Sunday, June 20, 2010

American History X

There's a moment early in the film where Derek (Edward Norton) ) has just mercilessly slaughtered two blacks, for having vandalized his car. And the police have surrounded him, and he has his hands behind the back of his head. And then he rises like a demi-God, a smirk on his face, with tattoos of a Swastika and barbed wires on his bare body. 

Danny, his younger brother, is looking on in fright, shock and awe. Derek looks at him in absolute triumph and then winks at him. The deed is done. And the police and the incarceration are just small prices to pay. And Derek, in the most subtle of pass-throughs, had just given his legacy of hatred and intolerance to his younger brother. 

On the face of it, American History X  is a seething document on racial discrimination. But deep inside, the film is about the origins of evil, and the influence which family has on us. 

We start our lives with clean slates, our hearts and minds eager to learn, ripe to be influenced. And the seeds of prejudice often come on the dining table: one comment of discrimination, and a mind could be warped forever. After things spin out of control, it becomes easy for Derek's father to tell his separated wife: "Doris, you don't know the world your children are living in." For he wouldn't remember how he himself had sown the seeds, which had now come into a full flowering of prejudice and hatred. 

The film moves between past (shot in stunning black and white) and present, as Danny writes a punishment-paper of "historical relevance" – his brother Derek's history. 

The film's set-pieces delve deeper and deeper into the origin of our true beings. The family discussion around the dining table is heart-stopping in its intensity. Derek is insistent how incidents of black-white disputes are being explained away and marginalized, as if "its not a riot, its rage; its not crime, its poverty."

Ironically, Derek than manhandles his sister, Devina, who doesn't like what he says, and a line is crossed. His mother tells him "I am ashamed that you came out of my body." And she asks him to leave the house.

The man-slaughter thereafter becomes just an extension of Derek's frustration and anger. 

But life changes people, just as they are influenced with people they accept in their lives. In the jail, it requires an innocent black partner to have Derek see what goodness can do. And a bunch of his earlier avatars to see the forms evil can take. And he understands what his mother meant when she comes to visit him at jail and says "You think you are the only one doing time?"

Derek is a changed man when he comes out of the jail. Even as he starts to negate his past, his past relationships, and draws closer to the family he had always treated with scorn, the past refuses to let go of him.

Family can mean a lot, indeed. When he starts to bond with Danny and seeks to pull his brother out of the mess he was getting into, both of them take down every remnant of their past from the walls, which they did not want as intrusions in their futures. 

But there was a circle of pain to be completed. Nature finishes a task, one way or the other. Tragedy falls, but in ways which are both stunning and heart-rending.

Danny, in his history and testament, says this, to close his essay: "Life's too short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it." He quotes Abraham Lincoln: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

As this remarkable film shows, its a sentiment easier said than done.

Sent on my BlackBerry

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