Monday, 28 June 2010

American History X

Brutal and horrible, but totally compelling, I wanted to mention this film for a couple of reasons:

1. It's unusual to find a film that deals so convincingly with the human psyche. It shows how one man in American suburbia realises that the militant white power cause he's been living for is foolish and destructive. He sees that the movement has begun to manipulate him, making him a figure to revere because of the two murders he carried out - while he serves a tough prison sentence, alone and friendless.

At the beginning of the story Derek (played brilliantly by Edward Norton) is a neo-Nazi, full of hate, totally unpleasant, power-hungry, manipulative, clever but arrogant, full of testosterone and turning everything into protecting his family from who he sees as the enemy: foreigners and outsiders. But in light of the way he's humiliated in prison (a horrible section) he gets out of that life, which he tells his younger brother Danny is no good for him. He becomes a man determined to change, and to stop Danny following the same rebellious, anti-social path.

Some of the issues this raises are very interesting. For instance - why is it we tend to desire what is best for close family, even if we have given up on ourselves? This rings true.

And it highlights how, without something life-changing snapping us out of it, we tend to believe what is most convenient, what fits with the ideas that have influenced us in the past. This is how prejudices work I think eg. against immigrants. We can become trapped by ideas, which are actually lies, thinking we know all the facts. We weild the "facts" as weapons, or to stir us on.

And such "facts" can be power - a way to put down others and assert oneself or "succeed" in life. Feelings of injustice and resentment find a target. Responsibility is avoided, and so are responsible solutions, as the system is "against us" - let's just take it into our own hands.

The trouble is - when we want to be angry and take things for ourselves: the nonsense "facts" that we want to hear can sound so reasonable. Whether it's anger at local government for making things difficult, or anger at institutions or communities, it can simmer away in us, and we must be aware of this evil in us. It's true what the (supposedly out-of-date) Bible says: the heart is hopelessly corrupt.

2. The focus on inner-city poverty and the lack of opportunities for the poor is interesting too. Despite the bad patterns of family life passed on through the generations, this is a community that will not give up on its characters. And it's refreshing to see this in a film. Especially the bond between the two brothers, where frustration is met with patience, and respect is fostered. Even the teacher, an outsider, Dr Sweeney (a superb performance by Avery Brooks) won't give up on Danny, while Derek talks to his girlfriend (who seems to delight in being near chaos) to try and convince her to leave the movement with him, and others too haven't given up on the loved ones they have lost. Society matters in this movie - life is not throwaway, like the bad guys dying in old James Bond films. People are precious, especially when you don't have much.

The question is what will emerge at the disturbing end of the film? Will the violence cease? What legacy will these two brothers leave on their families, the next genration growing up in the schools, the world around? What lessons will be learnt about the fruitlessness of holding on to a destructive, angry cause?

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