American History X is arguably among the best movies that tackled on the issue of racism in America. Directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna, the setting of the movie is Venice Beach, Los Angeles. It revolves around two brothers, Derek Vinyard and Danny Vinyard.
Derek (Edward Norton), a promising teenage student is forced to join the neo-Nazi movement after his father is killed by an African American criminal. His oratory skills coupled with his blatant hate towards other races saw him rise quickly to the ranks of leadership in the movement. In a blotched up plan to rob Derek, two African American criminals end up on the wrong side of his wrath. As a result, he is sentenced to three years in prison for violently killing them.
In prison, he is easily adopted by white supremacy groups, owing to his controversial reputation- evidenced by his swastika tattoos. However, things get complicated for him when he befriends Lamont (Guy Torry), an African American. The white skinheads view this as utter disrespect towards their cause and brandish Derek a traitor. They plot against him and Derek is molested by multiple skinheads, as a result. Professor Sweeney (Avery Brooks) visits him after his brutal ordeal and convinces him to stop his racial hatred.
He eventually comes out of prison a changed man. He is faced with the challenge of converting his younger brother, who is passionately following in his footsteps as a neo-Nazi. Danny (Edward Furlong) supports his brother’s new quest after he learns of the ordeal he went through in prison at the hands of his fellow neo-Nazis. In the end, Danny is shot by a black student before submitting his paper that renounced neo-Nazism to Professor Sweeney.
Analysis of the Movie
Although American History X has a lot of elements of violence and foul language, the movie has a positive message of hope and transformation. Derek and to some extent Danny, represent a section of people who are easily brainwashed into believing that their race or religion or ideology is superior to others. Unfortunately, they take to heart these misconstrued ideologies, willing to die and commit all forms of atrocities to advance them. Their only justification to these evil deeds is that they are superior to others.
Derek justifies his hate for black Americans because one of them killed his father. However, his hate for the race can be attributed to parental indoctrination, although he does not know it yet during the first half of the film. The seeds of hate were already sown into their hearts by their father- his untimely death was only a spark that ignited the hate. Derek, like other racists generalize a whole race based on a few negative events, while completely neglecting a horde of positive things from that same group.
For instance, Derek goes into a tirade of hate towards the whole race, because a single member of the race killed his father. When two black persons try to rob him, he kills them in the most inhumane way possible. It makes you wonder how deeply rooted is his hatred for the African Americans. He ignores black role models in his life, such as Professor Sweeney, who ironically plays a big role towards his redemption.
As is common in all criminal enterprises, a leader who is incarcerated is only propelled to greater heights of popularity among his adherents. This is exactly what happens to Derek when he is jailed. His popularity increases both inside the prison and outside- within racist circles. A black man befriends him, despite the controversies that surround him. They develop a friendship bond that proved vital towards Derek’s survival in prison. When he took an in-depth look at Lamont, he realizes that there is more to these people than meets the eye. They are not as bad as he is made to believe.
On the other hand, his skinhead comrades seem one dimensional. They have no other outlook in life apart from creating havoc among nonwhites. His life takes a humbling U-turn, when he is molested by his own people. The people that come to his aid are the ones he is busy fighting and demonizing- African Americans- Lamont and Professor Sweeny.
The problem with hate is that it is initially directed towards an enemy. However, when it is continually fueled it is redirected towards loved ones. This is profoundly highlighted by Derek who starts insulting his family and treats them like crap. He is also shown this form of hatred by the people he loves and considers family, when they gang up and rape him in prison.
The truth of the matter is people ride race trains as a means to an end. As Danny vividly puts it, “I hate anyone that isn’t white protestant. They’re a burden to the advancement of the white race.” Hiding under the pretense of preserving American society from aliens, who are threatening its existence, they are actually scared of minority groups that are working tirelessly to advance themselves in all spheres of life. The white supremacists believe that in order for their race to advance, they must trample everyone else down. But, as the movie clearly shows: every action is followed by a counter reaction. Hate leads to violence, violence leads to more violence, which leads to scores of unnecessary deaths and suffering.
Derek’s turnaround is probably the best element in the movie. He is able to achieve this by looking at the racial issue from both sides of the divide. While his own people put him through hell for having an open mind, he is welcomed and shown compassion from a people he has been conditioned to hate all his life. We realize that two wrongs do not make a right. In order to change a hateful person, you must show him love. The concept of karma brings this movie to a horrific end when his brother is killed in a racial attack. The neo-Nazi movement was therefore Derek’s Frankenstein’s monster.
- 15 Facts About American History X – Mental Floss
- American History X Movie Review (1998) | Roger Ebert
- American History X – Movie Reviews – Rotten Tomatoes