Movies You Missed: 'American History X'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
I quote these movies endlessly.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")
HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Here's looking at you, kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")
CLARK GABLE: (As Rhett Butler) Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE WATERFRONT")
MARLON BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) I could've been a contender.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL ABOUT EVE")
BETTE DAVIS: (As Margo) Fasten your seat belts.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERRY MAGUIRE")
CUBA GOODING JR: (As Rod Tidwell) Show me the money.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")
SIMON: (As Travis Bickle) You talking to me?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")
ESTELLE REINER: (As Older Woman Customer) I'll have what she's having.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CCOLOR PURPLE")
OPRAH WINFREY: (As Sofia) I ain't never thought I'd have to fight in my own house.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LION KING")
JEREMY IRONS: (As Scar) Long live the king.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHINING")
JACK NICHOLSON: (As Jack Torrance) Here's Johnny.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK")
DAVID PROWSE: (As Darth Vader) I am your father.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")
MARGARET HAMILTON: (As The Wicked Witch of the West) I'll get you, my pretty.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS")
ANDY SERKIS: (As Gollum) Precious.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT")
HEATH LEDGER: (As Joker) Why so serious?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY")
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As The Terminator) Hasta la vista, baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
RICHARD S CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.
SIMON: But have I seen all of them? Of course not. I've got a family, a dog, a job. But I get to catch up on some of these classic movies along with you. In today's installments of Movies You Missed, we're joined by Amina Haleem. She's an attorney. She's in Annapolis, Md. She and I had both never seen "American History X." Thanks very much for being with us, Amina.
AMINA HALEEM: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: I'm going to summarize the film we both saw briefly. It came out in 1998. Edward Norton stars as a neo-Nazi named Derek. He served three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. He becomes a changed man in prison. And when he gets out, he tries to keep his younger brother from traveling down the same rat hole of a path. Amina, you watched this film, too. What did you think?
HALEEM: My initial impression was that it was an imperfect movie, and it was quite dramatized. But I think it still had a severe impact on me. It was important and a powerful counter-narrative to an intense social ill.
SIMON: Let me ask about Edward Norton's performance. He got an Academy Award nomination for best actor. I thought he was - my gosh - quite powerful and convincing as a deplorable human being when the movie begins. Let's listen to a clip of him giving a speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN HISTORY X")
EDWARD NORTON: (As Derek Vinyard) Our border policy is a joke. Every night, thousands of these parasites stream across the border like some [expletive] pinata exploded.
NORTON: (As Derek Vinyard) Don't laugh. There's nothing funny going on here. This is about your life and mine. It's about decent, hard-working Americans falling through the cracks and getting the shaft because their government cares more about the constitutional rights of a bunch of people who aren't even citizens of this country.
SIMON: In 2017, does that rhetoric sound familiar?
HALEEM: I mean, it sounds identical to what I hear on, you know, news reports. And it felt extremely relevant for me to watch this movie in 2017. I mean, it came out, you know, around 20 years ago. And it doesn't seem like anything has changed.
SIMON: Derek begins to renounces his neo-Nazi ways. He develops a friendship with a guy he folds laundry with, who is African-American. And he's subjected to an act of terrible brutality at the hands of neo-Nazis in prison. Did you find his conversion, if you please, convincing?
HALEEM: Well, I thought that because he was so deep into his hatred and the rhetoric that he was entrenched in, for him to change it all, he had to have hit rock bottom. And not only did he hit rock bottom in prison. It was at the hands of other neo-Nazis, other people who he, at first, felt a camaraderie with. So had he been attacked and brutalized by, you know, an African-American group or a Hispanic group or any other race, I don't - I mean, I don't know if he would have reformed himself. Maybe it would've angered him further.
SIMON: We want to play a clip for you. It's a flashback from when Derek is younger and has long hair. And it's a family dinner scene. Derek and his father are talking about a reading assignment he has.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN HISTORY X")
WILLIAM RUSS: (As Dennis Vinyard) Hey, read the book. Ace the guy's test. Just don't swallow everything he feeds you whole, you know, just 'cause you see it on the evening news.
NORTON: (As Derek Vinyard) I know. But like what?
RUSS: (As Dennis Vinyard) All this stuff about making everything equal. It's not that simple. Look, now you got this book "Native Son." You know, what happened to the other books in the Huh? I mean, you've got to trade in great books for black books. Does that make sense? Huh? You've got to question these things, Derek. You've got to look at the whole picture.
SIMON: Now, we learned before that, out of chronology in the film, is Derek's father who is a firefighter - is killed by drug dealers who happen to be African-American. Does it begin to set up a greater understanding of Derek's character?
HALEEM: I think it did. And, actually, because that scene came a bit later, it did take me off guard and surprise me. But, really, you know, any form of racism is racism. It could - it doesn't matter if it's latent or not. I mean, the father wasn't violent. He didn't use horrible epithets. But he still you know equated, you know, African-American books with something lesser. So everything that Derek was exposed to from a young age onward growing up - it just, like, cemented his hatred of other people. So, yeah, it was - throughout the whole movie, I was a salad bowl of emotions. But I think that I related to him on the level of his pain, his expectations, his hopes. And, you know, there - his character had a long progression. His story arc was very interesting to watch - maybe not realistic in your daily life. But for a movie, I think that I felt for him at the end, whereas in the beginning, he was just this hateful person who I didn't really care to relate to.
SIMON: Amina Haleem - Annapolis, Md. - an attorney who watched "American History X" with us. Thanks so much for being with us.
HALEEM: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.