Director Tony Kaye’s anti-skinhead morality tale American History X (1998) is proof that propaganda is far from an exact science. Just as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket caused a surge in Marine recruitment, American History X actually increases audience sympathies with neo-Nazi skinheads, despite its best efforts to present them as hateful hypocrites and losers.
American History X stars Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a young skinhead in Venice Beach, California. It is a riveting and compelling performance, Norton’s finest work. I saw American History X after I saw Fight Club, where Norton’s character is so unimposing and unassertive that he projects Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden as an alter ego. Thus I was surprised that in American History X, Norton plays a character every bit as swaggering, self-confident, and violent as Tyler Durden. They don’t seem like two different characters so much as two different men.
Derek Vinyard is the eldest of the four children of a fireman who was murdered by blacks while putting out a fire in their neighborhood. Derek was outraged and becomes involved with a local neo-Nazi mastermind, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) who is supposed to remind us of Tom Metzger. Derek is highly intelligent and articulate. He is also a natural leader. With Cameron’s help, he builds up a serious and well-organized skinhead gang.
Three incidents stand out. First, Derek challenges some Crips to a basketball contest for control of a local public court and wins. The game is one of the best-shot sequences in the film. Second, Derek makes a rousing, well-argued speech against race replacement immigration then leads his gang to trash a Korean-owned grocery store that employs illegal aliens. Third, when Derek’s widowed mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo) begins dating Murray (Elliot Gould), a Jewish teacher at Derek’s high school, the dinner table conversation becomes explosive. Derek refers to Murray as a “Kabbala-reading motherfucker” and reveals a huge swastika tattoo which he says means “not welcome.”
One does not need to endorse Derek’s Nazi ideology, rhetorical excesses, and physical violence to admire his sincerity and conviction, or to see the merits of his arguments. As for his opponents, they have nothing to offer but hurt looks, breaths sharply drawn in disapproval, and mumbling about racism and social inequalities.
Since the purpose of this film is to warn us against Derek’s ideas, one wonders what director Kaye and screenwriter David McKenna were thinking. They could have presented Derek as a vulgar, hateful loser like his fat friend Seth, whom Murray could easily best in a battle of wits. Instead, they chose to make Derek highly intelligent and articulate. This was a gutsy move, which goes against all media stereotypes about skinheads. However, if they are going to present Derek as fearsomely intelligent, then they need to match him with a more capable opponent, and they don’t. This means that Derek Vinyard can win any fair debate, which matters to some movie watchers.
Derek’s opponent and ultimate salvation is supposed to be Bob Sweeney, played by Deep Space Nine’s Avery Brooks. Sweeney is said to be a brilliant guy. He has two Ph.D.s. (Why is he teaching in a high school then?) He claims to see “holes” in Derek’s racialist worldview, which he dismisses as “bullshit.” But it rings hollow from the start. Brooks has made a career reading lines in his resonant, well-modulated black man’s voice. But he doesn’t come off as particularly intelligent. Derek’s father Dennis dismisses Sweeney’s pontificating as “nigger bullshit,” impressive only to the witless and gullible. When Sweeney actually argues against Derek, it turns out that dad was right. Sweeney’s arguments are terrible. Again, one has to ask what the filmmakers were thinking.
The most well-realized black character in the movie is Lamont (Guy Torry), an amiable buffoon. The rest of the black characters are vacant, mindless thugs. This too proves problematic for the film’s anti-racist message, for it supports Kipling’s characterization of non-whites as “half-devil, half-child.”
American History X is primarily the story of how Derek Vinyard stops being a skinhead. He starts when his father is murdered, then he falls in with the wrong crowd. He stops when he gets thrown in prison. When three Crips try to steal Derek’s car, he ends up killing two of them and is sentenced to three-and-a-half years for manslaughter.
While in prison, Derek immediately allies with the Aryan Brotherhood gang. This makes sense for two reasons. First, Derek is a neo-Nazi too. Second, even if he weren’t, it would be smart to join them, because whites who go it alone in prison are picked off by non-whites, who form gangs.
But cracks begin to appear in Derek’s racial collectivism. While working in the prison laundry, Derek bonds with a goofy black guy, Lamont, over their common interests in basketball and pussy. Derek also falls out with the Aryan Brotherhood because for some reason he objects to them selling drugs to nonwhites.
One of the most memed moments in American History X is when Derek declares that “Pot is for niggers.” Derek regards non-whites as soulless subhumans. So why not sell drugs to them? Or, at the very least, why make trouble with your allies over it?
But Derek is a bit abrasive and autistic about “principles.” The Aryans tire of Derek’s preaching, so one day, their leader forcibly sodomizes him in the shower. This leads Derek to change his whole worldview.
But that is just dumb and out of character. Derek keeps getting himself into trouble because he is a stickler for principles. But nothing that has happened challenges his basic principles. Lamont proves only that every group has likable outliers, apparently even in prison. And yes, we aren’t so different after all when we focus on the least common denominators, like food, sex, and games. As for the Aryans: they are not supposed to sell drugs and rape one another. But is it realistic to expect sterling characters in prison? Besides, when people betray their principles, couldn’t that be because the people are bad, not the principles?
Derek is taken to the prison infirmary. He needs some stitches. There he is visited by Sweeney, who makes a little speech:
There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. I used to blame everybody. Blame white people. Blame society. Blame God. I didn’t get no answers because I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.
When Derek asks Sweeney what the right questions are, the answer is: “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” To which Derek tears up, because no, he has suffered quite a lot for his ideas. Derek then begs Sweeney to help get him out of prison. He has a parole hearing coming up soon.
Sweeney’s arguments are terrible.
First of all, it is merely a shaming tactic to liken complaints about white dispossession to blacks blaming the white man for their own failings. It might appeal to an older generation of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatives, but Derek would see through it. What matters is the question of truth. White dispossession is real. The solution is not to “try harder” in a rigged system but to change the system. Blacks who still fail in a system of objective black privilege can’t blame the system for that. They can only blame themselves.