It’s a scene that goes through you like the sound of a dentist drill and proves as unwatchable as a Snapchat story from the night before. In the cliched world of cinema, a million scenes have been conceived with the near-unachievable intent of the being watched through shielding fingers, but few, if any, have ever accomplished it with the same visceral full-body reaction of the shriek-inducing curb stomp in American History X.
The squeamish shudders are already off the radar in the challenging racial film from the unflinching dialogue alone, but the curb stomp itself seems to be the visual manifestation of all that senseless vitriol. It is this scene that lives long in the mind of the viewers—viewers who would no doubt conclude that it is one of the most impactful looks at racism in American cinema history. Therefore, it might come as somewhat of a surprise that director Tony Kaye urged the studio to credit him anonymously as Humpty Dumpty.
Kaye went into the movie unhappy with the script and even found himself unhappy with the casting not long later. “I went along with the studio’s idea to cast Edward Norton. At the time Norton was Hollywood’s golden boy, although personally I didn’t think he had enough weight or presence,” he told the Guardian. “I held some open casting calls but I couldn’t find anyone better than him. And one advantage of having Edward was that we had a shared vision of how to improve the script. In casting him I was really buying another writer.”
There was one scene, however, that jumped right off the page. “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,” scriptwriter David McKenna told The Enthusiast. And studio executive, Mike De Luca, happens to agree: “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.”
Economical is certainly one way to put it; absolutely abhorrent, might also have described it well. However, it is an act with a shocking reality. “David [McKenna] told me that he researched hate groups and he came across stories of it,” De Luca recalls. “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.”
In order to make the scene soar (or rather plummet, depending on how you look at it), a close-up was required. “To me,” Kaye opined, “The kind of nerve jangling thing is the close-up of the teeth grazing the curb.” Thus, with that in mind he “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.”
Nevertheless, in order for the shot to look real, the actor, Antonio David Lyons, playing the tortured curb chewer Lawrence, had to plant his teeth on the curb at one point. “I was a bit sort of concerned about that. I was, like, We’re in Santa Monica. Dogs walk around and piss on this!’” Lyons recalled. A fake rubber curb was then quickly created so that the harrowing teeth scrape could be filmed close up before the inevitable boot lands to the back of the neck.
The masterful realism that Lyons gives the scene thereafter is worth its weight in spasm-inducing gold, and as he explains, it came from a very internal place: “The truth that you hold in your mind is that somebody is killing you because of the colour 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.”
McKenna would later recall the moment of the premiere. “I remember going to a film festival in Chicago right before the movie had come out,” he explained. “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 theatre jumped out of his seat at the same time. I knew that this movie would have some lasting power.”
There are many gutsy scenes in modern cinema, the Saw movie franchise has peddled them like a torturous Lance Armstrong, but the real visceral edge to the curb stomp is the way that it lingers beyond the gratuitous despite being entirely repulsive. There is no hint of fiction in the attention grab of the scene, thus the shudder that follows it is equally free of thrills and you are left touching your teeth thereafter, just to check they are still in your mouth. Kaye might not have been sold on the movie at first, but he would later opine: “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.”
The harrowing scene is embedded below, but viewer discretion is highly advised.