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Sunday, November 7, 1999
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Profound and stirring drama
By Ervell E. Menezes

WHEN Steven Spielberg made The Colour Purple he was criticised saying that only Blacks can make films about Blacks. But that isn’t really true. Granted that Black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton have given a whole new image to Black cinema one can’t make a sweeping statement like that. Now, as if to reiterate this stand White director Tony Kaye has made an absolute stunner of a movie on racism in Los Angeles.

While most of these racist dramas are centred on the household of a Black family, American History X is a profound and stirring drama about the consequences of racism in a White family torn apart by hate. The story unfolds through the eyes of Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong), who idolises his elder brother Derek (Edward Norton). Seeking retribution for his dad’s murder for a way to vent his rage, Derek finds himself transformed by a philosophy of hate which propels him to the leadership of the local White power movement.

This hate campaign ends with Derek committing a brutal murder and serving a prison sentence. Three years later (that is when our story begins), the neighbourhood awaits Derek’s release. His mother Doris (Beverly D‘ Angelo) prays for his safety; his girl-friend Stacey (Fairuska Balk) longs for his return, but most of all it is kid brother Danny who is desperate for his brother’s love and guidance.

But Derek is a changed man. Ashamed of his past, he is now in a race to save Danny and the Vinyard family from the violence he’s brought down on them. It is on the very day of his release that Danny is asked by his principal (Avery Brooks) to write a paper on the circumstances that led to Derek’s incarceration. It is through the narrative of this assignment that the audience explores the events that haunt and even define the two brothers.

Director Tony Kaye gets to the root of this racist thing from the word go. Black-White bitterness comes across loud and clear. It’s about skinheads and White power and the characters are well balanced. There is a repulsive White and a commendable Black. The screenplay by David McKenna is terse and Edward Norton is able to carry the film on his shoulders. This Nazi sympathiser becomes a vehicle of White hatred. And with Danny looking up to his big brother the stage looks set for a major catastrophe.

There is always an undercurrent of disaster running through this film but it is some of the stunning scenes that merit special mention. The family ruckus in the dining-room after Derek returns is certainly the highlight of the story with some of the prison violence scenes not far behind. The Venice beach ambience is graphically recaptured and the bonding of the two brothers could hardly have been bettered. Slowly, layer by layer, the onion is peeled but just as we get to the climax there is a red herring which gives the story a stunning impact.

To say that Edward Norton is brilliant is an understatement. And it is the transformation of the character from one so despicable to one not so despicable is achieved with amazing lucidity. His Nazi badge of honour is in tatters by the end. Norton is helped largely by Edward Furlong who is also brilliant in the role of his kid brother.

Beverly D’ Angelo, Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks, Fairuska Balk and Stacey Keach also provide good cameos but it is the whole pressure-cooker, cauldron-like atmosphere that is so graphically recaptured. Not in a long while has one seen such a devastating expose on racism. Kudos to director-cinematographer Tony Kaye.

But The Mummy is quite a disaster. Films dealing with Egypt have always had enough scope because of the Pharaohs and that ancient civilisation. But what begins as an Oriental adventure shifts genres and becomes a spoof which is not bad in itself. In the first half it manages to hold the viewer’s attention but it is the second half which tends to run riot and the story is inundated in action which has little rhyme and even less reason.

Dashing legionnaire Rick O’Connel (Brendan Fraser), Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) are in search of a hidden treasure when they come upon the curse of an ancient priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo). It is yet another anything-is-possible Hollywood entertainer reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark and their ilk. But for all its special effects, crawly creatures and believably unbelievable sequences The Mummy flatters only to deceive leaving the viewer quite numbed by the excessive action and the never-ending story.Back

This feature was published on October 31, 1999

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