American History X is clearly a film dealing with racism. The interesting thing about this film is the way in which the subject is treated. First of all, it is obvious that, though racism is always a difficult subject to deal with, American History X presents it without any reservations or dumping down. Second, the film's figurehead for racism, Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton), is not an unintelligent redneck racist as films often portray them, but is in fact well-spoken, charismatic and intelligent, although he clearly holds ideals that are terribly wrong. Finally, the film shows that it is not just the white, neo-nazi racists who are fools to be involved in this, but all racism is foolish. Through these methods, the film shows the viewer, extremely convincingly, that hatred and racism will destroy a person and those around him.
It is immediately revealed to the audience at the outset of this movie that there will be no holds barred and no playing down the realism of this intense racial hatred. When the film flashes back to the reason for Derek's incarceration, we see Danny wake up his brother to tell him that some black guys are trying to steal or wreck his truck, and Derek immediately jumps out of bed, grabs a gun, and shoots one of them, wounds another and fires at the third as he drives away. Then, in one of the most brutal scenes in film history, Derek forces the remaining, wounded man to put his face on the curb and Derek kicks the back of his head, smashing in the man's skull. This scene is but one where the viewer sees the true horror that is racism. Derek's time in prison shows the results of this terrible way of life, and from the moment he takes off his shirt in the outdoor workout area, revealing his huge swastika tattoo to the other neo-nazi inmates, he becomes involved in another horrible situation, resulting in his being raped in the showers when things go wrong.
Perhaps the most tragic scene of the film is also its most effective in delivering to the audience, the emotional destruction that racism can cause. When Danny at the end of the film is shot repeatedly by a black student he had previously pissed off, Derek runs into the school, finds his brother dead, and his life and the lives of his family are changed forever. What makes Derek such a powerful and frightening character is not the fact that he is racist, it is the fact that instead of choosing a somewhat regular, backwoods, unintelligent racist as the films central character, Derek is well-spoken and bright. It is these qualities that allow him to recruit the youths of Venice Beach and form, with the help of his mentor Cameron Alexander, the entire white supremacist culture permeating the area.
Instead of just telling them to hate black, hispanic, asian people because they are of that race, he makes speeches, telling them charismatically and passionately how these people are stealing their jobs, causing Americans to suffer a poor standard of living. He tells them "America needs to take care of Americans before dealing with immigrants." And his speeches clearly incite this hatred in the young people of that area and flare up their tempers, causing behavior, such as we see in the movie when they destroy a grocery store because it was bought by a Korean immigrant who employs "40 fuck in' border jumpers" instead of Dave and Mike, good, American citizens. He continues to say "this isn't our neighborhood it's a battlefield." A man who is smart enough to deliver this kind of rhetoric to young people, to tell them "be a part of something," knowing full well that is exactly what they want, is a frightening person. He is very, very dangerous because of these qualities, and the film makes that clear. This also shows that racism is not just people hating each other for no reason, or misunderstanding. It shows that it is deep-rooted and all-consuming.
When Derek expounds upon all his theories and delivers his sermons, you can see how evil this view really is. Another interesting thing about the way this film portrays racism is that it shows it as a problems of two sides, no simply one group hating another. In "American History X", the people Derek and his crew commit hate-crimes against and oppress are also clearly shown to play a part in this as well, and have their flaws and faults. For example, a group of black students, including the one who later shoots Danny, beat up a white student in the bathroom for telling the teacher one of them was cheating.
Also, as mentioned before a group of black guys try to break into Derek's truck at his house. White neo-nazis also rape Derek in prison, and a black man saves Derek in prison, so clearly this film shows that racism is not a simple one way street, it involves two parties and has many facets. "American History X" is the story of a man who is so focused on his hatred and white supremacist views that it is his own undoing as well as his family destruction. The film makes excellent use of a non-standard depiction of racism and racists to convey how evil and destructive this attitude really is. As Daniel, Derek's younger brother says at the end of the film: 'hate is baggage, life's too short to be pissed off all the time, it's just not worth it.' Bibliography: American History X, David McKenna, 1998.