Tuesday, April 20, 2010

American History X

I mentioned before that I live in an area where every black man is either a doctor or a football player. It's a factoid that puts me at arm's length from the specific breed of racism often explored in American films, though not from racism in general - my area has very real problems with racism against aboriginal people, just look up Jim Pankiw for a clear and shameful example - but maybe it gives necessary perspective to see the narrative problems in American films exploring the subject. Let's take a look at American History X, which tries so hard to tell a message the narrative gets lost.

Edward Furlong is Danny, a punk kid with neo-nazi leanings, something he learned from his brother Derek, played by Edward Norton. Derek was a neo-nazi kingpin of sorts, finding lost and confused kids like himself, and getting them to unite in anger against a common enemy, anyone who isn't a white guy. Danny narrates the story of Derek's redemption, as he learns that being a racist prick isn't actually a good idea, and through the power of a wacky laundry man in prison, stops being racist. There's a message about how racism is inherited from the people you trust most, and how people who look up to you are influenced by your actions.

It's a difficult subject to take on, and if I'm completely honest, I don't actually think it works very well here. Much like Crash years later, it has the problem of wanting to make sure there is no possible way to misinterpret the story. As a result, there are a lot of speeches punctuated by actions which underscore how you are supposed to feel during any given scene. It might as well have big flashing signs telling you what you are supposed to feel at any given moment.

Not saying it needs ambiguity - it's not an ambiguous subject - but would a bit of subtlety and nuance be too much to ask? The majority of racist people aren't shooting people and doing lengthy speeches about why anyone who isn't the same as them is bad, they're much more subtle about what their actions. It's a subject that requires subtlety, because going over the top doesn't allow people to realize what, exactly, they're doing in their own lives that might be a little bit racist.

It's interesting that director Tony Kaye wanted his name off of it, saying that Edward Norton took over and re-edited the film to make himself look good. Even if he did, I've got to say, this film would be nothing without Norton. If the script is filled with heavy-handed speechifying, it's speechifying that gives Norton an extremely difficult job. He has to straddle the line between being a sympathetic character we root for and a horrible person, yet make both sides believable. His transformation would not have worked without a bit of subtle kindness in the before. It's a minefield of a role, as tipping too far on one side could make the rest completely unbelievable.

I almost wonder if films like American History X and Crash are well regarded not because of their narrative quality, but because there's a feeling of immense guilt among the population of the US about how black people are treated. Every time a halfway decent movie about the dangers of racism comes along, it's always considered quality, even winning Oscars, no matter how heavy handed it might be. The message here is good, and I like the idea of how people influence the views of each other, but I can't help but wish for a bit less heavy-handedness, a bit less speechifying, and a bit more subtlety. The message would still be clear, but I can't help but think it would make for a much more compelling approach.

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