American History X

“This isn’t our fuckin’ neighborhood. It’s a battlefield. We’re on a battlefield tonight. Make a decision: Are we gonna stand on the sidelines, quietly standing there while our country gets raped? Or are we gonna ante up and do something about it?” —Derek Vinyard, American History X

“We will never be able to win in the clash of civilizations if we don’t know who we are. If Western civilization succumbs to the siren song of multiculturalism, I believe we are finished.” —former U.S. congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo

Early in his tenure as attorney general, Eric Holder got into hot water for a Black History Month speech in which he referred to America as “a nation of cowards” when it comes to racial issues. The way he was blasted for his comments in some corners—a task made much easier by removing the quote from context—ironically underlined his point: We could bicker over Holder’s perceived lapse in patriotism while continuing to dodge the difficult conversation he wants us to have. In truth, race comes up in the culture all the time—and by Holder’s admission, in political discussion—but in language that’s more coded than frank, and that doesn’t necessarily cut to the heart of the matter. It’s the third rail of American discourse. 

For all its flaws—and they are legion—Tony Kaye’s 1998 firecracker American History X could never be condemned for its lack of candor on racial matters. Until looking at it again for this column, I hadn’t seen the film since its brief theatrical run, which was short-circuited in part due to the public battles between Kaye, his star Edward Norton, and New Line Cinema over the final cut. (Kaye famously took out a full-page ad in Variety decrying the Norton-supervised cut that New Line favored, and tried to have his name removed from the credits and replaced with the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym. When that failed, he suggested “Humpty Dumpty.”) In the years since, I’ve tried to account for why American History X took off in the culture, and made a few assumptions: that Edward Norton’s performance as reformed skinhead Derek Vinyard was too magnetic to deny; that the existence of a neo-Nazi group in a modern American city had a pulpy appeal, like the gangs in The Warriors or the anarchists in Fight Club; or that its most sensationalistic scene—the “curb-stomp”—was one of those you-must-see-this moments that lead people to pass around DVDs and videotapes. 

No doubt all those elements were contributing factors, but I think the cult of American History X, for better or worse, has to do with its frankness. This is not a subtle film. This is not a film of great depth or psychological complexity. This is not a film with any discernible subtext; it’s all text. But it does engage, albeit in the bluntest possible terms, in the kind of open conversation that Holder seems to be endorsing. Derek’s path from scared kid to charismatic neo-Nazi leader to changed man follows such a clear cause-and-effect pattern that the audience in the theater next door can follow it, but there’s a power to that, too. The racial discussion isn’t couched in code words or other niceties of language, but stated so plainly that we can’t wriggle out from under it. And it happens around the dinner table—sometimes literally, as in this scene where Derek aggressively confronts his mother’s liberal new boyfriend (Elliott Gould) over the rioting and looting after the Rodney King trial. Note how closely Derek’s argument dovetails with those of mainstream critics who condemned looting in the aftermath of Katrina or the fall of Baghdad: 

“Who would like some dessert?” says Derek’s mother (Beverly D’Angelo), trying to play peacemaker, and yet the conversation continues. American History X just keeps on talking, at least when Kaye isn’t going overboard with slo-mo shower jets and other visual “poetry.” David McKenna’s script is loaded with pungent monologues and combustible melodrama, but even its structure does a lot of explaining, piling on long flashback sequences to account for Derek’s journey and his influence on his brother Danny, played by Edward Furlong. The title refers to an essay Danny’s principal, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), requires him to write after turning in a book report hailing the virtues of Mein Kampf. Sweeney wants Danny to write simply about his brother Derek—and within those broad parameters, a movie (with scads of voiceover narration) is born. 

As Danny writes, his brother has served out the end of a three-year stint at Chino for voluntary manslaughter, having killed two African-Americans in response to an attempted car robbery outside his home in Venice Beach. In the years since he’s been in prison, Derek’s white-supremacist views have calcified in Danny’s mind, too, and the skinhead movement in Venice has flourished in his absence. We learn the roots of Derek’s racial hatred: How his father, a fireman with prejudices of his own, was gunned down by a black man. How his grief and anger were stoked by a local white-power nut (Stacy Keach) who recognized Derek’s charisma and persuasiveness. How Derek was able to seize upon the sense of disenfranchisement felt by many in his racially evolving neighborhood. And how, finally, his rhetoric manifested itself in horrific violence. In this scene, Derek masterfully spins a rant on immigration into a pep talk for ransacking a Korean grocer: 

Kaye, who also served as cinematographer, shoots in black and white and color, which for practical purposes helps situate viewers in time, but also suggests ways of seeing the world. The Derek of the past sees things starkly; Derek post-incarceration has a more nuanced perspective. But no matter where it stands in the timeline, American History X is strictly black and white. It’s not just that the script leaves no room for interpretation, but that its dramatic transformations are rarely all that plausible, especially in the scenes with Derek in Chino. It makes sense that his disenchantment with his Aryan prison buddies starts with his observing their hypocrisy in moving drugs through Mexican gang members. But Derek’s relationship with a black inmate (Guy Torry) on laundry detail is pure hooey, staking Derek’s hasty transformation on a handful of genial exchanges and a story about the racial injustice that led the inmate into the pen. Reforming a hardened neo-Nazi like Derek—who isn’t a sheep-like follower of racist dogma, but a confident proselytizer of it—would take a hell of a lot more than some disarming jokes over the folding press. (For a better example, look to The Believer, a superior film that turns to a much more profound source for conversion.)

Though overwrought and rigged like a Lifetime movie, American History X has a primal force that owes plenty to Norton’s performance, of course, but also to Kaye’s interest in American culture at its most extreme. It’s always fascinating when a foreign filmmaker comes to America, because their impressions are unique and telling, even when they’re off-base or marred by awkward hiccups. (Think Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, or Wim Wenders’ various efforts here—none of them perfect by any measure, but they’re singular and resonant even in their misjudgments.) Kaye is drawn to the violent fringe of American society: His extraordinary 2006 documentary Lake Of Fire, an epic (and startlingly graphic) look at the war over abortion rights, sought out the most dangerous zealot on the scene, including one man who would later be convicted for murdering a doctor. The racially charged world of American History X is amplified a few notches above the real one, often to the film’s detriment, but Kaye’s in-your-face style does force viewers to confront tensions that tend to simmer more frequently than they explode. There’s a hyper-real, almost comic-book quality to Derek whipping off his shirt for a basketball game, ready to do battle against his African-American foes, wearing that Nazi tattoo emblazoned above his heart. And his eventual victory is pure ecstatic fantasy, like the anti-Hoosiers.

Such a scene seems unlikely right out in the open, on a public court in the middle of a big city, but this is a film that wants to have that uncomfortable dinner conversation. Much of the language Derek uses to persuade his skinhead followers and debate his adversaries is merely an n-word or two away from a modern talking head on cable news. And at a time when the presence of a black president has brought out insidious sloganeering like “Take our country back”—who’s “our”? And from whom?—there’s something refreshing about a film like American History X that puts everything on the table. It doesn’t make for convincing cinema, exactly, but cowardly it isn’t.


Attention Chicagoans: On Wednesday, July 28th at 7:30 p.m., the New Cult Canon comes to the Music Box Theatre with a screening of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. I’ll be there to introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward. Three reasons to come: 

  1. It’s a revelation on the big screen, shot in luscious Panavision with a particularly aggressive Lynch sound design.
  2. It’s better than you remember it being, especially in the wake of Mulholland Dr.
  3. If you show up in strong numbers, perhaps such an event could be replicated in the future.

Advance tickets are available here. 

Coming Up:
August 5: Heathers
August 19: Buffalo ’66
September 2: American Psycho

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