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.
Second, when Sweeney chooses to focus on his individual life rather than questions of social justice, this is not moving from the “wrong questions” to the “right questions.” It is just a subjective change of focus. But focusing on your own life doesn’t make social problems disappear. It simply distracts you from noticing them. Individualism is just escapism. It is a form of cowardice.
The system deals with white dissidents by piling on personal problems: doxing, defamation, deplatforming, censorship, legal persecution, etc. That’s on top of the wearisome drama endemic to the movement itself. When enough negative consequences accumulate, many people simply give up. They have not, however, achieved some sort of enlightenment. Their convictions have not been disproven. They have simply been broken by the system. Derek is a broken man.
Sweeney speaks for Derek, and he is paroled. Somehow, he manages to survive on his own for the final months of his sentence. The conditions that drive men into racial prison gangs have been suddenly been suspended. The movie explains this miracle with a ridiculous deus ex machina: the spindly black buffoon Lamont somehow has enough credibility with the various prison gangs to “protect” Derek. I guess they were afraid he would rumple their sheets. I’m pretty sure what Derek’s dad would call his plot conceit.
American History X is also the story of Derek’s younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes him. While Derek is in prison, Danny joins Cameron’s skinhead gang. Danny gets in trouble when he writes a paper on Mein Kampf for the civil rights portion of Murray’s class on American history. Sweeney, who is now the principal, tells Danny that he is now in a new class, called American History X. His assignment is to write a paper on Derek, who has just gotten out of jail. Danny’s paper, related as a voice-over, is the narrative framework of the movie.
Once Derek is paroled, he does not want to get back into the gang. Instead he wants to get Danny out of it. This is irrational. Derek killed two Crips. They will be seeking revenge. He has a better chance if he has the gang behind him. If he really wants to extract Danny and break with the gang, then he needs to be diplomatic about it. Otherwise, he will simply multiply his enemies. Derek bungles his exit rather badly. He ends up punching Cameron and having a gun drawn on him. Now both the skinheads and the Crips are gunning for him.
The next morning, Derek has a meeting with his parole officer, and Danny has to turn in his paper. But it turns out that the same system that broke Derek now has a use for him. The Crips have attacked Cameron and Seth. Sweeney—who is clearly acting outside the purview of a high school principal—and a cop approach Derek for help. Derek is now a police informant.
When Danny shows up at the High School, we hear a voice-over of the end of his paper: “my conclusion is hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.” Then he quotes Abraham Lincoln’s pious folderol about overcoming enmity—this time between the North and the South—by the better angels of our nature tugging on the mystic chords of memory. The emptiness of these high-minded sentiments was, of course, soon demonstrated by America’s bloodiest war. As if to underscore this very point, the voiceover follows Danny’s bloody murder in a school bathroom by a Crip.
Again, I am not sure what the filmmakers were thinking, but this conclusion does not support their anti-“hate” agenda. Danny is right. Hate is arguably “baggage.” Being angry all the time is definitely no fun. If we were but atoms floating in a social-historical void, we would surely benefit from simply shrugging off hate and anger.
But that’s not the world we live in. You may decide one morning not to have any enemies. But your enemies may still have it in for you. In fact, they might think your change of heart is a weakness to be exploited. Danny and Derek did not choose to be in a race war. The race war was imposed on them. Derek decided to fight, which is necessary if one wants to have a chance of winning. The system broke Derek, but it didn’t stop the race war. Nor could it protect him or his brother once he broke with the gang.
Derek bears some responsibility for his brother’s death: not for exposing him to “hate” but for pulling him out of the gang. As a member of the gang, Danny enjoyed some protection, because the Crips knew that attacking him would lead to retaliation. But once Derek and Danny were out of the gang, they became targets of opportunity.
Lincoln’s hope that “memory” could overcome enmity presupposed that the North and the South had deep commonalities and old friendships that had simply been forgotten in the struggle over slavery. Memory will not heal the divisions between blacks and whites in America, because there was no common community before slavery. There is enmity all the way down. Memory only polarizes race relations in America, which in turn polarizes whites against each other.
After Danny’s murder, the film ends with a sunset at the beach to Lincoln’s high-flown rhetoric. In short, a typical liberal retreat from racial reality into sentiment. An anticlimax. Dare we wonder what happens next? The most logical ending for this story would be a repentant Derek shaving his head to rejoin the struggle. But that’s clearly not the intended message.
American History X is beautifully filmed—often by Kaye himself—with an excellent orchestral score by Anne Dudley. Some scenes drag, and the use of slow motion is about as annoying as teeth scraping against a concrete curb. But this might not be due to Kaye, who turned in a 95-minute final cut. Norton and the studio insisted on a longer edit, which added back in 24 minutes. Kaye’s reaction to this was highly neurotic, to say the least, and he was branded unemployable, even though the film went on to enjoy commercial and critical success.
Why does American History X fail so splendidly as propaganda?
We can discard the idea that Tony Kaye is secretly sympathetic to Nazi skinheads. He is what Derek would call a “Kabbala-reading motherfucker.” He would arrive on set in a chauffeured limo with the license plate “JEWISH” and had matzos delivered to the set at Passover.
The most likely hypothesis is that the filmmakers were just smug. They thought that Derek’s views are self-evidently evil and that their own views are self-evidently good. Thus they felt that their respective positions simply needed to be stated aloud, with no real argument, and the audience would agree with their viewpoint.
But people outside the Leftist bubbles of academia and the media don’t react that way. Intelligent normies see the logic of Derek’s positions. They can separate the truths Derek utters about white dispossession and liberal coddling of black criminals from the violent skinhead trappings. They also see the vacuousness of the film’s liberal message. Thus American History X qualifies as a classic of Right-wing cinema, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers.