The Thin Line Between. . .FEAR and HATE
Two Hollywood films that deal with American youth caught up in the swirl of hate and prejudice are being released this month even as the country itself grapples over the real-life murder of a gay college student who was pistol-whipped and left to die on a fence post in Wyoming.
Both films are expected to arouse debate, and groups that monitor hate groups praised the filmmakers for grappling with such volatile current issues. But whether the controversy these films engender can be turned into healthy box office remains to be seen.
In “Apt Pupil,” which Sony’s TriStar Pictures will release Friday, Brad Renfro plays a high school student who makes an ominous pact with a Nazi war criminal played by Ian McKellen, who has been living secretly in the youth’s neighborhood.
In New Line Cinema’s “American History X,” which will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 28 before going wider, Edward Norton portrays a menacing neo-Nazi skinhead--his chest emblazoned with a huge swastika--who rages for retribution over the murder of his father and despair over the America of his childhood that he sees slipping away.
“You can’t pull any punches because the issues are much too important,” said Steve Tisch, the executive producer of “American History X.” “They are on the front page week after week, month after month, the latest being the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the [earlier] murder in Jasper, Texas, of James Byrd, who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death.”
In the film there are unnerving scenes of racial violence: of black youths kicking a helpless white student in a high school restroom; of a Korean-owned grocery store terrorized by skinhead thugs; of an African American whose skull is split open by a skinhead who orders him to lie face down on a curb.
In the same way that “Mississippi Burning,” “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Rosewood” focused attention on racial violence in the South, these two new films send a message that suburban neighborhoods can also be fertile ground for the seeds of hatred to grow.
In its early years, Hollywood rarely dealt with racial and religious prejudice, although there were notable attempts in such films as “Crossfire” (1947), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962).
Hollywood Depictions Often Stereotypical
Experts who track hate crimes say society benefits when Hollywood tackles such difficult subjects as bigotry and hate.
“Ultimately, it’s better to face these demons than to pretend they don’t exist,” said Mark Potok, who edits the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” a quarterly journal covering the radical right. “We’ve been down that road. When you pretend there is no racism in society, it gets worse.”
Too often, they say, filmmakers fall back on stereotypes to depict perpetrators of hate crimes--stereotypes that audiences often have difficulty identifying with.
“I think when we associate hate crimes with neo-Nazis, skinheads and real Nazis, we put our concept of these perpetrators far away and we can say, ‘They’re nobody I know,’ but I think that is a disservice,” said Lester Olmstead-Rose, executive director of Community United Against Violence, a group that works on violence within and against San Francisco’s gay community.
Todd Boyd, a professor at the USC School of Cinema and Television, agreed.
“I think in the past, when Hollywood has attempted to deal with these sorts of issues, often it sensationalized it to an extreme that made it easily dismissible,” Boyd said. “It seems so far outside the mainstream of American life that individuals look at these films and say, ‘That hasn’t happened or will not happen where I live.’ ”
Looking for Causes of Hate Crimes
“Mainstream America sees this sort of right-wing neo-Nazi movement as being part of a fringe, part of an extreme,” Boyd added, “as opposed to seeing how some of the practices and ideas commonly held in America create fertile territory for these ideas to grow and fester.”
Filmmaker Arthur Dong, whose 1997 documentary, “Licensed to Kill,” took cameras behind prison walls to explore what drives some men to target gays for murder, said the danger of making films about gay bashing is that “you worry about giving potential perpetrators in the audience ideas.”
“That goes back to the age-old debate: What responsibility do you have as a filmmaker?” Dong said. “I believe that if what we did on the screen actually affected what happens [in real life], there would be no people left on Earth.”
Adapted by screenwriter Brandon Boyce from a Stephen King novella, “Apt Pupil” focuses on Todd Bowden (Renfro), a typical 16-year-old American boy and a top student at his high school who discovers a Nazi war criminal named Kurt Dussander (McKellen) quietly living in Todd’s hometown.
Obsessed with the atrocities that Dussander committed during the war, Todd begins to blackmail the old man, agreeing to keep his silence in exchange for Dussander revealing his evil past.
“In ‘Apt Pupil,’ the viewer watches how the Nazi war criminal gradually changes the boy,” said Amy Levy, an associate director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles who has seen the film. “You just know he’s going to go on to college and be completely evil. If American history can discourage kids from committing hate crimes, then the message will be embraced correctly.”
Director Bryan Singer (“Usual Suspects”) said that, viewed on one level, “Apt Pupil” is simply a thriller. But on another level, Singer said, the film shows how all of us are capable of committing evil acts.
“He very slowly learns to commit atrocities without regret and, in his case, he’s learning the method before the reason,” Singer explained. “He is not committing hate crimes--there is no anger, no focus toward any individual, no motivation except simple preservation. However, he’s learning the ability to do terrible things without remorse, without regret and with utter confidence so that, perhaps later in life, should his agenda be amplified, he could become a formidable terror.”
In much the same way that “Apt Pupil” charts one youth’s linear descent into evil and corruption, “American History X” presents a circular journey that ends with the young man’s redemption.
Written by David McKenna and directed by Tony Kaye, the film unfolds through the eyes of Danny Vineyard (Edward Furlong), who idolizes his older brother, Derek (Norton). They both come under the influence of a neo-Nazi, who befriends white youths living in Venice Beach.
When their father is murdered by a black, Derek is consumed by pain, grief and anger, eventually leading him to the skinheads. When he murders two blacks trying to steal his car, he is sent to prison, where he undergoes a transformation and leaves a changed man, who attempts to rescue his younger brother from a similar fate.
Behind the scenes, Kaye walked off the film, demanding that his name be taken off the credits after New Line released a version of the film Kaye said he had not approved. The Directors Guild of America, however, declined the request to remove his name.
Kaye, who remains bitter over what he calls New Line’s “half-hearted” vision, believes it is still important for Hollywood studios to make issue-oriented films that deal with hate and bigotry.
“I think the cream of Hollywood cares about this stuff and they realize that you have to try and investigate as well as entertain and provoke dialogue about these kinds of issues in hope that this dialogue moves things forward, but not in a preachy way, which, unfortunately, a lot of ‘American History X’ does now.”
Kaye said he won’t attend next week’s premiere. Instead, he said, he is giving his tickets to Fallbrook-based white supremacist Tom Metzger, a founder of a group called the White Aryan Resistance.
“I think it would be interesting for him to see what I was trying to do and get his perception of it,” Kaye said, adding, “That is what [New Line] should have done. They should have filled the theater with neo-Nazis.”
Aside from the behind-the-scenes controversy over Kaye, New Line is trying to focus attention on the message contained in the film itself.
Production President Michael De Luca said too often in films, racism is dealt with as a “reactionary thing--violence between the races seems to be discussed in terms of, ‘He did this to me,’ or ‘They did this to me, so I’ll do that to them.’ What I liked about the script is, I don’t think that’s the discussion. The discussion is, ‘My father taught me this, so I’ll teach this to my son.’
“What this film says is what is learned and passed down in your family can get unlearned,” De Luca added.
Producer John Morrissey conceded that New Line could have difficulty marketing the film.
“I expect it’s going to be tough because it is so frank and direct in its depiction of violence--I’m talking about emotional and psychological violence as well as physical violence,” he said. “But what I think makes this movie work finally is it’s not a didactic film, not a film that preaches. . . . This is a film about two brothers and we get involved in their plight and the future of these two men who we come to love.”
To raise public awareness, New Line has enlisted the support of the worldwide human rights organization Amnesty International, which plans to screen the movie to community and student groups nationwide in hopes that audiences will not turn away from its difficult subject matter.
“Unlike many Hollywood films, it shows this young man’s evolution,” said Paula Ramsey, artist liaison with Amnesty International. “He sees all the destruction that hate causes, not only to society at large, but to his own family. Therein lies the lesson: Everyone suffers from hate crimes.”