Well, since my blog is basically anime, games, and now movies and tv shows at this point and I really had a lot to say about this film now that I finally got around to it I figured I would write up a review.
American History X has to be one of the most confused pieces of storytelling I’ve ever seen when it comes to something that so obviously is trying to send the viewer a message. This is basically a film about racism being bad, and yet the entire thing lacks any justification for that message – instead it provides plenty of examples of why that exact message is, in fact, incorrect and that racism is easily justifiable and a pretty rational thing to feel.
Everything Edward Norton says in the flashbacks, presumably shown to be off putting and showcase how terrible and vile his mindset is, is actually logical and rational – much of the time it’s even based on direct factual statistics and without him getting too riled up about it yet presenting it reasonably to those he’s speaking to. In fact the only time he goes off and is kinda shitty is very forced out of nowhere because they realized he needed to have a scene that made him look horrible, and it was just that his sister was being shitty to his girlfriend and he snapped. Nothing to do with his racist beliefs at all. He also shows a variety of strong morals, like being anti-drug and keeping anyone he knows away from that specific vice, holding his family as the most important thing, and caring about the country and his loved ones more than his own personal life. The only thing they do to really make him ‘bad’ is that he says a lot of racial slurs, and if you believe words should be condemned then you are an enemy of language and should not be allowed the first amendment. I at least am happy with Norton’s acting here because he didn’t pussy out like Clint Eastwood’s horribly fake and unbelievable “racist old codger” in Gran Torino who just happens to avoid any racial slurs for anyone that would get angry as a viewer or might damage his career as an actor. No, Norton goes full into it and he feels genuine, unlike almost any other “racist” in fiction.
There are also plenty of what feels like fantasy-land scenes, albeit totally taking place in reality, in the flashbacks. For example, in real life, even when this takes place, if you had a swastika tattoo you’d be killed or beaten. Doesn’t matter where you are, doesn’t matter who is around, if you were waltzing around shirtless with a giant swastika on your chest in white suburbia Orange County you’d still get assaulted or murdered for it. Yet, he’s in shithole gang controlled Venice Beach, California at the park playing basketball against a BLACK GANG while topless and not a single one of them says or does a thing. It is ridiculously unbelievable but needed to show that the black gang are not animals, I guess? Or maybe the director forgot about this gigantic thing emblazoned on Norton’s tit.
However, in that same scene, the black guys cheat and elbow Norton in the face. What is this SUPER TURBO EVIL NEO-NAZI HITLER-LITE gonna do about this? He tells his boys to calm the fuck down and he literally dunks on them instead of swinging a single fist or saying a single word, winning the game for whitey completely legitimately while the blacks cheated and even try to start a fight after, though ultimately leave without much issue.
At almost every turn it’s like the movie wants to justify his racism and racism in general while also telling you his racism is wrong.
To make matters worse for the ‘message’, his racism is eradicated quickly and in the most childish manner possible. While in prison he realizes the white supremacist group he’s hanging out with are kind of half-assing their views and working alongside Mexicans and such, and he doesn’t like that so they rape him in the ass in the shower. Then one black guy makes him chuckle. RACISM: DEFEATED. That’s it. That’s literally it. If you don’t want someone to be racist have fake-ass half-ass neo-nazis gay rape them and then make a black guy tell a joke and you’ve fucking defeated racism. You’ve done it. Thanks, Obama!
The writer literally could not think of a single way to counteract his own too-well-written explanations for WHY Norton was the way he was and WHY racism can be justified with actual logic and information. He needed to make Norton a stupider character, like the fat friend of his who is shown in the most hilariously over-the-top manner to show you how racist white people “really” are! You know, driving around shitty old vans full of fast food trash, fat as fuck, lacking any respect for anyone, and blaring full on racist music about murdering Jews and blacks with their windows down while singing along as their fat jiggles about before being a complete dick to his white friend’s family and obsessing over getting food cuz his fatass is starving. This is a character you could use to make fun of white supremacists.
Norton? He is fit, he is respectful, he tolerates those that aren’t like him even though he hates them, he has no criminal record prior to what the movie is about, he hates drugs, he keeps drugs away from anyone he cares about, he plays fair even against what he perceives as sub-humans (though, oddly, never using that descriptor for them), he has huge respect for law enforcement (by today’s societal standards that’s the most racist thing he could do though, I suppose), he holds nothing higher than his family, and most importantly he’s fucking intelligent and his racism isn’t based on “they’re different so they’re bad” to the point that almost everything he says is still valid to say to this day and is still backed up by statistics and data from science and government and local agencies and each and every one of his arguments he has knowledge and critical thinking behind them and can give rational and reasonable arguments for his views. He is everything this movie needed to avoid if it wanted to say racism is terrible.
In fact, lets take a moment for “he has no criminal record prior to what the movie is about” and talk about the entire basis of the story. Norton ends up killing two black guys. Did he just snap one day and go blast them in the street? No. One was at his front door with a gun out, the other was breaking in to the truck left to him by his father WHO WAS MURDERED BY BLACK DRUG DEALERS WHEN HE WAS THERE AS A FIREMAN TO SAVE THEIR LIVES. We’ll talk about the dad more later because boy did they really fuck up with him in the stupidest ways too.
But anyway, a known gang banger at your door with a pistol drawn and another, probably with a gun, breaking in to your car in the driveway. Mind you, this house has his ENTIRE family in it – including a toddler little sister. He shoots the guys. Not because they’re black, but because of what they’re doing and the danger they present to his loved ones. The only act he does, and this is the only reason I’m okay with the prison time he faces, is that one of them survives the shot but he comes back and literally curb stomps him to death in his rage. The fact he only got 4 years for this though, given the circumstances, seems reasonable at least given 90% of what happened was out of defense for his life, his family, and his property, and then the 10% that wasn’t was pretty much adrenaline controlling him. My point is though that he’s never actually done anything outright “evil” even as this huge kingpin of the white supremacist gang. At one point we see he had them raid a grocery store that got bought out by some asian guy who hired a bunch of illegal immigrants. They barely do anything but beat the shit out of people who aren’t even legally allowed to exist in the country and pour milk and eggs on some woman’s face (they say they want to use cleaning supplies and imply they’re like acid burning her face but then they show you its literally just fucking dairy, not that Norton was doing this anyway), but this was the worst thing they ever show him doing. He isn’t shown lynching blacks or skinning a Mexican, no, only the cartels do that I suppose. Good thing lefties love them.
Throughout the movie you get so many speeches and discussions from Norton and all of them are so smart, accurate, and filled with facts more than personal beliefs. He is shown to be so intelligent and well researched in his views and the movie outright even says he wasn’t on some warpath against minorities, but his entire view was “white kids shouldn’t be afraid in their own neighborhood”. It’s like the people (and the media) who think the “It’s Okay To Be White” posters popping up in places are some racist evil thing are who wrote this and completely missed the hypocrisy of their message and reaction to something completely true.
Back to the dad. They try really hard to force this man who puts his life on the line (and lost his life from doing so) to save lives as a fireman as an evil racist white man. Ironically he loses his life to being shot by blacks while trying to rescue them in a fire, but we see a flashback later to show us “what turned Norton into an evil nazi” and his dad…provides logical points just like Norton does later. He doesn’t say “I hate black people”, he says his unit was hiring 2 people for his shift, and the people they hired were blacks – which would be fine except they were hired instead of 2 white guys who had scored way higher on relevant firefighter related tests. He even states he just believes “the best one at the job is who should have the job”, especially when he relies on them FOR HIS LIFE, and they shouldn’t be hired due to affirmative action so they can say they’re a diverse group. This is depicted as an evil racist thought to have though. How? They have him say – and so I won’t get in trouble with wordpress, lets call it “the N-word”, one time at the very end of the scene to show you he’s just racist.
Now for Captain Sisko, a black history teacher that taught Norton and now teaches his younger brother, is also just a terrible character for multiple reasons. First off, he refuses to accept a paper for his history class written on Mein Kampf. Why? Because he disagrees with it because he is black and Hitler wrote that, and so it is unacceptable. Mein Kampf should unironically be a mandatory read in public education, if you believe Hitler is such a horrible person then we should be teaching the youth how he ended up where he did, why he thought what he did, what molded him into this evil person – so that they can avoid falling in to the same situation. Understanding evil is the best way to avoid becoming it yourself, so believing Hitler is the ultimate evil humanity has seen should mean he is presented and researched at his fullest and most detailed…but no. Instead, this boy is threatened with expulsion for even considering writing this paper analyzing Hitler’s book. Ironically the movie brings this up later with another point I also made to myself; there’s no way he would have rejected a paper about MLK or the like, let alone would not threaten expulsion over it.
A teacher should accept the free thinking of the students, and yet if he disagreed with something because it did not align with his personal views he jumped to kicking you out of school and ruining your life for it. This is the black guy who is meant to be the big life-changing great guy in Norton and his little brother’s lives, the proof black men are no different and can even be better than white men. One who has such immense fragility in his race that he can’t handle a student even considering a view point that is not the same as his to the point he’d threaten to ruin that child’s future by removing him from public education over it. A black man in a position of authority abusing that authority to force his own views onto children and force their own thoughts out of their head if they don’t align with his. A terrible example of a black man who can “better” our society.
He doesn’t get any better ever either. We see him during the worst of Norton’s time in prison and he starts trying to guilt trip him into believing he’s why his brother is going down the wrong path and that he is bad for doing nothing about it…while he’s stuck in prison. Then his “big line” that totally gets to Norton is just some shit about “has anything you’ve done made your life better?” which is maybe the most selfish awful way of thinking about life. Norton’s views are based around his family, his country, and his people. Not just himself. But this black man’s entire world view is about his own personal life and what is best for himself and nobody else. This is just another point against everything this movie is trying to tell you.
Then, at the end of the movie in the “present” of the film, Norton is free again, gets TOTALLY clean of his nazi beliefs, gets totally out of the neo-nazi gang (even went and fought his way out of it, almost being shot in the process), and is succeeding at getting his little brother to drop all of that too and focus on having a good life and a good education. Captain Sisko will have none of that though, as he rolls up with a police officer to demand that Norton go back to the white gang, re-take his role as one of their leaders, and stop a potential gang war. He is so adamant about it that he guilt trips him further, telling him the entirety of white nationalism and white supremacy is his fault and that if he doesn’t go back he will never be free of his past. It’s ridiculous and goes against the entire point of Sisko’s character leading Norton to a better life, and the entire point of Norton turning his life around and becoming clean of all of this “evil” stuff because now his mentor and the police are telling him “lol, no, go back so we can use you”.
Beyond that, the movie constantly reinforces the idea of blacks being unnecessarily violent, tribal, and pointlessly aggressive. From start to finish every black character is a complete and utter moron who talks like stereotypes, acts like stereotypes, and constantly try to start shit with people out of nowhere. They behave like the animals Norton’s character believes they are the entire movie, and it all becomes even worse in the final moments of the film wherein a black teen shoots Norton’s brother to death in cold blood while he’s pissing in a school bathroom. Why? Because he stopped this black kid from beating the shit out of a nerdy white classmate earlier in the film. That’s all. The end of the movie proves EVERYTHING Norton used to believe in and fight so hard for was correct. That black and white cannot intermingle and should not co-exist in society. That blacks are animals that can’t control their violent impulses. That the 13/50 statistic is all too true.
This is a movie trying to say racism is bad, but it does nothing except show you that you should be racist and that if you aren’t you will be punished by what diversity and minorities bring to your neighborhood. I’m not going to say if I agree or disagree with that precisely because the movie fucking doesn’t either. I have no idea what this movie was trying to actually say because it was either actually meaning to show you that you are stupid for NOT being racist or it was just so badly written and directed that it came out saying that by mistake while attempting to tell you the opposite.
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I’ve never understood the praise for this film, nor how a neo-nazi from my high school was apparently “changed” by this film because as you’ve explained, for a movie dealing with racism it felt more like an alt-right propaganda piece.
I think it was trying to be nuanced and grey, despite clearly working under the very black and white assumption that any racist thoughts are inherently wrong. I think it’s a story that wants to present you all of this but then say “but everyone is different and you can’t discriminate against all blacks even if ones who fit the stereotype exist”… except he doesn’t? From what you say it sounds like he treats black people the same as anyone else, but just also hates them? So who gives a shit if a racist is only racist in theory and not practice. Oh no, that guy really hates Jamal cuz he’s black, but he hired him, treats him the same as his white employees, holds him to the same standards, and even promoted him for doing a good job. How fucking terrible.
Like it’s clear the writer of this didn’t know what he was doing and wanted to have it both ways, being really gritty and showing harsh reality, but also having a naive fantasy land version of racism and it’s solution. Like he set out to prove that being racist is wrong no matter how you act but then just kinda accidentally showed his error was giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Really it’s weird how this movie came out when it did when it feels like something Jorden Peele would write and direct now as far as its misunderstanding of racism, prejudice, hate, and how much that actually matters. Being racist isn’t bad, acting on that racism in a way that harms others is the only time it becomes debatable. But in this movie aside him killing the one guy when he didn’t have to go that far there’s no indication of anything aside “he says bad words and has white pride tattoos”, yet the blacks continually DO act out against whites violently in almost every scene they appear in all the way to the very end of the film.
I hope that thing about there being a cut ending where Norton shaves his head and re-joins the gang is true because it’s the only way this movie would have made sense; the exact message would have been what you just said – his error wasn’t his beliefs, it was giving the people he hated the benefit of the doubt and now he paid the ultimate price for it and so returns to who he once was.