Scott Tobias on American History X

In his most recent installment of “The New Cult Cannon” at the AV Club’s Scott Tobias articulates exactly what I’ve thought about American History X. Pointing people towards Ryan Gosling’s breakout performance in The Beliver is spot on – it was, I believe, in my top 5 list of best of the aughts.

Kaye, who also served as cinematographer, shoots in black and white and color, which for practical purposes helps situate viewers in time, but also suggests ways of seeing the world. The Derek of the past sees things starkly; Derek post-incarceration has a more nuanced perspective. But no matter where it stands in the timeline, American History X is strictly black and white. It’s not just that the script leaves no room for interpretation, but that its dramatic transformations are rarely all that plausible, especially in the scenes with Derek in Chino. It makes sense that his disenchantment with his Aryan prison buddies starts with his observing their hypocrisy in moving drugs through Mexican gang members. But Derek’s relationship with a black inmate (Guy Torry) on laundry detail is pure hooey, staking Derek’s hasty transformation on a handful of genial exchanges and a story about the racial injustice that led the inmate into the pen. Reforming a hardened neo-Nazi like Derek—who isn’t a sheep-like follower of racist dogma, but a confident proselytizer of it—would take a hell of a lot more than some disarming jokes over the folding press. (For a better example, look to The Believer, a superior film that turns to a much more profound source for conversion.)

But Tobias is also right to praise the film for it’s frankness and accessibility in bringing racial issues to a head without couching them in code or innuendo a full ten years before Obama gives his race speech during the ’08 campaign. Got to give it credit for that. Credit gets taken away, though, for the gratuitous use of slo-mo and voiceover.

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