So often we see darkness portrayed as a fiction. Be it werewolves or zombies or vampires, the tales we hear of it always seem to be something other than human. Maybe we make this separation in the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it easier for us to sleep at night. If the monsters aren’t real, then they can’t actually hurt us.
Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more unsettling. Monsters do exist, and the scariest ones don’t have fangs, and they don’t walk on all fours. Hiding in the souls of each and every one of us lie the darkest parts of the world.
The first time I heard about American History X, it was from a girlfriend I had in high school. When she found out that I had never seen it or even heard of it, she insisted I give it a watch. As an African American girl that had grown up in Chicago, I think she saw the movie as an opportunity to give me a small glimpse of some of the adversity she ran into.
Sadly, I got the wrong impression from the title of the film, and I kept pushing it off as something to get around to later. I wasn’t much for documentaries at the time, and I thought that what I was in for was a history lesson with a Malcolm X spin on it. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I wouldn’t find that out until years later, when I caught the movie by accident on HBO. We never did end up watching it while we were together.
American History X isn’t a documentary; it isn’t a history lesson, and it’s not at all what anyone expects to see when they first sit down to watch it. If you’re seeing the film for the first time, I won’t spoil much of the plot for you, but I will tell you that you’re not about to take a trip back to a distant time. What you’ll be witnessing is an atrocity, but it doesn’t live in the past. Perhaps what makes this film among the scariest things I’ve ever seen is the fact that it lives and breathes in the present tense. The horrors it unveils are those that surround us still to this day.
As you’ve probably gathered by this point, the movie deals extensively with racism. But it deals with it in a way that almost no other film or TV show has tried to. It tries to tackle the truth. No film before it and no film made in the 15 years since it came out have done as good of a job at trying to demonstrate that truth, at least not any that I’ve seen.
Most of the time when you see racism on screen, it’s done as if what you’re seeing is just one big PSA. A white person breaks out the ‘n word’ in a fit of frustration. We learn quickly how wrong it was for them to resort to that, and everybody goes home feeling better about themselves. Maybe that mentality works to educate 5-year-olds, but let’s be adults and have a serious discussion for once.
Racism isn’t pretty, and it isn’t as clear cut as most people would like to believe. There are murky waters involved in even trying to have an honest conversation about the topic. The truth is that much as we would like to believe otherwise, there are faults to be seen on all sides of the table. If we can’t acknowledge that much, the discussion goes nowhere. Making that acknowledgment is what allows this film to excel where others have failed.
Like it or not, you’re going to connect with the characters you see on some level. Flawed as they are, and as much as you might try to distance yourself and your views from the ones that they portray, it is extremely difficult not to identify in some way with the points being made. That bond is what really allows this story to sink in deeper than you’ll probably be comfortable with. It’s also what makes the message it sends so very strong.
For most people watching, this is going to be a disturbing experience. You’ll want to turn your head away from the violence you see. Even if you’ve seen a thousand other movie deaths, there are images here that will burn into your head forever, that can never been un-seen. While I’d normally recommend the squeamish stay away from such a tale, this film is just too important for that.
Watch this film if you haven’t already. It will change you.
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Featured Image From the Film