When one looks back on modern classics in film, many of us will stumble across American History X (1998). It’s a film about a Neo-Nazi who has been released from prison after the murder of two black men, who attempts to steer his brother away from the abyss of the mindless ideology that sucked him in.
The film was written by David McKenna and Directed by Tony Kaye. Tony has a trademark that his protagonists often seem to be filled with self-hatred or regret and often uses flashbacks in his stories. Indeed Tony utilises these in American History X. There are two narrative strands in the film, one in the present and one in the past where the audience get’s to see how Derek became to be who he is. Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle states-
“One waits in vain for Derek to renounce his past thinking. We had to watch him think his way in. We should see him think his way out.”
For a brief moment I agreed with his comment, then I thought back and realised that I felt the opposite. This film is presenting the manipulation of vulnerable people. We had to see how Derek turned into this monster because that is primarily what the film is about. A young man who is frustrated and angry in life is turned down the wrong path by manipulative lost souls which causes repercussions in his future life.
Derek’s main goal in the narrative is to show his younger brother, Danny the light, he realises at one point that the only way he can do this is by a summoning of his experiences in prison. The following scene of both Danny and Derek stripping the wall is one of my favourite in the film, it’s the stripping of Danny’s previous self, a clean start, a new start, a confirmation of the evilness and sheer uneducated form of the Nazi ideology, and the completion of Derek’s goal.
One thing I will say about LaSalle’s statement about the flashbacks is yes, I would have liked to have seen other than the scenes between Derek and Lamont (Laundry guy) a transformation from his old self into the new, but nevertheless, American History X is one of the best uses of Flashbacks I’ve seen in contemporary cinema, and one of the most powerful attempts of racism at the time since ‘Do The Right Thing’ (1989).