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Friday, Feb. 18, 2000

'AMERICAN HISTORY X'

Boyz in another kind of 'hood


Back in high school, many of my white friends from South Boston were racist, and they felt they had good cause to be so: bathroom beatings and after-school muggings at the hands of black students. Of course, what they didn't realize was that the same thing went down at the exclusive, nearly all-white suburban school I attended as well. We didn't have race to blame, however -- just jerks.

Watching "American History X," the first (and possibly last; see sidebar) film by influential ad and music-video director Tony Kaye, I saw the attitudes of those Southie boys reflected with an uncanny accuracy in the L.A. skinheads the film portrays. Start off with a few legitimate gripes, then stoke the flames of that righteous indignation until it becomes a vast and expansive hate, taking in every ethnic and cultural group except for the small, inbred sub-culture you call your own.

"American History X" walks a dangerous, but rewarding, dramatic line: It places us in the mind-set of such people, and while allowing us to see where they're coming from, it also makes us very scared of them. And rightfully so: Fascism is most dangerous in its seductive and reductive simplicity, and its violent solution to all problems.

The film follows two brothers in Venice Beach, Derek and Danny Vinyard (Edward Norton and Edward Furlong), and the skinhead sub-culture in which they're immersed. Derek has been in the pen for three years for the brutal murder of two black kids who tried to steal his car, while Danny's in trouble at school for turning in a book report on "Mein Kampf."

Derek had been King Skin, organizing terrifying raids on Korean grocers and ethnically cleansing the neighborhood basketball court. After Derek was locked up, Danny stepped up to take his place, being groomed for leadership by a shady white supremacist named Cameron (Stacy Keach). But when Danny meets Derek on his release, he's shocked to find that his brother has changed: "I'm tired of being pissed off," he tells Danny, "Just tired of it."

Danny, along with Derek's loud-mouthed girlfriend, Stacy (Fairuza Balk), and slaphead friends, can't believe Derek's telling the truth; they become enraged when they realize that he is. In particular, Stacy's feelings for Derek go from true love to pure hate, over the course of a beer-fueled evening. Derek's getting out, though, and hopes to take Danny with him before it's too late.

The film's plot line is at times tediously predictable, but while the screenplay (by first-time writer David McKenna) is tame, the direction and performances are anything but: Many scenes seethe with a raw power. When his widowed mother (Beverly D'Angelo) has a liberal Jewish teacher (Elliot Gould) over for dinner, Derek launches into a tirade that builds into explosive fury. Norton is almost beyond himself, and truly frightening to watch -- the fear displayed by the rest of the cast is eerily real. Furlong has the less flashy role but is just as good, portraying a smart but impressionable kid, as eager to please his mom and teachers as his race-hate buddies.

Kaye's direction flaunts an expressionistic style. He shoots the flashbacks in a grainy, almost sepia-tinted black-and-white, and softens the hard edges of the script with some pensive visual touches. Some of the images are unforgettably disturbing, particularly the scene where Derek kills the two car thieves, and applies a sickening coup de grace to one wounded boy. As he's arrested by the cops, the camera pulls in tight on Derek's eyes, flashing a message of pride, rage and hate that silently uploads into Danny's consciousness.

"American History X" is not perfect, but it's an impressive debut, and poses the right question to those consumed by racial hate: Has any of it made your life any better? One wishes Kaye hadn't burned his bridges in Hollywood, though perhaps that is a blessing in disguise: One suspects Kaye could produce better, more radical work in a truly independent context.

"American History X" starts tomorrow at Yebisu Garden Cinema.


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