American History X (1998)
Directed by Tony Kaye
Written by David McKenna
(number 320)

I first saw this film when it came out, on holiday down in Christchurch with two old friends: Penny and Becs, and we were all rather traumatised by it afterwards. It’s a brilliant film, but it is one I want to hide my eyes from, one I want to pretend doesn’t exist.

This is one of the movies on the list I was legitimately dreading watching again, like Children of Men. It’s easy to put off stuff like this, easy to tell myself ‘well, maybe I don’t have to watch it again at all, I probably remember enough’, but I’ve not given myself that excuse so far into the project and I don’t intend to. Besides, I can’t recall if it passes the Bechdel test or not so…

This is a tour de force performance movie. Edward Norton at the centre with his incredible weight and gravitas, Eddie Furlong as the one to be saved and Avery Brooks as the kind of teacher you see in movies who is brilliant, dedicated and devoted to saving/improving the children in his care. It’s effecting stuff.

The choice to film flashbacks in black and white is both perplexing and not at all. It’s not a particularly arty movie, which you’d expect from conscious choice of black and white film around the 90s, but then of course it’s the entire crux of the film. Black and white. Shades of grey. How do you portray people who see the world only in terms of black and white? Obvious.

There are two sequences I dreaded the most: the attack on the grocery store and the curb stomping. I made myself watch the grocery store and the thing which makes me most upset about it is the consistent racial slant on the attack. The skinheads using milk to make the Latina woman more white (and then they taunt her about how she looks better, could get a job above her station), beating a Latino and spilling beans on him as he sobs, broken on the floor. It’s an absolute representation of bullying, and bullying turns my stomach.

tangent: I remember I used to get these books given to me as a kid, large format hardcovers with lots of different stories and rhymes in them. There was one which had a story about dolls, and one doll bullying another doll for not being pretty and fancy enough. The bully doll had long plastic hair that curled, fancy clothes with frills and velvet, the doll being bullied was a simpler doll with molded plastic hair and a plain yellow dress. I remember reading the story and feeling so upset, sick to my stomach, because there’s nothing the bullied can do about the way they are. The injustice, the plain unfairness of being made to be miserable simply because of how you look devastated me. Watching stuff like this, thinking about bullies.. it always brings up this one doll story in the back of my head. I can’t even remember what happened in the end, except it was good – the plain doll had friends at the end, but that was an early benchmark for me of how unfair bullying is, how horrible, how I never want to perpetuate it or allow it to happen around me.

I skipped the curb stomp. I just. No. cannot deal. It looks too real.

I made myself watch the rape, because I watched the rape in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it seemed like fair play. I also didn’t remember it as being the truly traumatic thing for me. The death at the end is seriously shocking though, even when you know it’s coming. This is a brutal, unforgiving movie, and that makes sense to me because there’s no easy answer to centuries of racism. It’d be a disservice to wrap it up in a happy ending.

Does it make me love the people? I love Derek and Danny right off, and that’s the strength of the writing and the performances. We know that they believe some utterly abhorrent things, but we see the promise in them as well. The way they care for each other, for their mother, their sisters. The circumstances which have led them in their directions are clearly shown so we can understand that too.

I love Lamont the most though, I think. He gets all the best lines and he’s so sweet and easy going. Sweeney is amazing too, there’s lots of great characters and good stuff going on. This is a movie which is dedicated to making you love and understand humans and that’s why I rate it so highly. The film making itself is good, fine, but it’s about understanding what makes people tick, and how people can learn and change.

Bechdel test: Yes, over the course of the family dinner fight scene Davina, Doris and Stacey all talk directly to each other about the fight, race relations and why Davina should listen to Stacey. The men are also talking around this but I’m confident there’s interchange there. Later Doris talks to Ally when she’s going to bed.

Best line:

Lamont: Don’t fuck with me. Cause I’m the most dangerous man in this prison. You know why? Cause I control the underwear.

Lamont: chill the fuck out! God damn! No matter how fast you get through ’em man, they’re gonna keep bringing ’em in, and bringin’ em in, and bringin’ em in. And throwing ’em around like that ain’t gonna do a damn thing but give you a fuckin heart attack. And you know what? That’s cool with me! But you gonna give me a Go damn heart attack too. – slams his hands on the sheets to stop Derek folding them so fast – I know, I know, I’m just a dumb stupid n****r right? What do I know? I know I ain’t the one getting mad at some damn sheets though.

State of Mind: Raw, hard, and unrelenting. This movie is essential viewing but it’s at no point easy viewing. I love it. I hate it. I might watch it again in another 10 years. Eds Norton and Furlong are brilliant, and ably supported by the rest of the cast. What I hate the most is how relevant this movie still is. This was made almost twenty years ago.

Watched movie count

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