Actors often emphasize understanding the inherent humanity of a character, even when portraying someone with deeply flawed or outright malevolent traits. This was the task faced by Edward Norton in his role as Derek Vinyard, a reformed neo-Nazi leader, in the 1998 movie “American History X,” which celebrated its 25th anniversary recently.
Norton, during a 2019 interview, reflected on how characters, regardless of their actions, believe in their righteousness. Drawing a comparison, he mentioned that characters like Voldemort from “Harry Potter” represent an exaggerated evil. However, human characters, even those like Derek, possess a perspective, offering an element of unexpectedness and depth to their portrayal.
The film, directed by Tony Kaye and penned by David McKenna, delivered intense and unforgettable scenes, particularly one where Derek commits a horrifying act of violence. Yet, Derek’s life story adds layers to his character. The death of his firefighter father at the hands of a Black drug dealer triggered Derek’s descent into white supremacy. His subsequent incarceration, due to his violent actions against two men, leads him to initially ally with the Aryan Brotherhood. However, he eventually distances himself from the group after experiencing betrayal, culminating in a traumatic assault.
Upon his release, Derek confronts another dilemma: his younger sibling, Danny (played by Edward Furlong), is walking in his extremist footsteps. While Derek tries to redirect Danny from this toxic ideology, tragedy strikes again when a Black student takes Danny’s life.
Describing the movie’s essence, Norton likened it to iconic tragedies penned by Shakespeare. He emphasized that, beneath its contemporary setting, the narrative’s core is timeless. Norton viewed Derek as a person with vast potential, akin to a leader. The story emphasizes how untapped potential, when paired with unchecked anger, can lead to one’s downfall.