As I begin this post, I am compelled to mention that any derogatory language herein comes directly from the movie, and in no way reflects my own personal views or language usage. I don’t believe that hate speech is reflective in the definition of free speech, and thus will only use it when making my points or quoting certain scenes from this film.
Now that we got that disclaimer out of the way, I must admit, along with my two favorite horror films, American History X ranks right up there with my most beloved movies of all time. As I stated in my heading, I believe everyone should be required to watch this film, regardless of age, race, gender, creed, or level of schooling. I saw this when it first came out fourteen years ago, and will never forget it, or its impact on me. The themes of this movie cut across all lines, and are pervasive in all areas of society. I think this is likely the most well made, well acted movie ever, and Edward Norton should have won every award applicable to screen actors. I would find it hard for anyone to name another character in a film that you both hate and love at the same time other than Derek Vinyard. Norton wonderfully portrays the frighteningly realistic Derek Vinyard, a young skinhead who commits a heinous crime and is sent to prison. Upon his release and a complete 360 degree shift in his life, beliefs, and personality, he comes home to discover his younger brother following in his hateful footsteps. What follows is a story of a family, the kind where you know there is something just boiling beneath the surface, waiting to rupture. This initially happens when Derek’s father is killed by an African-American, and since his father has already filled his head with hateful, ignorant thoughts, he blames the whole of the race for what happened, and for seemingly everything else wrong with the world. He becomes the protegé to Cameron Alexander, and helps recruit angry young people to their wayward group of neo-Nazi skinheads.
As with most racists and ignorant people, they like to spin facts that fit their agenda, such as population numbers, illegal immigrants, and prevalence of black and Mexican gang violence. They use these statements to fuel fear among their white counterparts, and twist every statistic to their hateful whim. Simple-minded, young punks who are just looking for somewhere to belong buy into this shit, including Derek himself, and later, his younger brother Danny. But Derek, after three years in prison doing hard time, has learned the sheer error and stupidity of his ways, and tries to prevent his brother from becoming his replica. We are given plenty of back story, told in beautiful black and white, which adds to this film’s power. We see Derek’s journey from a “bad ass peckerwood with an attitude” entering prison, to a vulnerable, changed individual capable of rational thinking once he is released. With hatred in your heart and head, you cannot think correctly or do anything successfully. Once Derek’s head is clear, he is better able to reflect on his life, his actions, and his family, including his younger brother, played by the remarkable Edward Furlong. These two actors together couldn’t have done it better, and every cast member brings something to the table. No one is wrongly cast for the roles they play, and with terrifying, real performances, it is easy to see why.
The reason Derek is convicted is because he killed two black men, who were trying to steal his truck in the middle of the night. He shoots them, and one is still alive, so he proceeds to yell and curse and call him racist names, and then makes him put his mouth on the curb, where he stomps the back of his head. This scene is absolutely terrifying to watch and it makes you really nervous and scared and angry and shocked. You don’t have to have blood and guts and gore to be completely disgusted with someone’s actions. This scene is pivotal and necessary, though disturbing, to truly get the gist of the film itself. Danny sees this murder, and yells at his brother to stop before he completes the act, and I think this is the point where Danny breaks, and all his innocence is lost. I can’t imagine anyone witnessing that would ever be quite the same again. It’s such a powerful scene that you want to look away and vomit out all the uneasiness the movie is causing you, but you can’t. And you shouldn’t. Clearly, the movies I love the most are ones that could and can reflect real life and human behavior, no matter how despicable. Because that is life. There is always some moment in life where you have to stop and just think. What is going on in the world? That’s why I think this film ought to be made to be seen by all.
I have often wondered what it would take to play someone like that, so full of hate and evil and anger and vengeance. Norton does this perfectly, and it nearly makes your head spin thinking about how much work he put into the role to make it so scary. Once Derek is imprisoned, he starts realizing that he no longer has control over his whereabouts, so he has to put up with working next to an African-American. Lamont, who works with Derek doing laundry, gives a striking performance, often hilarious as well as heartfelt, and eventually Derek begins to see where he is coming from. They actually become friends, or as close to friends as you can get in prison. One particular scene that is so funny it makes your ribs hurt, is when Lamont confronts Derek and ponders why he gets mad at sheets. He proclaims that the only sheets he gets mad at are those of the KKK. He proceeds to place a white sheet over his head in the form of a hood, and mocks a southern tone stating, “Here’s what we’re gonna do today, we’re gonna hate some niggers! I don’t even know what a nigger is, but we gonna hate ’em! My cousin Derek is in the pen right now working next to a nigger, driving him nigger crazy!” His clearly sarcastic tone perfectly points out the blatant ignorance in the arguments of white supremacists. They just want to hate and hate and hate, and don’t even know why. I think this is one point where Derek starts to see the light.
Their relationship becomes one of mutual understanding and respect. Derek can now see how wrong he was, and that African-Americans are truly treated differently in this country, and it isn’t an act that he thought it was. Another powerful scene, one that always makes me nervous, is the dinner scene. Not long after their father dies, their mother has a man named Murray over for her dinner. He is a teacher at their school, and is also Jewish. They are debating the Rodney King case and the ensuing riots in Los Angeles, which is never a good thing to talk about with a rabid racist. Derek, before transforming, is one of those people, I’m sure we all know one, who can get furious and incredibly pissed off at the drop of a hat. He does, and begins yelling racial epithets at Murray before showing him his Swastika tattoo and making him leave. Doris, the mother, is so humiliated and shocked by her son’s actions, she tells him she was ashamed that he came out of her body. Incredibly explosive scene that when you first see it, you don’t know what’s going to happen but can feel the tension brewing, ready to be lit with a match. It doesn’t help matters that Derek’s girlfriend, Stacy is also there, with her snarky attitude, rude remarks, and toxic personality nearly equal to Derek’s.
The end of this film is heartbreaking, and it is likely that you will spend five or ten minutes afterwards with your jaw open, staring blankly at the credits. Or crying. You may cry. If you haven’t seen this film, although I don’t know who hasn’t, you really need to. Probably one of the most powerful films ever made, and definitely the best performances by Norton and Furlong of their careers. It makes one think about society and the way things really are, not how our biases make it seem. Danny’s right – hate is baggage. This movie shows the development, rise and fall of a neo-Nazi, his beliefs, and the effects on his family as well as his future. When we’re young, everything is so simple. It is clear to see where the boys get their racist ideals from – their father, played by William Russ, otherwise known as Cory Matthews’ dad on Boy Meets World. Much like Derek and Danny, we can realize that what we might have been taught as youngsters was wrong, and shaped our future in a way we would never imagine.