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By Ron Wells | July 3, 2001

SPECIAL DOUBLE REVIEW! ^ AMERICAN HISTORY X (R) ^ * * * * ^ BELOVED (R) ^ * * ^ I have just sat through “American History X” and “Beloved” back to back. One film about skinheads, repercussions of white supremist dogma, and race relations in the ’90’s (“AHX”); and one film about the repercussions of slavery. Both films are about dealing with a history you can’t escape and moving on. Can I have a hug now? I need to see something light, I want to watch “The Waterboy”.
Oprah Winfrey spent 10 years developing a film version of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Beloved”. The effort shows; everybody tried REALLY hard. Everyone obviously felt they were making an IMPORTANT film. Close, but not quite. Director Jonathan Demme hasn’t made a film in five years. “Silence of the Lambs” seems to have stifled him, creatively. He went from a “quirky” filmmaker to an “important” filmmaker. The world is lesser for it.
This is the story a mother, her children, and the lasting effects of slavery. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) escaped a brutal plantation in Kentucky with her children for Ohio in 1855. Ten years later, her family is haunted by a tormented spirit prone to throwing everything around the room and pulling images out of their minds. Sethe’s two sons flee soon after. Eight years after that, Sethe is left only with her daughter Denver (Kimberlee Elise), too afraid to walk beyond the yard by herself, and the spirit, when Paul D. (Danny Glover) walks into her life. Paul was at the plantation with Sethe. Sethe welcomes Paul into her life, and soon her bed. The spirit soon leaves, to be replaced by a mysterious girl (Thandie Newton) who appears in front of the house. Calling herself “Beloved”, the girl is either mentally ill or disabled, and may contain the spirit of another daughter Sethe had lost.
“American History X” opens, literally, with a bang. Derrick Vinyard (Edward Norton), lord of the skinheads, kills two black men who break into his truck outside of his Venice Beach home. We see a virile, charismatic figure shot in black and white slow motion worthy of a Nike ad. Three years later, in color, we see his kid brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), chastised in school for turning in a civil rights paper on Mein Kampf. The black principle (Avery Books), who also taught Derrick, tells Danny he will now be his history teacher every day for a class called “American History X”. The first assignment: write a new paper about Derrick.
Derrick, on the other hand, has had a serious change of heart in prison. Cut off from his various influences and mentors he can finally see past the dogma and the hatred. He now has to face all of his old friends and pull his brother out of the life.
Both movies are told through the eyes of protagonists coming of age. “Beloved” is really the story of Denver, and “AHX” is about Danny. Each must examine the past of their families and grow past it. Sethe and Derrick are forced to live with the decisions they’ve made, and they suffer greatly for it. Denver and Danny learn from the mistakes of those they love, but their fates are eventually decided by their own choices. Both families are much at the mercy of their respective communities. Denver and Sethe need the support of theirs (Cincinnati and outskirts) and Derrick and Danny must keep from getting killed by theirs (Venice Beach).
The qualities of each film lies in the execution and the risks the filmmakers were willing (or not) to take. “Beloved” barely varies its somber tone for the first two hours. Comic relief shows up in the last twenty minutes. Ultimately, Demme and Winfrey display too much respect for the book and not enough for cinema. It’s essentially a noble failure.
While directory Tony Kaye is up for the “1998 Vincent Gallo Memorial Pinhead Spitting in the face of Success Award”, which Gallo has already sewn up himself, his direction is audacious and impressive. He takes the risky move of demonstrating the lure of the racist propaganda and imagery. The glossy beauty of Norton, shaved, buffed and tattooed, is as seductive as his driven speeches, but nothing can hide the ugliness that always rises. Kaye was allegedly booted from the editing suite for whatever reasons, but the Directors Guild probably wouldn’t let him take his name off because, well, you should only do that with bad films. Aside from a score apparently stole from an Oliver Stove flick, there’s not much heavy-handedness to all this. Derrick’s journey to hell and the one back are portrayed organically and gradually. His lessons are hard won. This all could have easily turned out like a bad after-school special, but it didn’t. It actually meets the skinheads on their own ground and dismantles each of their arguments. Unfortunately, just because you stop hating someone, doesn’t mean they stop hating you back. At the end you realize the solutions will be harder to find than the truth. I still need a hug.

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