Last night I re-watched "American History X", a 20-year old film that I saw and thought highly of twenty years ago. I thought well of it this time too. It's a film that condemns the Skinhead / Ultra Right / White Power movement that was on the rise a generation ago. And it applies just as well today as it did then.
But in watching it a second time, I noticed something I may have missed the first time. Which is: the film rejects this movement for all sorts of reasons that aren't directly related to the essence of the movement. Meanwhile, it gives the espousal of the movement's philosophy full voice, without ever allowing full expression to the logical repudiation of this philosophy.
I don't criticize the heart or intent of the film. It provides a hard look at a difficult subject, and one that's difficult to fully break down and analyse. I just wish it had tried a bit harder to do so.
The way I viewed it, the arguments that the film presents as to why the Ultra Right is to be rejected are:
- it's a movement that stems from anger and that seeks targets for that anger
- it gives its practitioners an 'other' to blame for their hardships
- the practitioners of this creed do horrible things to people
- some of the people 'selling' this creed are self-serving or are cowards
- and that being associated with this life-style puts one into association with crude and violent, anti-social, ignorant freaks.
Now, all of these are reasons why one might legitimately decline to follow a life-style, or to buy into a creed or social organization. However, none of them in any way undermine the fundamentals of a belief system itself. All of the reasons above can equally apply to followers of particular movements that have grown out of Christianity, Buddhism, Anarchy, Capitalism, Communism, whatever. There are people who follow all of those creeds for the wrong reasons, who do horrible things in its name, and who avoid the painful reality of their lives in doing so. It doesn't make those philosophies wrong.
The shame of it is, the film does such a great job of showing Derek Vinyard, the protagonist as portrayed by Edward Norton, making very intense and powerful arguments that I'm sure are the very arguments that in fact successfully brought in so many of it's followers. But those in the film who oppose the philosophy either express their views weakly or they are preoccupied with the emotional/social/relational problems of this protagonist. Or worst of all, the character best able to attack the philosophy at its core, by demonstrating its factual and intellectual weaknesses, that being Dr. Sweeney, as portrayed by Avery Brooks, isn't given the opportunity to do so. What a lost opportunity.
Sweeney is depicted throughout as an intelligent, perceptive, caring, professionally skilled educator. It is he who points out the most potent of the reasons why Derek's clinging to White Power is misguided. But he isn't ever given the screen time to actually enunciate why the arguments of the Far Right are wrong.
I will be guilty here of committing the same error, in that I'm not going to make that analytical breakdown here. Maybe the film - as I do - presumes that its consumers know the argument. Maybe we're both right. My defense though is that I didn't set out here to break down the Ultra Right, as I believe the film set out to do. My purpose here is to point out how a really good film fell just short of a mark it might easily have reached. And one of the main reasons I make that point here is that it isn't really an isolated fault in popular entertainment.
"Unforgiven" is an outstanding film that is said to be against violence. But I don't see that it ever really makes an argument about violence being inherently wrong. Instead it shows how being violent has corroded or destroyed the lives of particular individuals. A great argument is made, yes, but without resorting to the direct argument that it might have employed.
"Django Unchained" is another example. In particular, I recall the scene in which the plantation owner played by DiCaprio makes a case that Blacks demonstrate their inferiority by their failure to rise up when outnumbering their oppressors. That argument leaves out so much of reality. But the counter-arguments are never presented. Instead, the oppressor is simply destroyed in a manner that satisfies the lust for vengeance, but doesn't even bother to address reason.
That's my rant. Great movies that I wish had been a little greater. Maybe I need to just shut up and make my own movie. Or at least write one. Or a book.