Few people who’ve seen American History X — one of Hollywood’s bluntest depictions of race relations — would be able to tell you that its disgruntled director, Tony Kaye, demanded to be credited as Humpty Dumpty. Or that the movie was a flop at the box office, taking in just under $7 million.
But what everyone remembers, even more than Edward Norton’s swastika tattoos, is the curb-stomping scene.
In the gruesome clip (which is too nasty for me to embed here), skinhead Derek Vinyard (Norton) makes a black man named Lawrence bite a curb and then stomps his booted foot on the back of the poor dude’s head. Game over.
Recently, and for no reason other than morbid curiosity, The Enthusiast tracked down those involved (except Norton, who declined to be interviewed) and compiled an oral history of one of the grisliest cinematic deaths ever devised.
David McKenna (writer): I’ve been approached by hundreds and hundreds of people since the movie came out and they all want to talk about this particular scene.
Mike De Luca (studio executive): Because it occurs fairly early in the movie, you haven’t really gotten to know Edward Norton’s character yet. So the scene itself needed to be so brutal that it told you what you needed to know about him in a fairly economical way.
McKenna: I knew I wanted to kill Lawrence in a unique and extremely violent way, to set Edward’s character apart from all the others. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t know how I came up with the idea of curbing. It’s all a blur.
De Luca: David told me that he researched hate groups and he came across stories of it. I know it’s been used in The Sopranos since, but that was a new one on me. And the phrase curbing? I’d just never been exposed to it before. It’s a nasty piece of business.
Tony Kaye (director): It took me a long time to find the actor that plays the part of Lawrence. I wanted to find someone with a great face so that it would be even more horrific.
Valerie McCaffrey (casting director): We actually auditioned Terence Howard three times. But we knew right off that it would be a hard sell even though we both liked him.
Antonio David Lyons (Lawrence): I auditioned. It was definitely one of those moments where you read the script and go, I need to be part of this.
McCaffrey: Antonio totally had the look. In the end, we wanted someone that looked more “urban” than Howard, so that it’s not something you look at and say, Whoa, what is that guy doing in this movie?
Lyons: It was a night shoot. I was really nervous. I didn’t know what it would all be like.
McKenna: I’m in the makeup trailer talking to Edward Norton. I look to the right and I see the black dude that played the part of the guy that took the brunt of the curb sitting in the makeup chair next to him. So, I start talking to the guy. And then I look more closely and I see that it’s a dummy! Edward and I just laughed forever.
Kaye: I made a dummy of Antonio’s head so that from the wide shot you can see the thing get crunched. It didn’t look anything like the actor. It was just a bouncy head thing so you could stomp on it time and time again.
Edward Furlong (Danny Vinyard): It was kind of fake looking. But it was still really trippy. I was addicted to playing Clue on that movie, so I was in my trailer with, like, five people sitting around going, “It was Mustard with the wrench in the fucking library.” I was actually having fun. And then I walked out and saw them shoot the scene and I remember going, “Wow, that’s pretty violent.”
Kaye: To me, the kind of nerve jangling thing is the close-up of the teeth grazing the curb.
Lyons: I was a bit sort of concerned about that. I was, like, “We’re in Santa Monica. Dogs walk around and piss on this!”
Kaye: I had a rubber curb made so he could get his teeth right onto it. It just seemed to be more palatable for the actor. I wanted to get the teeth to scrape the thing so I could get in really close.
Lyons: The truth that you hold in your mind is that somebody is killing you because of the color of your skin. It is a violation of the human spirit. So even up to the last moment, he doesn’t go down willingly. The sounds that you hear while Lawrence has his teeth on the curb is me trying to articulate that you can’t kill us all. That to me was the crux of the character.
De Luca: When we saw the dailies, we cringed and thought, Wow, that’s a lot more brutal than it seemed on the page. It’s almost more about what you imagine is happening after that foot comes down. But I think Tony staged it and shot it in the most impactful way he could without it being an exploitation movie.
McKenna: I remember going to a film festival in Chicago right before the movie had come out. Just watching the build to that scene I could see every head frozen. And then as his foot comes down on the back of the head, every single person in the theater jumped out of his seat at the same time. I knew that this movie would have some lasting power.
Kaye: I’m not allowed to say these kinds of things because I was part of it, but I think it’s one of the great scenes of Hollywood.
Lyons: I couldn’t watch that scene the first time I saw the movie. I looked away. And I started crying when I finally saw it. It brings up all those same emotions.
De Luca: It wasn’t a terribly wide release and the film didn’t do very well so it didn’t really stir up a hornet’s nest.
Furlong: Yeah, but that is one fucked up way to go. I try not to think about it too much. If somebody ever wants to curb-stomp me I’m going to do everything I can not to have myself go that way.
De Luca: Because it looks painful and maybe you bleed to death depending on how hard the guy stamps down on your head. Your teeth go. I mean, it’s not good.
McKenna: That and maybe a shark attack would be my least desirable ways to go.
Lyons: Well, it’s not a good way to go in the sense of a human being. But it’s a really kick-ass way to go to be remembered, I’ll tell you that. I mean, in a movie. In real life, I want to go while I’m sleeping, preferably on a warm beach somewhere, under a tree, and very old.