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The Thin Line Between. . .FEAR and HATE

Following disturbing real-life incidents, can two provocative films about intolerance find audiences?

October 21, 1998|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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