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Unintentionally Great:
A Review of American History X

2,434 words

American History X (1998)
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: David McKenna
Stars: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Stacy Keach

Looking back at it, the 1998 film American History X might be a bit tricky from an Alt Right perspective. The story takes place during the mid-1990s and deals with a young Nazi skinhead whose time in prison forces him to reconsider his life. This, I’m sure, is a topic which hits close to home for many of us, and is perhaps why the film evoked such strong reactions when it came out.

The overall problem with American History X, and one reason why it is so interesting, is that there is a noticeable break between what screenwriter David McKenna and director Tony Kaye wanted to accomplish, and what they really did accomplish. Depending on how one views the film, one can come away from American History X with completely different impressions concerning race, racism, and race realism. I get the feeling that this was not what McKenna and Kaye had intended.

The story, told in a self-consciously non-linear fashion, centers around Derek Vinyard, played by Edward Norton, a hyper-intelligent skinhead with serious rage issues. He bedecks his bedroom with Nazi paraphernalia and sports a conspicuous swastika tattoo on his chest. Still reeling from the death of his father – a fireman who had been murdered by a black drug dealer – Derek and his family try to make ends meet in Venice Beach, California.

But Derek and his surly younger brother Danny, played by Edward Furlong, witness their neighborhood being taken over by blacks and other non-whites, many of whom are illegal immigrants. Derek falls in with a white supremacist gang called the Disciples of Christ, which is led by the loathsome Cameron Alexander, played by Stacy Keach, who entices white youths into the thug life. Derek shows much leadership potential, and after a brilliant speech outside a Korean-owned supermarket, leads his gang inside to loot and sack it. After a falling out with his mother over a Jewish man she’s dating, Derek murders two black hooligans as they jack his car . . . one of them through a vicious and unforgettable curb stomping. For this, he gets sentenced to prison.

This is the back story. The front story begins three years later, as Danny comes to grips with Derek’s return from the joint a changed man. Danny is also falling under the sway of Cameron and cannot fathom why his brother won’t take up his life where it had left off. Danny has to deal with thuggish black classmates as well as his mother’s illness, and so when he turns in a school paper which glorifies Adolf Hitler, he’s nearly expelled. His black principal Bob Sweeney, played rather stiffly by Avery Brooks, cares a great deal about this wayward youth and gives him a shot at redemption. He assigns him a paper on Derek and expects it the next morning. As he writes it throughout the night, Danny reflects upon their father, Derek, and the lives they have chosen to live.

There is much in American History X which will annoy a race realist. Most prominent is the redemption motif, which McKenna and Kaye treat with not the lightest of hands. The plot unfolds in such a way that Derek and Danny’s eventual departure from their past is deemed a good thing. Frequently, a reformed Derek refers to his past life with Cameron and the gang as “bullshit” and ruefully describes his younger self as “pissed off.” “Hate is baggage,” he tells Danny, in an effort to lead his younger brother away from the clutches of Cameron. In his review of the film, critic Gene Siskel described American History X as “a shockingly powerful screed against racism,” as if that were the film’s very point.

There is also much negrophilia in American History X which stretches believability as much as one’s patience. Why does Sweeney care so altruistically about the Vinyard brothers? Both are belligerent towards blacks, and Derek had murdered two of them. Yet Sweeney goes out of his way to keep Danny in school and even visits Derek in prison to help him confront his demons. Why is this? Certainly not because many examples of this exist in real life. We all know that blacks in fields such as education advance mostly thanks to affirmative action and its politics. Such people are more often interested in their own ambitions, or in leveling the white-black achievement gap, than in anything else. Saving the souls of racist, swastika-riddled white kids isn’t exactly high on their list of priorities. Yet in American History X, it is.

Sweeney is a great example of the “numinous negro,” the cinematic conceit which places a particular black person on the highest moral plane of a story. Numinous negroes typically have little self-interest and an almost pathological concern for the story’s invariably white protagonist. Such a person exists mainly in the minds of screenwriters seeking to kiss the ring of political correctness while preparing their hero for some great and meaningful struggle at the story’s end.

While in prison, Derek befriends Lamont, a gregarious, non-threatening black, who, by virtue of his keen comedic gifts, entices Derek to soften his hard line on black people. He also manages to get his (white) boy’s back when some of the other black inmates want to come gunning for him. While Lamont (played impeccably by Gus Torry) is a lot of fun to watch, he really has no motivation to give two cigarette stubs about the fate of Derek Vinyard. Again, he is a numinous negro. He does not need motivation. He is just a priori good and reflects more an overarching white guilt over the plight of blacks in a white world than anything else.

American History X commits this negrophilic sin not once, but twice. For a race realist, this is just a bit too much to swallow in one film.

The final quibble about American History X relates to the stereotypical behavior and portrayals of the white supremacists Derek and Danny fall in with. They are exactly what one would expect: a lot of angry, foul-mouthed white men in Nazi garb stomping their feet to loud punk music and shouting about how much they hate kikes, spics, and niggers. The psychotic and nearly-obese bully Seth (played memorably by Ethan Suplee) becomes the embodiment of all this ugliness. If one has no benefit of research or personal experience with white supremacists, these are the characterizations one would come up up with. And what a lazy writer can do, a fairly perceptive audience member can do just as well.

Of course, these are not the only flaws of the film. The switching from color to black and white film stock to indicate a shift from present to past is unsubtle at best. The depiction of the sickly mother, played by Beverly D’Angelo, tends to get overwrought. F-bombs and N-bombs are also dropped with gleeful abandon. Much of this gets tiring over the course of a two-hour film.

All of the above, in my opinion, describes the film the filmmakers intended to make: an edgy crime drama about redemption which happens to feature a couple of white supremacists as its main characters. They may not have succeeded on all counts, but this was, generally speaking, their goal. Other strengths of American History X, however, can be found in the film the filmmakers did not intend to make . . . that is, a film which humanizes and rationalizes the race realistic perspective and acts as an early call to arms to what we now know as the Alt Right.

Remember the novel Lolita? Remember how the novel’s unsurpassed technical brilliance could easily be mistaken for the glorification of pedophilia? This would be the novel’s unintended purpose. American History X can be seen in a similar way, except its unintended purpose is positive rather than negative.

It all centers on Edward Norton. Norton’s protean performance as Derek Vinyard rivets us to our seats, and we never get tired of it. The audience basks in his radiant charisma in the same way his girlfriend and his skinhead followers do. We can’t take our eyes off of him, whether he is instigating fights, arguing taboo subjects, bullying family members, or doing the opposite of these things. Truly, this is one of the great performances in American cinema, and this alone makes American History X worthwhile. McKenna or Kaye may have intended to make their film a “screed against racism,” but they would have had more success had they insisted Derek be more repulsive prior to his great redemption at the end.

Another unintended perk comes from the script. Derek’s arguments in favor of a race realist perspective are sound, informed, and quite frankly excellent. It’s as if McKenna had wanted to red-pill us through Derek under the cover of artistic license. This happens most memorably on three occasions: when Derek is interviewed on television after his father’s murder, when he is gearing his gang up to loot the Korean supermarket, and when he’s arguing about the Rodney King verdict with Murray, his mother’s Jewish boyfriend, played deftly by Elliot Gould. In the first and last cases, Derek becomes emotional and bitter, even cruel, which makes the scenes painful, yet no less persuasive. In the middle instance, however, you have one of the great film speeches which resonates well past today and into the future. No person sympathetic with the Alt Right will be able to dismiss its power. Here it is in its entirety:

All right, listen up. We need to open our eyes. There’s over two million illegal immigrants bedding down in this state tonight. This state spent three billion dollars last year on services for those people who had no right to be here in the first place. Three billion dollars. Four hundred million just to lock up illegal immigrant criminals who only got into this country because the fucking INS decided it’s not worth the effort to screen for convicted felons.

Who gives a shit? Our government doesn’t give a shit. Our border policy is a joke, so is anybody surprised that south of the border they’re laughing at us? Laughing at our laws? Every night, thousands of these parasites stream across the border like some fucking piñata exploded.

Don’t laugh. There’s nothing funny going on here. This is about your life and mine. It’s about decent, hard-working Americans falling through the cracks and getting the shaft because their government cares more about the constitutional rights of a bunch of people who aren’t even citizens of this country.

On the Statue of Liberty it says, “Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor.” Well, it’s Americans who are tired and hungry and poor! And I say until you take care of that, close the fucking book! Because we’re losing. We’re losing our right to pursue our destiny. We’re losing our freedom so a bunch of fucking foreigners can come in here and exploit our country.

And this isn’t something that’s going on far away. This isn’t happening in places where we can’t do anything about it. It’s happening right here. Right in our neighborhood. Right in that building behind you. Archie Miller ran that grocery store since we were kids here. Dave worked there. Mike worked there. He went under and now some fucking Korean owns it who fired these guys and is making a killing because he hired forty fucking border jumpers.

I see this shit going on and I don’t see anybody doing anything about it, and it fucking pisses me off. So look around you. This isn’t our fucking neighborhood. It’s a battlefield. We’re on a battlefield tonight. Make a decision. Are we going to stand on the sidelines? Quietly standing there while our country gets raped? Or are we going to ante up and do something about it? You’re goddamn right we are!

In the same way that all American country boys carry a Huckleberry Finn in their hearts, everyone on the Alt Right should carry a Derek Vinyard. Of course, I’m not saying we should all start looking for Korean supermarkets to smash up. I am saying, however, that this speech expresses what we all feel about what is happening to our country. And it goes beyond the Alt Right. I would wager that any of the hundreds of thousands of Donald Trump supporters who showed up to see their candidate speak during his 2016 presidential campaign would nod their heads in agreement with the ideas and observations in this speech.

We should also keep in mind that despite his redemption in the end, Derek Vinyard never explicitly renounces any of his race realist beliefs. His time in prison teaches him to abandon hate, but that is not the same thing. One is not required to hate other races to be a race realist, and probably shouldn’t in any event. So, while Derek becomes a better person by distancing himself from Seth, Cameron, and their ilk, there is no evidence of his relinquishing his staunchly pro-white perspective.

Another admirable quality of the film is its counterbalance to negrophilia. Like nothing else I have seen, American History X portrays young, black gangsters as the stupid, violent, psychopathic thugs they really are. Sure, Derek did his curb-stomping thing. Skinheads like Seth are thoroughly obnoxious. Cameron is a manipulator with few scruples. And the Aryan Nation inmates Derek falls in with in the joint are corrupt and vicious, especially when they rape him in the shower in order to keep him in line.

But absolutely no one in the film is as evil as the stupid black punks who condone and commit murder just because.

These are the people that Derek, Danny, and even Seth stand up to. As flawed as these white characters are, American History X forces us to admire them because they are the only ones standing up against what is not only the greatest evil in the film, but in real life as well.

Even beyond any consideration of race, however, the strengths of American History X outweigh its weaknesses. The plot is tight and suspenseful, and the filmmaking gritty. Voice-overs and flashbacks are timed perfectly to build tension in a fairly complex story. There is little wasted time. Furthermore, the film packs a howitzer of an ending. I will not spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that, for my money, it is one of the most powerful film climaxes I have ever seen.

And that, I am quite sure, is something the filmmakers intended.

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  1. Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    (spoilers ahead)

    Perhaps you already know this, but in McKenna’s original script, the film ends with Derek going back to being a skinhead after his brother’s murder, which really makes more sense given his character’s back story than the existing one, which is a really heavy-handed way of showing “the price of racism.” It was actually Ed Norton who refused to do the scene. And Tony Kaye continues to disavow the film to this day, claiming that it is still unfinished given that the final edit it received was done without any input from him (which led him to sue the studio).

    • Spencer Quinn
      Posted January 7, 2017 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      I knew about most of that, but not Ed Norton’s 86’ing the original ending. I actually love the ending as it is – very open ended. And heartbreaking.

    • Marty
      Posted January 9, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie but the ending struck me the most out of the whole movie. You have a skinhead who gets “rehabilitated” from his racism by meeting nice black people only to have his brother killed by evil blacks. Taking into account your sound analysis, the message of the movie seems, to me, to be: “you’re correct, your views are justified, just don’t act like obnoxious nazis while expressing them, be a bit more reasonable”

  2. California
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps someone could do some light editing/cutting of the movie to get rid of the negrophilia moments.

  3. Petronius
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I remember a lot of reviews back then bitching how “glorifying” that movie was… just look at the famous basketball game scene, where Derek appears irresistibly charismatic and warriorlike, gaining the respect of his black adversaries. The filmmakers certainly didn’t take the easy way out. It was daring how much empathy they allowed for Derek, which made his most extreme actions even more shocking for the audience. Hate and racism was not a one-way ticket in that film, caused by white bigots for no good reason at all as usual. Norton’s performance is closely tied to his immortal part in Fight Club in the following year, a film that is connected in many ways to American History X.

  4. Posted January 6, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    This is indeed a very powerful film, and Norton’s performance was superb. I remember when the film came out, I heard a conversation between a man and a woman about it, both normies. They were talking about the scene where Derek Vinyard gets arrested. The woman was saying how hot Ed Norton looked (he beefed up considerably for the role, otherwise tending to look the way he did in Fight Club) and the man was flabbergasted that she would say that about a Nazi skinhead with a giant swastika on his chest.

    I’ve always thought there was a pro-white subtext to the whole film. The story of why Derek and his friends formed their skinhead gang is entirely justified – they became a minority in their town and had to band together to protect each other. The story of Derek’s gang beating the blacks at a game of basketball for control of the local courts is not only a bit of a stretch, but is portrayed as a heroic triumph, shown entirely from the whites’ perspective.

    It’s true that Vinyard doesn’t do a complete 180, and in fact he explicitly says otherwise to Sweeney when he visits him in prison, something to the effect of ‘Just because I’m questioning a few things doesn’t mean I’m totally on your side now.’

  5. maxmix
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    The most profound scene was when the father was talking about affirmative action at breakfast. That right there totally blew that AA lie right out of the water. And nowhere did the directors ever try to refute the father’s argument, essentially saying that he was right.

    This movie failed at being anti-racist because it gave the Whites the best argument and only combats this logic with muh feels. Soon those feels will be obsolete along with the culture which created their context. Leaving behind a movie in which the skinheads take the moral high ground. Applause!

    • Spencer Quinn
      Posted January 7, 2017 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      Exactly. I wanted to bring that up in my review, but I felt it was getting too long.

  6. Peter Quint
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    The “numinous negro” has its antecedents in the novels “Huckleberry Finn,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I have not read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but I know that the protagonist is portrayed as heroic, and noble, as Jim is in “Huckleberry Finn,” which I have read. I have mused as to how those books created a dangerous archetype many times, you cannot underestimate the damage done to our race by Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Whites continually go through their lives unaware as to how deeply blacks hate them, and how dire the danger is that they experience everyday. I have great deal of authentic experience with the negro, due to my twenty years in the army, and I can tell you that the “numinous negro” does not exist. Too be fair I have met a black here, and there that have been kind to me, but they are a rarity. If you want to gain a realistic picture of the authentic black, I suggest you visit the website “ChimpOut,” in which the horrific rapes, and murders of whites are detailed everyday.

    • Spencer Quinn
      Posted January 9, 2017 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Peter Quint, I would imagine that Tom was a bit more numinous than Jim, but I see your point. In discussions like these, I like to fall back on Thomas Nelson Page who had a similarly numinous “mammie” character in his great Civil War/Reconstruction novel “Red Rock.” Yet she was real and truly cared for her white owners and still acted in self interest. There really wasn’t a political agenda behind this character like there was behind Tom, so in RR it worked. As for Jim, if there was a political agenda behind him, it was more subtly presented than the one behind Tom.

      And as we speak about numinous characters, another early one is the numinous Jew Riah in Dickens’ brilliant Our Mutual Friend. The characters is nothing less than saintly and therefore is not terribly interesting except in a ‘meta’ way – it was CD’s way of exonerating himself after creating the stereotypical Fagin from Oliver Twist. The difference here is that Fagin was based on real-life underworld figure Icky Solomon whereas Riah as fare as I know was based on no one. Despite this, Dickens still managed to breathe life into Fagin, especially towards the end. He never really gets that far with Riah.

    • Posted January 9, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      don’t forget to add james fenimore cooper to your list. this 19th-century writer got many a white tortured, raped and murdered because of his moonshine about the lofty soul and innate goodness of the “noble red man.” because of cooper thousands of whites went west expecting to warmly greet and befriend these “children of nature” and paid the ultimate price. cooper might be excused from ignorance but any writer or filmmaker today who deviates from racial reality is deliberately trying to deceive for reasons political. like yourself, i got my first heavy dosage of racial reality in the military.

      • Spencer Quinn
        Posted January 10, 2017 at 5:44 am | Permalink

        Hi Tom,

        Well, Chingachgook and his son are numinous in a way. But Last of the Mohicans at the very least differs from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huck Finn in the sense that nearly all the other Indians in the book were entirely savage. Magua is a bloodthirsty monster, and almost none of the Indians he consorts with have any redeeming qualities. When the Indians massacred the unarmed whites after the fall of Fort William Henry, there should be no doubt that Cooper understood the Indian for what he was: potentially good if he walks the narrow path of his ancestors, but irredeemably bad if he gives in to his passions. Further, Cooper pontificates endlessly on the Indian mindset versus the white one, and seems to conclude that there are definite differences and that the white mindset should be dominant. But, your point is well taken. Chingachgook has little self interest other than serving Hawkeye and so does qualify as being numinous.

        I would really like to see any sources you have about Cooper’s literature got many whites tortured and killed. That is a new one on me. An internet search didn’t bring up anything.

        Here is something I wrote on the topic last year. Thanks.

        • Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          sorry, spencer. after 30 years and three divorces i no longer have access to my historical notes which at one time could fill a small garage. i had a small but decent pile of info on not just cooper, but alexander pope, 19th-century east coast editors (Horace Greeley, for one), and, of course, the most fanciful featherless bipeds in all american history, the crazed abolitionists. all had preposterous, outrageous depictions of indians based on active imaginations alone and what they ‘hoped’ was true. as far as i know, most, cooper included, never met an indian except outside a cigar store. from what i remember cooper’s portrayal of indians in general–their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, everything about them is almost interchangeable with whites. but i agree with you, wes studi made a very savage “savage” and cooper was dead-on in that portrayal.

          since it would take me all day to try and type out from memory the quotes, let me encourage you to consult my book, scalp dance (there should be an online pdf), pp. 41 and 59 for a few indirect cooper quotes. clearly, some contemporaries were pissed off at coopers depiction of indians.

          some of the most strident proponents of the ‘noble red man’ myth and that an indian was simply a white man with feathers were the same folks who imagined the negro was but a white man with kinky hair–the abolitionists.

          white men and women in direct contact with indians cynically noted that the further removed these writers were from actual indians, the more flowery and purple their prose extolling the virtues of same. racial reality crashed every whites’ little party upon contact. the indian’s penchant for begging was embarrassing to whites, an indian’s (his/her) mania for crazy water was startling and a brave’s/chief’s pimping of his wife and daughter(s) to obtain yet more liquor was obscene and shameless.

  7. Dietrich
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Spot on. I wrote something for TRS recently about this film, with regards to the ways in which even leftists tend to identify with Danny Vinyard. I remember watching this movie in high school, before I knew about any redpills, and being completely taken by Danny’s character. The Lolita reference is apt.

  8. Dov
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Like all other products of Hollywood, one of the goals of the movie was to shift dialogue Leftward. Derek makes makes convincing arguments at dinner table, as his father did WRT schools’ authors of choice and AA in fire departments. But all of this is intended to be deligitimized – by Derek’s return to the “good” side, depiction of all with White Identity as White Supremacists, and a veritable showering of the word “nigger” over the entire movie.

  9. Michael Bell
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I first saw this movie when I was in 8th grade. This was when I was really starting to get curious about white nationalism, and felt that I probably was a “racist” of some sort. I thought it was awesome at the time, and can safely say that it played a pivotal role in bringing me fully into the fold early on. I even got into making model military vehicles because Danny Vinyard had model helicopters hanging from his room ceiling. I figured “well that must be what good Nazis do!”

  10. Gunnar von Cowtown
    Posted January 8, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I’ve always wondered if there’s some autobiographical content in that film. David McKenna hasn’t done much since, and he’s done nothing as profound or resonant. Perhaps he toned it down to continue working in (((Hollywood))).

  11. Othmar Regin
    Posted January 9, 2017 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    I too saw this film before I became a full-blown “racist” or “race realist” whichever you prefer. And I must say it was one of the early things that got me thinking about race and my conclusions where anything what the movie makers intended. Sure I did not like the “Nazis” or the that fat skinhead bastard but I did understand their motives and I agreed with them.. despite the film makers best attempts at trying to make me feel sympathetic to the negroes or the kykes(hell I did not even know what a kyke was at that point).. I did not, I always felt on the side of the Whites no matter how “evil” their where made out to be.. and the curb stomping scene? ..well if anything that impressed me more than anything else.

  12. Peter Quint
    Posted January 9, 2017 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    It should be noted that Derek Vinyard is depicted beating blacks at what is universally considered their own game–basketball. It has more significance than it has been given i.e, the leader stepping forward to lead whites in honorable victory over the enemy. He did not resort to cheating as the blacks did i.e., throwing elbows.

  13. Posted January 9, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Recently re-watched this film. I had totally forgotten how they shoehorned Derek’s father discussing affirmative action and the Magical Negro Principal, right at the end, as if to insinuate that kind of badthink was what set his son’s on their road to the Neo Nazi life.

    Coming right after the scene in the bathroom, it was both jarring and rustling. I used to love the film, but after my political awakening it doesn’t really stack up for me, despite some amazing performances.

  14. J. Helghan
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    When I first watched it when it came out I was a normie, and like most normies that it was the bees’ knees. Knowing what I know today, so much of the movie just seems ridiculous. For instance:

    -Derek abandoning racism by “getting to know” a black guy: this assumes the “contact hypothesis” of racism, which assumes that racism stems from people not knowing each other well enough: the reality is the opposite, generally the more contact whites have with real-life blacks the more jaded they become about them.

    -The whole contrast between Derek’s sentence for brutal murder and the numinous negro’s sentence for theft pushes the narrative that the justice system is biased against blacks, and for whites. We all know the truth about that.

    -Derek gets raped in prison by the Arian Nation dudes. What a joke. Everybody knows that prison rape is almost entirely a black-on-white thing.

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