Written by Forrest Maynock
To think that this film was made 20 plus years ago is quite mind boggling; it remains quite relevant, and brings unique perspectives to old arguments.
Considering recent events this film stands out as both a warning to the dangers of racism and as an inside look into the creation of a racist. More than anything American History X (1998) shows ways that racists can be created, thrive, and be reclaimed. At its heart the film is a redemption tale of two brothers lost in the pits of one of Earth’s most vile ideologies.
Many of the cultural references in this film seem dated, but others manage to carry over to contemporary soundbites and media. Where an intense discussion over the Rodney King case may be lost to some, the visceral portrayal discrimination and murder will likely hit home. This makes the film especially important in educating a younger demographic since much of the language will be attainable and understandable for them.
The American centeredness of the film could be off putting for some, so alternative suggestions would be Clint Eastwood’s more generalized (but still American) Gran Torino (2008), French cult classic La Haine (1995), and for a Austrian film that doesn’t deal with the theme of race, but instead violence, Funny Games (1997).
American History X follows Derek (Edward Norton) and Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong), and their journey from “everyday American kids,” to Neo-Nazi members, finally culminating in a recovery for both. At the very beginning of the film the audience is given Derek brutally killing two African-Americans who are attempting to steal a truck that belonged to Derek’s father. Derek goes to prison for this. Soon after the audience is given a recently released from prison and changed Derek who is less racist and seemingly more grounded.
The events of the film are presented a little out of order to create a mystery as to what exactly happened to change Derek while in prison, and to hide the moments that likely influenced Derek to initially choose the path of racism. While Derek is in prison Danny goes further down the rabbit hole of racism and seems to mostly embrace it by the time of his brother’s release, but still is not fully initialized like his brother once was.
While Danny can be pulled out, Derek’s friends are all too far gone, and are fully indoctrinated into the Neo-Nazi ideology. In prison Derek manages to become disillusioned with the ideology, and faces the worst possible “betrayal” at the hands of his compatriots. This mixed with the blossoming friendship with fellow inmate Lamont, and the intervention of ex-high school teacher Dr. Sweeny (Avery Brooks) ultimately changes Derek’s ways.
The one element that the film leaves out is how the Neo-Nazi ring leader, Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach), recruited Derek, and later his brother. While this particular subplot may have added unneeded weight to the film, its exclusion is missed. Not seeing the exact moment of Derek’s turn leaves a lot left to the imagination, though two instances do show that the seeds of hatred were planted long before Alexander’s involvement. The redemption is covered quite well, but the initial fall could have had more coverage.
We also see glimpses of Derek at the height of his Neo-Nazi activities and see how his newfound ideology weakens the foundation of his family structure. The value Derek being a part of the family is also shown in the changing of home in the film. Derek’s family starts in a family house at the beginning of the film, but by the time of Derek’s release from prison the family has moved to a small and cramped apartment.
Once out of prison Derek works to piece his family back together and leave his old life behind. This results in a confrontation between Derek, Alexander, and his old friends, and ends with Derek giving the reasons for his drastic change while in prison. Understanding each other the two brothers return home and completely abandon the Neo-Nazi ideology in a visually rich scene. This however is not the film’s conclusion. While everything seems to be on the right track, the ultimate price is paid by the true end of the film.
From beginning to end this film is a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil, and contains one of the most bittersweet endings that I have ever seen in a film. The film ends on a lot of questions, mainly of how the latest developments will unfold, but this is not a film that needs a sequel or needs to tie up all of those loose ends that are created. This was an intentional choice by the director, Tony Kaye.
Near the conclusion of the film one character states: “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.” This quote could be seen as the summation of the film’s overall message. This is a film everyone should see. It makes you feel uncomfortable, it gives you firsthand look into how racism may develop and prosper, and most importantly it shows how one can be redeemed and meditate on “the better angels of our nature.”
Acknowledgement: This article was originally an assignment for the course of Film and Literature, Term 1 & 2, 2020. I would like to thank Dr. Chung and everyone from the course for their participation.