Classic Review – American History X (1998)

Title – American History X (1998)

Director – Tony Kaye (Detachment)

Cast – Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo, Ethan Suplee, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach, Avery Brooks

Plot – Venice beach residents and brothers Danny (Furlong) and Derek (Norton) begin to question their racially charged lives in the wake of Derek’s release from prison.

“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

Review by Eddie on 15/04/2019

Considering the behind the scenes drama (largely that persisted around its director Tony Kaye walking away from the film with its star Edward Norton taking over editing duties and overseeing the final cut), it’s incredible just how powerful and accomplished of a film American History X ended up becoming.

A confronting, heartfelt and in many ways life-affirming tale of the detrimental aspects of racism and its destructive powers on humankind, Kaye (and Norton’s) film isn’t an easy watch but these 20 plus years on since its initial release have done nothing to dampen to the effect the film can have on viewing.

Starting out by focusing on a terrifying and horrific home invasion gone wrong, then turning its attention to examining the life of Edward Furlong’s confused teenager Danny and his older brother Derek played by an Oscar nominated Ed Norton, who are both dealing with a deep seeded racist view that has shaped their lives, American History X casts a wide net as it morphs and moves between situations and scenarios that showcase the best and worst of what humankind can conjure up.

In many ways the story of Danny and Derek, as the two brothers reconnect after Derek’s release from prison for the murder of two black youths, seems rather simple but through these two viewpoints, we as an audience get to experience a wide ranging set of situations and emotions that refuses to point the finger, rather unblinkingly ask the hard hitting questions while showing us the audience the true eye-opening nature of the hatred that is prevalent in America and the world.

In these two central figures we also get a double dose of outstanding acting performances.

It’s easy to forget that at one stage the now troubled Furlong was one of the industry’s brightest stars while Norton was very much establishing himself as one Hollywood’s brightest talents, fresh off a memorable turn in Primal Fear and soon to be seen in the ground-breaking Fight Club, Norton is a commanding force of nature in this tale, with his transformative turn as Derek one of the era’s most noteworthy lead turns.

From our first few encounters with Derek he appears to be a man of few redeeming qualities, an unashamed racist that sees violence as an answer to problems within his community and within his very soul but as we begin to understand Derek’s journey and soulful home truth lessons, the true quality of the construction of Derek the character and Norton’s unforgettable turn begin to really take shape.

With American History X’s high placing in many film fans viewing lists, its unquestionably due largely to the fact that Norton so powerfully brought home the films messages through his turn as a young man’s troubled path to understanding.

Final Say –

As powerful and resonate today as it was upon release, arguably even more so in our current climate, American History X is cinema at its most confronting but also at its most powerful, meaning its place as one of most quintessential pieces of cinema is well and truly deserved.

5 bags of laundry out of 5

13 responses to “Classic Review – American History X (1998)

    • It’s a tough watch mate, in saying so I think I’ve seen it around 3 – 4 times now and remains powerful on each viewing.

    • Cheers Jade! I am always surprised on each viewing just how well this film stands the test of time, and remains as you say highly relevant today.

  1. This is an outstanding film. I think it benefits from the fact that it’s not a monochromatic morality tale and lets you see how people’s viewpoints get built and challenged and how actions always have consequences.

  2. Pingback: Classic Review – American History X (1998) — Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys) – worldmovies365·

  3. Great review!

    It’s really a great movie, I re-watched it recently and it still works very well (even more today due to the hot political climate, as you wrote). Edward Norton did a lot here, but unfortunately it seems that he’s not the best person to work with (problems in American history X, problems in The Hulk…). I’m not surprised by the fact that he’s working very little today.

  4. There’s a lot I appreciated in this movie but also a couple of moments that leave me hesitating, so spoilers coming up.

    It’s set in California (Greater LA?) a much better choice than a place you’d know for bigotry out in the open. The home invasion aftermath is still a harrowing moment ten years after I’ve first seen the film.


    Was the little brother’s fate near the end too staged? Was the big brother’s redemption after getting raped in prison still believable?

    • Some interesting questions mate. I think this is a flawed film in parts but its power and throught provoking nature make it a genuine classic.

  5. American History X advocates that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”? It’s a powerful social document and should be part of your film watching curriculum.

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