20 years later, is 'american history x' outdated or more relevant than ever?
The movie, which was revolutionary for its look at white supremacy in American suburbs, still resonates today -- but where does it fall short?
American History X film still
“We're losing our right to pursue our destiny,” warns Derek Vinyard, a neo-Nazi leader played by Edward Norton, moments before he leads his skinhead brethren in to desecrate a Korean-owned grocery store in one of the film’s most nauseating scenes. “We're losing our freedom,” Derek reasons, and the “parasites” pouring in through our open borders are to blame. For the dejected white working class of the US, this rhetoric is far from fiction. Tony Kaye’s 1998 film American History X gave us one of the first nuanced understandings of how the seeds of white supremacy are planted, which is why, 20 years after its release, it continues to resonate. Especially so on a week where 11 people were killed during a morning Shabbat service at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, where two black people were killed in a grocery store in Kentucky and when three men were convicted of plotting to bomb Somali refugees at a mosque in Kansas -- all at the hands of white men.
On the eve of the 21st century, American History X provided a depiction of racism that was urgent, violent, and firmly rooted in its present day. The film came at a critical cultural moment, influenced by the rise of militant white supremacy groups -- the Rodney King Riots and Oklahoma City bombings still weighing heavily on America. “Substantive treatments of neo-Nazi characters [in film] mirror the growth of neo-Nazi movements and the escalation of their violent rhetoric into highly publicised acts of terrorism in Europe and North America from the 1980s on,” says Lawrence Baron, cultural historian and Professor Emeritus of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University, whose work looks at neo-Nazis and holocaust iconography in modern American cinema.
The film is set in Venice Beach, California, where Derek’s high school-aged younger brother Danny, played by Edward Furlong, is on the brink of expulsion from his high school for an idolatry paper he wrote on Mein Kampf. To avoid expulsion, Danny must write a paper for his history teacher, Mr. Murray, about his older brother Derek, a now former neo-Nazi, whom Mr. Murray taught and who has just been released from prison. As Danny attempts to write his paper that night, his recollections of Derek play as grainy, black-and-white flashbacks. They tell the story of Derek’s radicalisation in the wake of his father’s death, when he was shot while putting out a fire in a traditionally black neighbourhood, and the brutal revenge that Derek exacts. His violence lands him in jail, where he ends up renouncing his neo-Nazi ideology -- a rejection that Derek is devoted to instil in his younger brother after his incarceration.
Overall, the film’s central message is one of tolerance over tribalism. It shows us the story of grief turned to rage turned to redemption. The rage we see in this film is similar to the real life rage we see playing out on the news today, with blame being laid onto immigrants of colour and other minorities for any and every national woe. To watch the raucous speeches of this film now is eerie for reasons that go beyond the narrative of the Vinyard brothers. It is these inherently racist sentiments that helped get Donald Trump elected, that have emboldened neo-Nazi groups to hold their rallies out in the open and has radicalised the alt-right to the point of violence. In this regard, the movie is still a relevant, although rather imperfect, cultural text.
Prior to the 80s and 90s, depictions of neo-Nazi’s were cartoonish, old-world villains in World War II era garb always brought down by good, honest men. American History X was groundbreaking because it dove into white supremacy as a belief system that existed and thrived in late-90s American suburbia, revealing the modern face of racism to a mainstream audience, instead of keeping the conversation trained on the 60s and the Civil Rights movement. The movie is frightening, suggestive of looming danger, evocative of the pre-Y2K paranoia of a dawning digital age, globalisation and a changing cultural landscape of film that reflects reality rather than attempts to escape it.
“The issues uniting [neo-Nazis] are rooted in working class whites feeling culturally, economically, politically and socially disenfranchised,” says Baron. Presently, hate groups like Rise Above Movement, National Action and Vanguard America are rallying around these very causes in suburban neighbourhoods globally. Everywhere from southern California to the UK (where a neo-Nazi organisation, National Action, was banned as a terrorist organisation following their celebration of the murder of MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist) to Germany (with recent neo-Nazi protests shaking up the country). The terror of the suburban neo-Nazi today is their propensity for camouflage, they do not wear costumes and they can be found in bars, in back to school meetings and shopping centres everywhere.
“The ‘magical negro’ is helping the white character get to a higher plane, helping them to become their authentic, best self, but that notion just feeds into the white saviour complex that is permeating mass media today,” says Harris."
“The scariest and most convincing scenes are the ones in which we see the skinheads bonding,” said film critic Roger Ebert in his 1998 review of the film. “They're led by Derek's brilliant speechmaking and fuelled by drugs, beer, tattoos, heavy metal and the need all insecure people feel to belong to a movement greater than themselves.”
American History X tells the most sinister neo-Nazi origin story of all: one that starts at the dinner table. “Many of these movies render their main characters victims of familial, political, or socioeconomic circumstance rather than as innately evil villains,” says Baron.
The question of its relevance, though, cannot be answered without mentioning where the film falls short. The timeliness of American History X tapers off in its treatment of its black characters as banal conventions rather than fully fleshed-out people. Principle Bob Sweeney, who assigns Danny the titular paper, actively steps in to educate and change the course of both Derek and Danny’s lives. Lamont, who works in the laundry room with Derek, not only protects him in prison (after the violent rape he experiences at the hand of a neo-Nazi leader) but teaches him the ways in which the criminal justice system fails people of colour. In films like this “it is the despised ‘other’ who teaches the perpetrator tolerance”, says Baron.
While the black characters are critical in advancing the plot of the film, they exist solely to show the white characters the error of their ways. This tendency in film to oversimplify and stereotype black characters has a longstanding history in cinema.
“This caricature of the 'magical negro' exists when African-American characters, who are positioned in the film as a central figure, are framed to have these almost magical powers to impart wisdom and knowledge to the white lead characters,” says Tina Harris PhD, a Professor of Interracial Communications at University of Georgia. “The ‘magical negro’ is helping the white character get to a higher plane, helping them to become their authentic, best self, but that notion just feeds into the white saviour complex that is permeating mass media today,” says Harris.
"The film lacks accountability on the part of Derek and his followers to rectify their racism and violence, with many of the minorities and people of colour in the film used as props to shock and horrify the onlooker."
The term, popularised by Spike Lee, is used time and time again as a way to absolve characters of their racist pasts. This tired cultural image reinforces stereotypes and, regardless of its intentions, romanticises a post-racial society in which everyone can be forgiven and taught morality (with the burden of education remaining firmly on people of colour). “All these tropes are quite troubling because they limit us to being one-dimensional, they make the African-American dream one-dimensional,” says Harris. “We have so much more diversity than what is being shown in the media.”
The film lacks accountability on the part of Derek and his followers to rectify their racism and violence, with many of the minorities and people of colour in the film used as props to shock and horrify the onlooker. Derek slings anti-semitic slurs at his mother's suitor over dinner, the neo-Nazis pour salsa into the mouth of a grocery store worker and then there is the infamous, revolting curb stomp scene in which Derek crushes the skull of the black teen who attempts to steal his truck. The horror of the film sticks with you long after the screen cuts to black.
The unintended consequences of Derek and the D.O.C’s terrifying reign over their changing neighbourhood is that where some of the film’s audience saw a message of warning, others saw a rallying cry. In the disturbing scene for which the film is best known, Derek walks into the street in nothing but his crisp white boxers, Swastika displayed prominently on his muscled chest. He is inarguably a force to be reckoned with, which meant that some people saw him a role model to emulate, rather than a villain to detest. “The overt message is one of tolerance,” says Baron “but the character Ed Norton plays is so romanticised physically, and just such a charismatic figure compared to any other character in the film. There is a sort of subtext that can be easily latched on to: ‘he is the hero, he is the guy who does what you are supposed to do’, and it actually inspired someone to do the exact same thing in Germany.” In 2002 three neo-Nazis in the town of Potzlow, in what was formerly East Germany, crushed a man's skull because he ‘looked like a Jew’, emulating the curb kick from American History X.
The film, despite these serious flaws, did shed new light on white supremacy and helped start a vital conversation. While Derek’s rhetoric may have challenged 1998 audiences to imagine how white nationalism could invade their suburban neighbourhoods, his racist vitriol and xenophobia are familiar talking points of America’s reigning political party in 2018.
Presently, we have known neo-Nazi Arthur Jones running for congress on the Republican ticket in Illinois, we have white supremacist Richard Spencer making speeches at universities and we have Donald J. Trump peddling false information about the migrant caravan of Central American asylum seekers heading to the US border. In many ways American History X was not a premonition of what was to come -- it was a snapshot of what has always existed in this country.