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The Vault: American History X (1998)

American History X is not about racial discrimination, though it often may appear to be. No, Tony Kaye’s picture is about the choices we make in our lives and how it evidently defines us as person. We as people are forced to make tough decisions. Decisions that require a certain amount of good judgment, and fortitude. For many, they will make the right decision and live a prosperous, normal life, and for some they will fall of the wagon. Prison is where they’re headed (if the predicament is of that serious nature). The only thing in their mind is how they are going to get out of this cruel and angst-filled atmosphere in one piece. Those lucky enough to survive the vigorous day-to-day features of prison are grateful. Derek Vinyard was grateful. Because you see, there’s a point in everybody that shows our true colors, what our real feelings are. And deep down, under all that anger and hatred Derek projected o-so often, is a kind, understanding person, who more importantly, knows right from wrong.

The film casts Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a neo-Nazi who is tried and convicted to three years in prison for the murder of two African Americans who were trying to break into his truck. In prison he goes through, like most, some rough times. But from those dreadful periods where it appears nothing good can rise from it, comes some racial and ethical enlightenment. Derek soon realizes every race has their negatives and positives. Though, quickly after he’s released from prison, he’s faced to deal with the task of convincing his brother, Danny played by Edward Furlong, the same ideas he’s learned over those three long, treacherous years of grievance.

It’s because of those key lessons in life (judgment, honesty, fortitude, balance), brought to the screen in a surreal fashion by American History X, that makes this film one of the most emotionally devastating pictures to be released in the last 20 years. It’s a masterful picture that ebbs and flows with groundbreaking performances from Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, and beautiful, breathtaking cinematography by Tony Kaye. Whether or not people overlooked the picture when released in 1998 is beyond my knowledge. What I do is that American History X is a moving piece of cinema, that takes an earnest look at this mans life: in particular what he has done, how is irrational decisions have put a burden on his family, and how after all those days and nights of fighting for a fabricated propaganda-filled cause, he could succumb and arrive at a place of such utter confusion.

So, when a picture is complete, if it’s good, I enjoy sitting in my seat, wallowing in the films greatness, and just staring at the screen, thinking back to what I just witnessed, and reflecting how it affected me. At the end of American History X, tears and all, I could remember one scene in particular o-so vividly. The film turns to black and white (symbolizing the past) and Derek (Edward Norton) is lying and crying on the penitentiary hospital bed, after an ugly incident with some fellow inmates. It’s the first time we say Derek let his emotions depart from within, and at last we can feel his vulnerability. Then, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) walks into the room. The two talk, Derek pleads for help, and being the caring person he is Sweeney says, “I can help you, but it’s not unconditional help, you must make a change”. Derek looks at him, shrugging his head, drowning in his own sadness. But then, the turning point of the picture comes when Sweeney looks directly at Derek and Sweeney says “Derek, tell me something, has anything you’ve done in your life, made it better”? Derek’s answer is no. And that small, though crucial scene is what makes American History X the masterpiece it is today.

Because when you see a film that can evoke such emotions from an audience, it has not only fulfilled its endeavor, but it has also made a genuine impact on ones life. That’s the beauty of cinema, the ways it can move you and make you think about certain topics in a whole new light. That’s why in some degree labeling American History X as a well acted, and emotionally grounded drama, seems inadequate. Though it certainly is all the accolades I’ve proclaimed, the film is so much more than words can describe. It speaks to anyone who wants to watch and listen to a story that needs to be seen.

American History X is a compelling and powerful film that shows all of the fighting against one another does no good in society, but ultimately causes more harm. Derek, though it may have taken three years, realized this, and at last, decided to make a change. Sadly, life sometimes has other plans for us.

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