After being introduced to Edward Norton in Primal Fear, I was once again blown away by his performance in American History X. Norton is supported by cast featuring such actors as Stacey Keach (Mike Hammer and Prison Break), Edward Furlong (John Conner, Terminator), Beverly D'Angelo (Ellen Griswald, European Vacation, et al) Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H*, The Shining) and Avery Brooks (Star Trek Deep Space Nine).
I would have to say that if you can make it through the first fifteen minutes of the film's graphic violence and hatred that the rest of the movie is a must see.
We are introduced to Derek, through his little brother's retelling of the violent episode that sent Derek to prison and the events thereafter. Danny Vineyard (Edward Furlong) idolizes his older brother and yearns to be just like him. He enjoys the knowledge that everyone identifies him as the brother of the most respected member of their white supremacy group, headed by Cameron. Stacey Keach is perfect in this role. You can almost see the slime oozing off him.
Conflict arises when a black high school teacher, whom Derek had admired before his initiation into racism, recognizes the potential that Danny possesses, but sees him following in his older brother's footsteps. He seeks Derek out in prison and asks his help in setting Danny on the right path.
The prison scenes alternate between horrifying and down right hilarious as Derek comes to the realization that he may have been wrong in his biases of people. Derek sets out to save his brother from perpetuating the life that he has led.
This movie runs the full gamete of emotions. In the space of an hour and a half, I laughed and I cried. I was disgusted, mortified, amused, and enlightened. The truly disturbing thing was that Norton is so convincing and likeable in the role that you can almost buy into his disgusting racist rhetoric. I think that is why this is one of my favorite movies. It makes everyone human, politically, ethically or morally right or wrong. Regardless of our views we are all just people, and we love our families unconditionally, no matter how dysfunctional.
I would recommend this film to anyone who has a strong sense of empathy, community, or social justice. Keep in mind though; you have to have a strong stomach too.