In the late 1990s, the movie industry released a dozen of psychological dramas discussing questions of human existence and poor life choices. “American History X” is one of the most notable works from this period. This film about people trapped in the neo-Nazi movement has become the cult classic thanks to the outstanding acting and insightful depiction of the white supremacists’ everyday life. Close-ups, slow-motion, and black-and-white shots account for its unique visual style that has a powerful impact on a viewer.
In this movie, almost all flashbacks related to Derek are shot in black-and-white. This technique helps to achieve several objectives that contribute to the plot. First, it helps to distinguish the reality from memories. Since this movie uses nonlinear narrative, it may be hard for the viewer to follow the plot. Therefore, the color coding facilitates understanding what is happening on the screen. Second, the movie associates black-and-white shots with the most dramatic scenes containing violence, pain, and psychological struggle.
Close-ups of actors’ faces provide a viewer with a better understanding of their emotions. This movie focuses not on the characters’ actions but rather on their reactions to it. This technique draws a line between a psychological drama and a typical crime action film. Although “American History X” contains numerous violent scenes, the viewer’s attention is attracted to the way they impact the psychological state of Danny, Derek, and others. The whole film studies how they suffer from the consequences of their actions and choices.
The slow-motion indicates the most critical moments of the characters’ memories. When Danny recalls the basketball play or the murder, his mind focuses on the details forever etched in his memory. Evidently, he often thinks about these scenes, and this restless reflection makes his mind modify memories into nightmares.
Although I enjoy the cinematographic style of this movie, it has several weaknesses which affect the general impression. In my opinion, its biggest disadvantage is the confusing editing. At the very beginning, we are shown that the main character is Danny; therefore, we see everything through his eyes. We follow him in and after school, and he tells us the story of his family. A lot of screen time is dedicated to his reflections on the neo-Nazis and Derek. Nevertheless, when his older brother returns home, the movie instantly focuses on him and makes Derek the protagonist. It confuses the audience and makes it harder to follow the plot.
Another weak point of “American History X” is the way the characters speak to each other. Some dialogues sound artificial and unnatural, especially the one during the dinner attended by Mr. Murray. In this scene, the dialogue between Derek and his ex-teacher is a metaphor to the public discussion on the neo-Nazi movement. They do not speak like people normally do. Instead, they merely list down all arguments for and against the white supremacism.
In my opinion, the film does not give us enough arguments on why Derek has changed his mind. Because of the somewhat strange editing, it seems like he rejected the neo-Nazis right after his dialogue with Sweeney. The final cut lacks scenes showing Derek reflecting on what has happened to him.
Overall, this movie uses smart cinematography to make the audience sympathize with characters’ pain, losses, and struggle. Since it is completely dedicated to describing their psychological state, their actions and dialogues sometimes are shot in a quite primitive way. Also, the editing could have been better. Nevertheless, the outstanding acting and the balanced approach to the sensitive topic more than offset these disadvantages. “American History X” truly is one of the best movies about hatred and xenophobia.