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.
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.
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