American History X is a great movie. I rank it up with Do The Right Thing and La Haine as one of the great dramas of the 1990s dealing with the topic of race and racism. The movie ambitiously set out to prove that racism is learned and therefore can be unlearned, and I think it accomplished that goal.
At the heart of the film is a family story in which Derek, an ex-convict and ex-Neo-Nazi, tries to save his younger brother Danny from falling into the Neo-Nazi movement. Both are intelligent young men, but both get involved with hate groups to fill personal voids in their lives.
The performances in this film are superb. Edward Norton is one of the most gifted actors working today, and after years of great work, I still think this is his best performance. His Oscar-nominated work here is riveting. He perfectly embodies America's worst nightmare: an intelligent and persuasive racist. He is a violent, yet compelling guy who can convince others to follow him into embracing hate. He is so intense in this role that he is often frightening. The supporting roles are also great, particularly Stacy Keach as the leader of the Neo-Nazi cell and Beverly D'Angelo as Derek's and Danny's overwhelmed mother.
I also give this movie points for presenting an unflinching view of the overall corruptive power of hate. Derek gets swept into a lifestyle of violence and hate, which is supposed to be directed towards other races, but ultimately gets taken out on everyone. Derek's journey is not just learning racial tolerance, but learning to love himself.
American History X is a message movie, so some people will feel it's too preachy. Also, I know some people have an issue with the ending. But like in Do The Right Thing and La Haine, I think a harsh, tragic ending was appropriate. It made the message resonate more.
My personal opinion aside, the overall public approval of the film is high. It's ranked No. 35 on IMDB's Top 250 list with a score of 8.6. It has a 93% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on over 430,000 user reviews. Those are big numbers that can't be denied. If that weren't enough, it earned its fair share of praise from critics. Based on all that, I'd say it's great.
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