90’s Showdown: Edward Norton
Why watch a monster like Derek Vinyard? What elevates him from being a monster? Pardon the crassness but movies about white supremacists always star attractive actors. There’s a whole Jezebel stub where commenters admit their lust over actors like Edward Norton who plays Vinyard. Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Sarah Polley, Sebastian Koch, and that`s just from the top of my head. And those commenters also admit their guilt for lusting on these characters, although let’s be honest, what’s the difference between them and say…an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue – not saying that A&F are white supremacists although many people would say so – in propagating whiteness and exclusivity? One method’s just more assertive than the other.
There were also masochistic girls who lusted on the four or so white supremacists in my Catholic high school. I was also one of those ‘girls.’ And guess who were also attracted to the characters like Vinyard – none other than the skinheads I knew in Grade 11. While talking about the last scene the local skinhead leader told me that Derek should be in a sequel where he kills the…and he ends up saying something graphic and offensive. Vinyard’s recruiting tactics work (This leader is now a custodian at a subway station the last time I checked, which is a union job that pays more than mine). Derek symbolizes or is the older prototype of a generation of pissed off white kids who feel like their brother (named Danny and played by Edward Furlong) was shot or exploited in some banal way by people of colour. And now that I think of that I feel insulted by this ridiculous mindset. I’m a gay Asian man who doesn’t have nepotism to back me up and help me get set up in life. What the fuck do these kids know about suffering?
I’ve taken this much time to talk about the personal experiences triggered by this movie but I`m originally here because of Norton’s performance. He plays Derek in three interweaving stages – the first and the simplest one being the malleable kid in two of the movie’s scenes. Norton pulls off the skater costume and shaggy hair, elevating seventeen year old naïvety by showing the anger Derek has memorized, conveying a young person growing the wrong way. There’s the Derek that has just come out of jail, a clean slate of happiness had he never left jail.
But the skinhead Derek is as fascinating. My standout scene is the basketball game, where he’s even cordial towards the black characters he wants to kick out of the court. Norton knows when to look down or when to look directly at the camera, his eyes instilling fear, the sadism of exclusivity, even lending himself to its perfunctory and even disgusting fetishism. He knows when to change into being perfunctorily tolerant to reverting to being standoffish in the company of other races. Norton shows Derek’s at his worst, a character who’s his anger is distilled yet masterfully escalated, a singular and awe-inspiring force, not like a tidal wave with its prickly drops but a concrete wall closing in. How does he go from a new grand master to playing a skinny, childlike, borderline twee scout?
Derek is a fictionalized figurehead of a movement that was strong during the aftermath of Rodney King but the movement seems probably dated or obscured now, since conflicts – correct me if I’m wrong in anything I write in this paragraph – are more class based. The biggest critics of white supremacy in its most subtle and insidious forms like the Tea Party and the NRA are white people who happen to be liberals. The conflict has turned inwardly. The organized skinhead movement might feel just as shunned as Derek’s new and troubled incarnation is, popping up now and then to make isolated terrorist acts.
While discussing with my non-skinhead classmates about actors, Edward Norton’s name is joyfully pronounced. He has a reputation for being a demanding meddler now. But we have to remember him and characters like Derek, because he dives into a role of a problematic, reluctant role model trying to make peace with an audience and a world that wants volatility instead.
I forgot: Vote for Edward Norton’s performance as Derek Vinyard here.