Since the 1989 release of Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee's seminal film on simmering inner-city race relations, convincing cinematic studies of the effects of racism have been rather light on the ground. John Singleton's underdeveloped Higher Learning didn't quite get there, leaving Russell Crowe's performance as a brutal skinhead in the 1992 Australian film Romper Stomper as the last time a film attempted to take an unflinching look at the brutal world of neo-Nazism.
The controversial subject matter of white supremacists and their violent tactics is tackled in 1998's powerful American History X, a film that produced a different type of controversy on its release when director Tony Kaye battled publicly with New Line Cinema over the final cut.
Putting on more than two stone (13kg) of muscle for the role, the shaven haired and tattooed Norton is barely recognizable as the film's lead, Derek Vinyard. The movie captures the tense 24-hour period after Derek is released from prison for the murder of two black men. Through a series of illuminating black-and-white flashbacks, audiences are given an insight into how Derek's poisonous views are cultivated and ultimately changed after his brutal stay in prison.
Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is Derek's younger brother Danny, a troubled teen who is tempted to follow in the jackbooted steps of his sibling. The complex relationship between the two is played out against a harsh Venice Beach backdrop, a place where a violent tribalism is at play among the area's multiple racial denominations.
Offsetting Norton's rabble-rousing racist rhetoric is Dr Bob Sweeney (Brooks), an African-American teacher who has taught both of the bright but misguided Vinyard brothers. Sweeney acts here as the film's moral conscience, a man who illuminates American History X's commentary on the futility of unrelenting hate and bigotry.
It's rumoured that, during post-production, Edward Norton stepped into the editing suite, ultimately giving his character a lot more screen time. Although this move might be seen as egomaniacal even by Hollywood standards, viewers will be more than thankful since Norton delivers another one of the gripping performances that have become his signature.