was on the money; this gifted young actor once again turns in a performance that's flawlessly honest. But as searing social commentary, "American History X" is a nonstarter. Rather than a confrontational statement about race in contemporary America, it's an almost quaint morality tale in the tradition of such earnest melodramas as "The Asphalt Jungle" and "All My Sons."

"American History X" is a pretty good movie; whether Kaye's original version would have been a great one, we'll never know.

Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a California teen-ager whom we meet as a beefy, tattooed tough with a Nazi swastika emblazoned on his chest. But the most menacing thing about Derek isn't his imposing physicality, it's his mind. It's through intelligence and eloquence that Derek becomes his gang's charismatic leader; it's what makes his friends follow unquestioningly when he urges them to kick a group of black basketball players off "their" court or to destroy a Korean-owned grocery store.

Derek's little brother Danny (Edward Furlong, who smoothly manages a 180-degree departure from his last role, the naively beatific title character of John Waters' "Pecker") wants to grow up and be just like him, and he's well on his way when "American History X" opens. Derek is being released from jail for the murder of a black man, and Danny plans to surprise him with his own shaved head and tattoo of the Disciples of Christ, a white supremacist group.

Danny's school principal, played by Avery Brooks, is determined to keep the kid from repeating Derek's mistakes, and he receives some help from an unlikely ally -- Derek himself.

Norton knows how to take center stage and defend it with mesmerizing force, and "American History X" kicks into high gear when Derek holds forth on everything from Rodney King to immigration policy to affirmative action to welfare and middle-class malaise.

Most filmgoers will find at least some common ground with Derek, then recoil in horror when they see where his logic takes him -- and those brief points of identification are what make "American History X" so effective (if only fitfully). Many viewers may squirm in recognition when Derek's impassioned rhetoric results in a particularly incendiary dinner-table scene with his family, an argument that does edgy justice to the observation that race may be the divisive force today that Vietnam was in the 1970s.

If only Kaye -- or Dumpty, or whoever -- had been as relentless with the plot of "American History X" as he was with Norton's character, he might have made a truly frank film about an issue that could stand some frankness. As complex as Derek and the provenance of his beliefs turn out to be, a discouraging simplism ultimately wins the day in "American History X."

Hindered by an overripe orchestral score by Anne Dudley, the movie too often falls afoul of the set-piece, whether it's a basketball court feud that seems to be choreographed by the Sharks and the Jets, or an ending that even Norton can't save from being hopelessly maudlin.

Most problematic is Derek's conversion, which begins at the hand of a black inmate (a very engaging Guy Torry) who bonds with him over basketball and babes and ends with a brutal rape involving his fellow white supremacists.

Considering that the way to Derek's heart is through his mind, it's distressing that his beliefs are changed not by an appeal to his logic but by something as base as sexual violation or as trivial as a shared interest in sports.

"Hate is baggage," says one character by way of summing up. "Life is too short to be p---ed off all the time." Hey, man, no argument here.

The great disappointment of "American History X" is that, as carefully as it builds the case for racism, it isn't nearly so meticulous when it tears it down.

'American History X'

Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliot Gould, Avery Brooks

Directed by Tony Kaye

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated R (graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality and nudity)

Running time: 118 minutes

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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