How American History X – an almost 20-year-old movie – has become more relevant today in this current political climate than when it was originally released.
[Quick Note: Even though ‘American History X’ is nearly a 20-year-old movie, we understand there are probably many of you who haven’t seen it. So we’re going to say it here, THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS IN THIS ISSUE REGARDING ‘AMERICAN HISTORY X!’ We talk about specific scenes in the movie, so our advice: watch the movie and then come back to read this Issue. Thanks.]
There’s a particular monologue in American History X that causes discomfort for anyone who watches it. Or as the late film critic Rodger Ebert described the scene in his review, “fueled by drugs, beer, tattoos, heavy metal and the need all insecure people feel to belong to a movement greater than themselves… it is assumed in their world (the beaches and playgrounds of the Venice area of L.A.) that all races stick together and are at undeclared war with all others.”
It’s also a scene that sounds very familiar in our current political climate. Here is President – then Republican Presidential Candidate – Donald Trump talking about the dangers of illegal immigration:
While we’re not trying to imply that there’s a direct connection between President Trump’s comments and the white supremacist speech that American History X’s main protagonist, Derek Vinyard, makes in a flashback; however, it’s hard to deny that both speeches aren’t hitting on similar notes when it comes to a certain brand of American nationalism. The rise of candidates like Donald Trump or Alabama’s GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore have brought out an element that many had thought were either fringe outliers or part of America’s dark past. You don’t need to look any further than the events of Charlottesville from earlier this year or the rise of various White Supremacist groups in 2017.
In many ways, American History X has become a more relevant film now than when it was officially released almost 20-years-ago.
In American History X, Racism is Both the Cause and Effect
American History X centers around Derek, a reformed neo-Nazi leader, trying to steer his teenage brother, Danny Vinyard, from falling into the same White Supremacist group that he had become a victim to their views years earlier. This change of heart from Derek comes after a traumatic incident in prison, in which he was incarcerated for violently attacking three Black teenagers trying to break into his car. As the film’s basic plotline (and its execution) goes, American History X isn’t necessarily a very complicated film by what it asks from its viewers. At times it can even be heavy handed in its messaging. The black-and-white flashback sequences of Derek’s past, when he was a neo-Nazi leader, are a little on the nose (he sees everything in black-and-white, GET IT!) and the events that drive young men toward that type of life are nothing that people haven’t seen before. Yet the message that it explores is a solid one: racism, even in its most casual forms, is a choice we make to pass on.
A scene that exemplifies this the most is one at the dinner table where Derek, who is still in high school and has yet to be indoctrinated by neo-Nazis, listens to his father talk about a reading assignment he was assigned for in class.
It’s an interesting scene from the movie that comes much later when the audience knows that Derek’s father was killed by Black drug dealers and was a well-established leader of a neo-Nazi group. It’s an interesting scene, because unlike the other forms of racism seen in the movie thus far, the type of racism that Derek’s father conveys at the dinner table is subtler and more latent. Nowhere in the scene does he yell or throw out racist epitaphs during conversation, yet it’s easy to see the seeds of his racist beliefs being planted in his son. As Derek grows up, these views of minorities are cemented, creating a path for his dormant racism to surface by embracing neo-Nazism.
Charlottesville and The Rise of Hate Groups in the US
“It’s not that I’m surprised that white supremacists live in America. It’s that they’ve come out with such fervor about it!”
The above is a text from someone that was at Charlottesville the weekend that the events of the White Nationalist/Nazi protests, over the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, had taken place. Yet, while not common place in American society, incidences like Charlottesville have increased in the past few years. The Southern Poverty Law Center has seen a steady rise in hate groups since 2014, with hate incidences becoming more visible since the 2016 presidential contest. If these current trends continue, it’s hard to argue 2017 not seeing an increase in hate groups and hate related incidences. It’s also hard not to connect the rise of this particular facet of racism in the rhetoric that is currently presiding in American politics. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center tabulated that 1,094 biased-related incidents had taken place since the month following the 2016 presidential election.
20 Years Later
It’s fair to say when the film was originally released in 1998, it was a very different time. Just by reading various movie reviews, many had commented on how American History X had given a brief glimpse at “fringe hate groups in America.” Today however, you can’t help but look at the film differently. What in 1998 felt like an alien element in American society, neo-Nazism now feels like an element that is more prominent in the national conversation. Events like the one in Charlottesville paint American History X as a more complicated piece of film making.
For a piece of media – whether that be movies, music, books, ect – to not go into total obscurity or become a relic of the past, it needs to be relevant for current times. Sadly, with the acceptance of nationalistic rhetoric in politics and the rise of hate groups in the US, including an increased presence of neo-Nazism, American History X has become more relevant in today’s social climate than when it was originally released.
Yet while American History X’s ending is devastating for the viewer and leads to question of whether people can ever rise above hate and racism, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie itself is devoid of any hope on the matter. Take the scene of Derek and Principal Dr. Bob Sweeney at the doughnut shop.
Dr. Sweeney’s pep talk has a simple message, the path to peace is to work on making the world around you better every day (aka “sticking with it”). Even if American History X leads you into this dark world of hate and violence, it also tries its best to show you a better path forward to come out of it. For a movie that exposes you to America’s darker tendencies, hopefully showing the audience a way out will make it the most relevant in the end.
(Photo Credit: New Line Cinema, Southern Poverty Law Center)