Can people change? The general consensus, if that person is Derek Vinyard, is no. Derek (Edward Norton) was a crazy-mean white supremacist who committed a brutal crime and wound up in prison.
After a traumatic term, he comes out a changed man. This change is derived from his experiences in prison, including an eye-opening relationship between him and a black prisoner. He comes back to see that although his home has changed, his old gang remains very much the same.
The middle-aged leader and writer of neo-nazi literature (about as artistic as Mein Kamf), Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) is still rounding up unhappy young men and refusing to do any of the dirty work himself.
Derek's girlfriend Stacy (Fairuza Balk), who was there when the crime was committed, is still a shrill, screeching harpy.
But worst of all, Derek's younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is getting into "the life," heavily influenced by Cameron and his goons.
Unsure of the ideals he once held in high esteem, Derek attempts to divert Danny, only to rouse the attention of Cameron's gang. American History X, director Tony Kaye's first film, is violent and depressing, yet at times strangely optimistic in its message of progression and change.
Derek behaves so brutally that his only hope for the future seems to be as a Nazi poster child. An interesting (if not original) method is used in that the past scenes are filmed in black and white. This eliminates the need for the overused "___ ago" technique.
Edward Furlong (the guy from The Terminator 2- Judgement Day who isn't former governor of California) and Edward Norton (the guy from Fight Club who isn't Brad Pitt) give good performances. This is the movie that made me like Edward Norton (no thanks to The Incredible Hulk,) and further evidence he's willing to take on daring roles and not rom-com type blockbusters.
One of the problems with the film is the overblown portions of the soundtrack, which leave no emotions to the imagination. On the up side, the characters have an interesting ambiguity and are pretty well-developed.
Despite the fact the movie is about race, the black characters are not sentimentalized or made into "cute" objects of pity as a plea for tolerance (To Kill A Mockingbird, anyone?)
American History X is an important movie. It is important as a morality tale about race for grown-ups, and as a showcase for superior acting. In a world full of nihilistic revenge movies and one-dimensional melodramas, there is a lot of strength in showing that people can change, even if it's hard to believe.