Hollywood Flashback: Before Charlottesville Clash, 'American History X' Turned Racial Hate Into Drama

American History X Still 1998 Edward Norton - Photofest - H 2017
New Line Cinema/Photofest

The film, about a neo-Nazi (played by Edward Norton) who vows to change his ways upon leaving prison, sparked an internal dispute between New Line and director Tony Kaye for seemingly "lionizing" racists.

If Hollywood makes a movie about the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, hopefully it goes more smoothly than 1998's American History X — a film that took the phrase "creative differences" to new extremes. In 1996, The Hollywood Reporter announced the New Line production would be "a story about the consequences of urban racism as a family is torn apart by hate."

Things did get torn apart — but not in the way the producers envisaged. The film is centered on a neo-Nazi skinhead (Edward Norton, then 27) who, while in prison, learns the error of his ways and then attempts to prevent his younger brother (Edward Furlong, then 20) from going down the same racist path.

Tony Kaye, a British director with a stellar career in commercials, would make his feature debut. He turned in a 96-minute cut, but, according to New Line's then-production president Mike De Luca, the director "wanted to reshoot two-thirds of the movie, but he couldn't tell me what he wanted to reshoot. He wanted to shoot until he 'found it,' in his words. He said Kubrick had that [right], and I said Kubrick didn't have it on his first movie." Relations soured to a point where Kaye wanted his name taken off the picture.

However, instead of the official DGA pseudonym, "Alan Smithee," he wanted "Humpty Dumpty." Kaye pressured the Toronto Film Festival to drop the film, threatened to hire protesters who would picket theaters showing it and called Norton "a narcissistic dilettante." Kaye, now 65, tells THR, "It's not over for me. I'm still trying to do a director's cut. The problem with the way the movie was edited is, it lionized a neo-Nazi. It's saying: 'You can do this heinous stuff, show a movie star's smile and it's all OK.' " (De Luca disputes the "lionizing" and says the Norton character "is imprisoned, raped and his brother is killed — that's a lot more than a movie star's smile.")

The $20 million film did so-so: It grossed $24 million worldwide, but Norton received an Oscar nomination. "The imagery that was considered shocking when American History X came out in 1998 has sadly become commonplace today," says executive producer Steve Tisch. "You wonder when people will learn that human decency and respect have to come first."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.