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Unintentionally Great:
A Review of American History X

2,434 words [1]

American History X [2] (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 [3]? 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.