Essential Film: American History X

Essential Film American History X


By Paul Rodger


Casting an alternative light on suburban America, American History X reveals the gritty sub culture of modern day white supremacy. Released in 1998 and starring Edward Norton (Rounders, Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk), this contemporary cult classic, albeit relatively a box office disappointment, leaves a strong impression on the viewer.
Filmed in nonlinear narrative style, the plot portrays the story of brothers Danny (Norton) and Derek Vinyard (Edward Furlong). With the former having served three years in prison for murder, the story reveals the erosive and stirring tensions of hatred and loss. The film begins with Derek, an aspiring neo-Nazi and pupil at Venice Beach High School, California sitting in the principal’s office. Having been assigned by his history teacher – of Jewish denomination – to write an essay on “any book that relates to the struggle for human rights”, Derek writes about Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Distressed and troubled by this, his history teacher insists on his immediate expulsion. However, instead, the principal assigns him Richard Wright’s Native Son and the task of writing a paper on his brother Derek, a former neo-Nazi leader who has recently been released.

Shining a light on the insidious nature of bigotry and racial and religious antagonisms, American History X juxtaposes the borderline joviality and toxic camaraderie with individual ethical and moral awareness. Framing this sentiment aptly, the film depicts a basketball game between Derek and his fellow gang members, and a group of black-American youths. Insisting on “blacks vs whites”, Derek, with his girlfriend and younger brother looking on from the sidelines, raises the stakes by insisting on whoever loses has to surrender the court to the other team for good. Following a heated series of points, Derek seals the victory for his side, resulting in the other team reluctantly walking away with the sound of jeers and slurs seeing them off.

Fast-forwarding, Derek’s time in prison, working partly in the laundry alongside an amiable and talkative African-American of similar age, reveals how his silent and grudging personality mellows into tacit respect towards his fellow inmate, and the thawing of his commitment and passion towards his ideals. At times flagging in drive, this rough, realist picture draws attention to two particularly relevant areas: identity, immigration and territoriality. Throughout the drama, the narrative concentrates these subjects heavily, inviting the viewer to consider these ideas more closely. Revealing subversive mob mentality, collective blind anger, and its divisive social effects and animalistic characteristics in manifesting irrational ‘us and them’ divides. With its family orientated character base, American History X plays the clichéd fascist banners and rhetoric intriguingly alongside a sibling relationship strained and tense in its interactions and reversal of personal outlooks. Evoking strong socio-political allegorical messages, this brotherly microcosm highlights the hurtful, infectious and ultimately destructive substance that is organised, ideological prejudice. Although ostensibly resonating as a result of its individual performances, most notably Norton’s, it’s the deep-seated meanings behind this film that binds and projects its narrative as a whole.


American History X

Director: Tony Kaye

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