American History X (1998) is a film people are often reluctant to discuss. A civil rights film it might be, though it might not find itself compared to films such as 12 Years a Slave.
American History X takes a look at racism in a different light, from the perspective of a former neo-Nazi skinhead who is desperate to put his past behind him and protect his brother from following the same path. While on the surface this is a film about redemption, the film focuses more on the idea that – as Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) states – “Hate is baggage”. Hate is a destructive form no matter where it comes from or who it is aimed at, and that hatred solves nothing.
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The film’s protagonist, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), starts out as a normal teenager, a promising student with a loving family, but after his father is murdered by a group of a group of ethnic minorities, Derek descends into a downward spiral of racial hatred, blaming the multi-cultural society he lives in and the minorities who are part of it – a seed planted by his father. Soon after, Derek embodies his hatred and becomes ‘The’ skinhead of California, slowly influencing more and more white people to follow his racist revolution, but at the same time creating a rift between himself and his family in an act that is seemingly slowly breaking it apart. Derek’s lifestyle inevitably sends him to prison after brutally murdering two crip gang members for attempting to steal his car. His brutality and hatred is shown through an infamous curb stomping scene; a gritty and gruesome sequence that viewers today still cringe in horror over. It is an action that Derek shows no remorse for and justifies as revenge for the murder of his father.
While initially starting his prison sentence by linking up with fellow skinhead inmates and increasing his influence outside of jail, Derek begins to feel betrayed by his fellow skinheads and becomes increasingly isolated from them. He reluctantly befriends an African-American named Lamont (Guy Torry) and slowly begins to form a close relationship with him, thus turning his hatred towards his fellow skinheads instead. Derek further loses faith in his simple-minded beliefs after suffering a brutal rape at the hands of his former neo-Nazi faction and some coaching from his former teacher Sweeney (Avery Brooks) who visits him after hearing of his brutal attack. Despite everything, Derek makes it out of jail in one piece, and attributes that to his new friend. Derek comes out of Jail a new man, eager to change his brother’s hate and violent ideologies before it is too late.
American History X is a film about transformation. It’s about how one person can go from the very bottom and come out on top as a completely different person. Derek is a truly developed character; his hatred is his history and the director uses a black and white filter for Derek’s violent flashbacks to emphasise that this side of him is history.
The film does not offer much in terms of developed black characters and, as such, has received a lot of criticism – the majority of black characters, except for a couple, are represented as mindless thugs and antagonisers to Derek and his family. However, the film does not set out to present white people as being just as victimised as black people, but instead presents how racism and hatred in all of its forms is destructive and leads to no resolution. The film plays heavily on that belief with the turning point happening between Derek and Sweeney just after his brutal rape, when Derek is asked “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” A question which brings Derek to tears and to which he later relates to his brother. Derek knows the breakdown of his family is his fault and the only way to fix it is to become a better person.
The film does not set out to say who is right and who is wrong, but rather that hate itself is wrong. Hate did not just distance Derek from the world, but from his family and his own life.
With the fight for equality civil rights still an ongoing struggle in modern society, American History X still serves as an important film. American History X shows that the transition from bad to good is a lengthy process and that it isn’t always pretty and sometimes sacrifices have to be made, but ultimately hate does not solve problems and it does not fix anything. Instead, it only adds further pain and suffering.
Preview image courtesy of Edward J Moran.
25 year old Film and Media graduate with a passion for films, even bad ones. Animal lover, gym goer and rum connoisseur.
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Film / American History X
This film provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Derek's sister notices Seth trying to upskirt her with his camera and... rearranges herself.
- Accidental Pervert: At the start of the story, Danny tries to alert Derek that a couple of black guys are breaking into his car. Derek happens to be boning the crap out of his girlfriend at the time.
- Alliterative Family: Dennis and Doris Vinyard name their children Derek, Davina, and Danny. Averted with the youngest, named Ally.
- American Title: Of the subversive variety. The film covers the changing views of two Neo-Nazi brothers on contemporary America; at first they advocate white supremacism, then through Character Development realize that the ideology is a load of hogwash and adopt a more sensible outlook on life.
- Angry Black Man: Sweeney says he was an angry young man, admitting that he was Not So Different from Derek in being consumed by hatred earlier in his life.
- Armor-Piercing Question: "Has anything you've done made your life better?"
- Asshole Victim: Those thugs who broke into Derek's home and threatened his family aren't really going to be missed, but killing them only showed Derek's descent into madness.
- The Atoner: Derek at first was a violent and racist Jerkass, but he tries to save his little brother from the same fate once he gets out of prison. However, Derek still bears the consequences of his legacy, as illustrated by his swastika tatoo and ultimately his brother's death.
- Ax-Crazy: Derek's girlfriend Stacey is always visibly excited, manic even, by violence.
- Axes at School: Danny is shot to death in the school bathroom by a black kid he had earlier dissed.
- Bald Black Leader Guy: Avery Brooks as Dr. Robert Sweeney, who is willing to fight for the Vinyard brothers, in whom he sees echoes of his younger self.
- Bald of Evil: The skinheads. Could be considered an Invoked Trope, although they're deluded enough to think they're the heroes. Derek subverts it on both counts when he decides to atone for his own racism by growing his hair again.
- Battle Discretion Shot: The scene where Cameron and a compatriot are attacked by some random black guys. A deleted scene shows them hassling an interracial couple then being chased down. The final cut has it happening entirely off-screen.
- Being Evil Sucks: Derek turns away from his neo-Nazi lifestyle as he realizes how unhappy and crappy it has made his life: "And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this shit? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did ever took that feeling away. I killed two guys, Danny, I killed them. And it didn't make me feel any different. It just got me more lost and I'm tired of being pissed off, Danny. I'm just tired of it." The Armour Piercing Question that prompts his HeelFace Turn; "Has anything you've done made your life any better?" essentially marks the contrast between this trope and Evil Feels Good.
- Big Bad: Cameron Alexander started the skinhead gangs in Venice Beach and still controls everything from his beachside house, distributing racist literature and acting as a mentor to troubled youths scared of gang violence. Played with, in that the impersonal concept of racism itself is presented as an even greater evil and is obviously something that far preceded Cameron.
- Big Brother Mentor: For better or worse.
- Big Brother Worship: Played with.
- Danny plays this perfectly straight. Derek is his idol and Danny will follow in Derek's footsteps. Period. When Derek goes neo-Nazi, Danny goes neo-Nazi. When Derek comes home and says, "No. This is not the way.", Danny gives it up and eschews Nazism in all its forms.
- Davina, the elder sister, is more complex. She adores Derek in the present and thinks he's wonderful. She's willing to follow his lead and, indeed, is very nearly silent except for criticizing Derek's former and Danny's present neo-Nazi friends. In the past, she was willing to go after Derek with a baseball bat (though not without some fairly heavy provocation). Clearly, she loves the man her brother is now much more than the boy he was.
- Henry, the kid at the end who murders Danny did it because his big brother told him to.
- Big Eater: Seth. When sent out of the room, he complains that he's hungry. He even picks the black jelly bean out of a bowl of white jelly beans and pours them into his mouth.
- Bittersweet Ending: Derek has sworn off racism, but not before he could prevent his brother's death in race-related violence.
- Blatant Lies: "I want to talk to my brother. Seth, go wait in Danny's room. I'm glad to see you. I'm glad to see you, man."
- Broken Aesop: In a clearly unintended, but quite tragically ironic way, the very ending ( Danny, reformed under Derek's influence and ready to renounce racism, being shot by a black gangbanger) can come across as this. While the message of the film is intended to be "Racism is wrong as there are good and bad individuals of every race and racial prejudice only perpetuates violence", those last minutes can almost make it seem as if the message were "Be nice to the minorities, otherwise they'll just kill you for no reason", in what jarringly feels like an invalidation of the entire movie's point.
- There's a bit from the script that was cut from the final film that clears this. The black gangbanger was pressured by his brother into killing Danny.
- The story would've worked better with Danny's redemption and a brighter ending. After all the crap folks saw they deserve a message of hope and the truth that hate can be overcome, one can escape from a bad life, that the cycle can be broken.
- Bullying a Dragon: Turns out it's a very bad idea to steal an angry skinhead's car. Worse still, it was the truck that his father, whose murder by black drug dealers ignited his hatred, had left him.
- Butt-Monkey: Derek and Davina are both more than happy to berate Seth in the present. He's a fat racist, which makes him an Acceptable Target, but you wonder why he sticks around. He used to be Derek's bestest, most racist friend when Derek was the Dark Messiah of Southern California's Neo-Nazi movement.
- Catch Phrase: Lamont, aight?
- Card-Carrying Villain: Played for laughs in a rare moment of humor in the film. Seth asks Danny what he believes his creed as a Neo-Nazi is. Danny sarcastically replies that he believes in "death, destruction, chaos, filth and greed!" Even his sister Davina has to laugh at this, but after more prompting by Seth, Danny then goes on a more articulate and genuinely vile racist rant, to which Davina responds how much it pains her to see her brother become like this.
- Category Traitor: The Neo-Nazis at the party, including Derek's ex-girlfriend Stacey, consider Derek a traitor simply because he refuses to espouse their ideology after his stint in prison. This gets really obvious when they make it clear that they don't even consider him white anymore, shouting the N-word at him like it's some sort of proof of his inhumanity.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Henry, the black kid who Danny confronts in the school bathroom. Literally.
- Cluster F-Bomb: From beginning to end, all Derek says in the rape scene are "Fuck you!"
- Cool Teacher: Sweeney was apparently so cool that Derek still respected him even after becoming a skinhead. He also gives personal attention to Danny in hopes of turning him away from racism.
- Coming-of-Age Story: Simultaneously that of Derek and Danny.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: The murder that lands Derek in prison-paralyzing a black robber, then dragging him to the curb, placing his mouth against it, and stomping on it.
- Cruel Twist Ending: Dereek renounces his racism and convinces Danny the same. They destroy their NeoNazi paraphernalia. It's headed for the inevitable Happy Ending it should have....Then the black kid Danny taunted earlier pops up out of nowhere and murders Danny!
- Curb-Stomp Battle: In the fight that lands Derek in prison, Derek takes on three men, two of them armed, with only a handgun and the element of surprise. He quickly shoots the two, and the third while he tries to drive away. He then drags the remaining man over to the curb and has him place his mouth on it before killing him with a vicious stomp to the head in the trope-naming murder.
- Dark Messiah: Derek was an evil messiah figure to the Neo-Nazi movement in Southern California. After he gets out of prison, the reformed Derek is referred to as "Father Vinyard" by some impressionable youths.
- Death Glare: Derek. See the above picture.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The flashbacks to Derek's past are all monochrome.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: Danny died before Derek got to the scene in the climax, but his balking brother cradles his corpse in agony.
- Disproportionate Retribution:
- Derek curb-stomps a man for trying to steal his truck, but moreso for simply being black.
- The gangsters themselves decided to barge onto Derek's property with guns and steal his father's car because he beat them in a basketball game. Derek was an openly racist jackass on the court, but the guys themselves were after all Crips, so it's probably less about moral outrage and more about deciding to teach someone they consider an enemy a lesson.
- Lamont bumped into a cop while stealing a TV, so the cop lied and charged him with assault with a deadly weapon.
- Henry murders Danny for giving him a dirty look and blowing smoke in his face. There was peer pressure and reputation involved, but that's all Danny actually did to warrant it. Note: the deleted scenes show that the act was the young man's gang initiation, although this is unclear in the theatrical cut.
- Henry's introduction scene is him and two older thugs beating up a white kid for allegedly ratting him out when he cheated off.
- Donut Mess with a Cop: Lamont stole a TV from a shop right next to a donut place. There were three cops there when he came out.
- The Dragon: Derek was one to Cameron.
- Eccentric Exterminator: Seth, though how he works in the service industry with visible Neo-Nazi tattoos is anyone's guess.
- Embarrassing Tattoo: Derek's no longer proud of the swastika on his chest.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Derek loves his family. He turned to Neo-Nazism from grief over his father. Even in his most militantly racist, he's around to "protect" his mother from a liberal, Jewish suitor. Deconstructed, as he may love his mother, but she despises his racist actions and spitefully tells him that she's ashamed he came out of her body. They reconcile later on as Derek loses his Neo-Nazi ways, though.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The Neo-Nazis all assume that prison messed with Derek's head or that he's scared of revenge for the murder he went to prison for.
- Evil Is Petty:
- Seth is a fat Neo-Nazi who's also a Big Eater. In one of the most pointlessly petty acts of racism possible, he eats a scale full of jelly beans, but picks out a single black one first. There's no one else in the room so he's not trying to impress any of his Nazi friends, it's not directed against a member of any race he hates, he rejects a piece of candy that no one will know about simply because he's a racist.
- Derek himself also counts. His actions as a skinhead range from genuinely homicidal to purely childish: stomping a black man's skull, choking his sister by shoving meat down her throat, pouring milk on a nonwhite woman's face to "turn her into a white person"...
- Evil Mentor: The white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander manipulates whole scores of youngsters into the Neo-Nazi lifestyle by presenting himself as a wise mentor. Like a true evil mentor, he also has no problems selling out his followers when it suits him.
- Evil Old Folks: Cameron Alexander, the creepy old fascist who is manipulating Danny into joining his gang.
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Derek's hair growing back out in prison shows his change of heart and the passage of time.
- Fan Disservice: The prison shower scenes show a lot of men nude, but the setting doesn't make it appealing in any way. One instance even ends in a Prison Rape on Derek.
- Fat Bastard: Seth, the morbidly obese and hilariously inept sidekick of Derek.
- Faux Affably Evil: Cameron Alexander is friendly, polite and seems to have affection for the kids under his rule, seeing himself as a father figure to many of them. This makes him even worse as it shows just how much power he has on these impressionable, misunderstood kids. Derek also points out that Cameron has no problem selling out any of the youngsters in his movement to save his own ass, seeing them more as tools to further his fascist beliefs than kids he thinks he needs to take care of.
- Finishing Stomp: Derek Vineyard's murderous finish to a scuffle with two would-be car thieves, involving Derek forcing one of them to bite the curb and then stomping down hard on his head with horrifying and fatal results.
- Flashback Effects: The flashback sequences to Derek's childhood are Deliberately Monochrome.
- Foreshadowing: The Magical Negro says to Derek, "Lemme tell you something, you better watch y'ass."
- Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Cameron Alexander is the sinister xenophobic leader of the Californian Neo-Nazis. He is indirectly responsible for all the bad that happens on the course of the movie, since practically every action is made by the brainwashed youngsters as a result of nothing but his hideous manipulation and evil influence.
- Freudian Excuse: Derek's father was an Archie Bunker-style blue collar racist who plants the seeds for Derek's future political views. When his father is murdered by black gang members, Derek interprets this as an indication that his father's racial politics were right all along.
- Full-Frontal Assault: Justified in that it's a Prison Rape.
- Gangbangers: The black street gangs in Venice Beach. Apparently Crips, judging by their blue clothing. In opposition to them, Derek formed a gang of white supremacist skinheads who were sick of being pushed around.
- Gangsta Style: Deconstructed. Ironically, Seth points a gun at Derek this way. Turns out to be as hilariously impractical as it is in Real Life, as Derek easily disarms him.
- Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Good people are portrayed as victims of smoking (Derek's mom), evil people enjoy smoking (all dem Neo-Nazis). Derek specifically criticizes Danny for smoking and gently criticizes his mother for the same.Derek: She's coughing her lungs out and you're blowing this shit in her face all day?
- Gorn: The murder that sent Derek to prison and the death of Danny.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: Danny. Not long after he does an about face, he is shot and killed by the boy he dissed earlier.
- HeelFace Turn: Derek loses his racist ways in prison and breaks ties with the Neo-Nazis after he gets out.
- Turns out Cameron's vaunted prison time was just a two month stint before he rolled on some kids.
- Derek criticizes the Aryan Brotherhood for compromising their beliefs by dealing with black and Latino gangs while he himself happily talks basketball with Lamont. Though his opening up to Lamont was depicted as part of his HeelFace Turn and took place long after the Brotherhood leader told him to stop preaching about racial separation.
- Hypocritical Humor: Danny berates his mom for smoking, then takes a drag before stubbing out the cigarette.
- I Have No Son: After Derek attacks his own sister during a family dinner and drives his mother's Jewish boyfriend away, she realizes how lost her son is to her and disowns him. When she later visits him in prison she tells Derek that Danny worships him and is starting to follow in his path, but she doesn't want to give up both her sons. After Derek gets out of prison and becomes The Atoner, his relationship with his mother has improved a lot.
- I Resemble That Remark!: Derek takes exception to his sister calling him "Mister KKK". He's not part of a low rent organization like The Klan. He has class. Danny's impressed.
- The Illegal: The focus of some of Derek's rants and at least one raid.
- Important Haircut: Derek shaves his head when he becomes a skinhead. Danny wears his hair cropped very short when he comes under the sway of the skinheads. Inverted later on when Derek grows his hair out to demonstrate his disaffection with the Neo-Nazis.
- Ironic Echo: Derek sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo. Lamont sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo.
- It's All Junk: The Nazi decorations and posters in Danny's bedroom. You can feel healing going on as Danny and Derek tear them down together.
- Jawbreaker: Derek kills a man in a disturbing scene with a curb stomp.
- Jerkass: A great deal of the characters. But Derek himself counts, at first.
- Kick the Dog:
- Derek's villain dinner, ranting about Rodney King and the L. A. riots that culminates with him grabbing his sister by the hair and choking her with a handful of ham, then delivering an anti-Semitic screed chasing away his mother's boyfriend. This is also when we see the murder that landed him in prison.
- Every time Cameron shows up.
- The attack on the grocery store, where the Nazis destroy the merchandise and assault the staff for being minorities. The most sickening act is probably when a bunch of the thugs torture a terrified black clerk by pouring milk on her face to "make her white".
- The Klan: As a joke, the black prisoner Lamont holds up a piece of cloth as a Klansman's hood and mocks the Deep South hick stereotype associated with it. Earlier, Derek also dismisses them as a bunch of disorganized idiots and claims to have higher standards. In fact, that describes his own gang quite well.
- Knight Templar: Derek before he gets out of prison. He thinks he is absolutely right in spouting his racist ideology even when he organizes attacks and horrifying brutalities against minorities. By contrast, the Aryan Brotherhood are presented as straw hypocrites. Which is largely the point that the film tries to get across. The reason destructive ideologies like white supremacism can become so powerful is because their adherents believe themselves to be the heroes, not the bad guys. For the Evulz is not a motive many real life humans actually use to justify their actions, especially to themselves.
- Knight Templar Big Brother: Derek threatens to feed Cameron's heart to him if he continues trying to corrupt Danny like he did with him.
- Little Brother Is Watching: After Derek gets out of prison, he tries to convince his little brother to stop imitating his white supremacist life style.
- The Load: During the basketball game, Seth just shuffles around and whines that no one is passing to him.
- Magical Negro:
- Lamont, who protected Derek from the African-American gangs in the prison he was incarcerated in.
- Averted with Dr. Sweeney, whose role is to challenge Derek and Danny to grow beyond their origins, not to "save" them per se.
- Male Frontal Nudity: The shower scenes.
- Man Hug: After Derek gets out of prison, he and Danny share one. Even includes the line, "What's the matter, too big to give me a hug, tough guy?"
- Meaningful Background Event: When Danny stops to watch a near fight at a basketball gamenote Among a bunch of black guys, one of whom Danny had tangled with earlier., it seems to continue the story of Danny's Real Time difficulties with some black kids at his school. Then we learn that it mirrors the basketball game that preceded the attempted robbery that sent Derek to prison.
- Men Don't Cry: Averted with Derek. Most men would cry after they've been put through a gang rape or witness their little brother having been shot to death, even if they try to project a "tough guy" image.
- Monochrome Past: The flashbacks are in black and white.
- Motive Rant: Derek's angry rant to a reporter after his father's death is shown as his first step into the racist waters. Although we later discover that Derek's father was an armchair racist. Derek himself had up to that point resisted racism and admired his black teacher.
- Mr. Fanservice: A jacked Edward Norton spends an awful lot of time with his shirt off.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Henry's reaction immediately after he shoots Danny, as he realizes that he just murdered someone and blew his own life away for something as minor as receiving a dirty look from a racist.
- Not So Different:
- The Neo-Nazis and the black gangbangers. In particular, Danny and Henry. Both are raised in a gang subculture and both worship their brothers and try to emulate them.
- Derek realizes this about himself and Lamont in prison, which helps to deprogram him.
- Sweeney also says this is why he understands Derek so well. Sweeney actually successively hated white people, then all of society and finally God for all the bad things he saw happen to black people under a racist system. He eventually realized that hatred from whatever direction didn't solve anything, only contributed to the problem.
- Oh, Crap!: Danny's expression of sheer horror after he witnesses Derek crush a black man's skull.
- The Peeping Tom: Seth drives to the Vinyard home as soon as Derek gets out of prison. He has a camera. One of the first things Seth does is zoom in on Davina's crotch.
- Pet the Dog: Derek and Danny both repeatedly demonstrate that they're sweet and loving with their family.
- Picky Eater: Seth, despite being a Big Eater, picks out the black jelly beans. Also an example of Evil Is Petty.
- Police Brutality: Talked about in the Rodney King discussion. Also, while not "brutality" per se, police corruption is definitely the reason why Lamont is in prison. This is also a key factor in making Derek realize the error of his ways. It makes him realize that the system really is rigged against minorities, and they are not just "Prone to crime" like he originally thought.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Cameron Alexander is a Neo-Nazi leader and remains a villain throughout the film.
- Prison Rape: It happens to Derek in prison. At the hands of the Aryan Brotherhood, which he was a member of. Ironically, he first burned his bridges with them because they weren't racist enough for him.
- Promotion to Parent: Derek steps up after his father dies. The dinner scene even has him sitting at the head of the table.
- Psychologist Teacher: Dr. Sweeney chose to be the principal of a Venice Beach high school despite his high credentials and is a law enforcement liaison on the local youth gang activity. He is familiar enough with the Vinyard family that he goes through some effort to turn the two sons Derek and Danny away from their Neo-Nazi racism, but he makes it clear that he's not a saint; his help is not unconditional and the Vinyards ultimately have to effect their own salvation.
- Rape Portrayed as Redemption: After Derek is prison raped by his "comrades" for associating with a black inmate (ironically, the man who rapes him deals with a Mexican), it's one of the turning points for him abandoning his Neo-Nazi ways. The rape occurs because Derek, as a Neo-Nazi who got his start before going to prison, disapproves of the prison Neo-Nazis associating with non-whites. They later rape him to teach him a lesson.
- Re-Cut: Differences between the theatrical cut and the workprint can be found here http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120586/alternateversions?ref_=tttrv_sa_4.
- Redemption Failure: Some alternative endings have Danny's murder cause Derek to revert back to his old, racist ways.
- Revised Ending: The original ending was of Derek standing in front of a mirror, shaving his head after Danny was shot. This was to make sense of the endless cycle of violence and tie the otherwise disjointed plot together but was removed after Edward Norton objected.
- Rousing Speech: Derek gives a rousing and convincing speech about illegal Mexican immigrants, before the attack on the grocery store.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Derek to Cameron.
- Second Face Smoke: Danny blows smoke in Henry's face.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Danny learns not to be racist only to be killed by a black kid he made fun of earlier.