Charlottesville and American History X (1998): A Vision Comes True

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I first saw American History X (1998) when I was eighteen years old, fresh out of high school in Vietnam. The idea of white supremacy in America never existed in my mind so I couldn't understand the horror of racism portrayed in this movie. However, the graphic violence definitely haunted me for the rest of my life.

Four years later, I came home in Vietnam to visit my sick grandmother. We stayed at a resort and for the first time in three years, I watched TV. I personally don't like watching TV because to me it was a waste of time. The idea of lying on a couch, eating pizza, and watching movies is just so redundant. Nevertheless, the news caught my attention. My grandmother, in her cranky attitude, looked at me and said: "look at that, America is a mess now."

On the screen: torches, guns, skin heads, swastika flags... you name it. Everything I saw from American History X is now right there on the screen: a march of angry white supremacists in Charlottesville. It was a horrific twenty-four hours of hyper masculinity, violence, and horrific deaths. The vision from American History X  has, unfortunately, become real to my utmost surprise.

It wasn't until that moment I finally understand how powerful this movie is. This movie has definitely predicted a consequence of our hatred. Nazism, skinheads, crime… everything about hatred was included in this two-hour movie which used to make me sick to the stomach. But, American History X answers a more significant question about the cause of white supremacy and today, and it is a powerful response to the social ills we are facing. In our current complicated political climate, American History X is a film worth revisiting.

American History X began with the night when Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a white middle-class man in southern California, brutally killed two black men trying to break into his truck outside of his home. This event left a major impact on his younger brother Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) who witnessed the whole event. Derek was sentenced to three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, and more importantly, this event also built up his reputation as one of the most iconic neo-Nazi skinheads who was worshiped by many of his followers, including Danny. After serving three years in prison and now a changed man, Derek returns home and finds out his brother has officially joined “Disciples of Christ,” a hate group originally formed by Derek and a white supremacist recruiter Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach). Under the influence of Cameron, Danny has adopted many white supremacist values which he revealed in a paper for his history class about Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Derek, in disgust with his past, is desperate to protect Danny from following the path that he once did.

 Danny at a white supremacist party (Screenshot from the movie) 

Danny at a white supremacist party (Screenshot from the movie) 

American History X is a tragic yet intriguing story of brotherhood, told in nonlinear narrative which includes flashbacks in black and white, and the present in color. The flashbacks were in fact, the major events during Derek’s life, told through Danny’s perspective, explaining his brother’s transformation from a son of a well-educated middle class family to an aggressive far-right ultra-nationalist. The violence in American History X is horrendously brutal. Nudity, torture, housebreaking, and school shooting are included which explain why the movie earned its “R” rating.

Upon its release in 1998, American History X was in a midst of controversy about both its formal techniques and thematic content. Stephen Hunter from the Washington Post did not hesitate to throw shade at the movie: “It's a mousy little nothing of a picture, an old melodramatic formula hidden under pretentious TV-commercial-slick photography, postmodernist narrative stylings and violations of various laws of probability” (Stephen Hunter, 1998). Todd McCarthy, from Variety, praised this movie, especially for its acting: “This jolting, superbly acted film will draw serious-minded upscale viewers interested in cutting-edge fare and the latest outstanding performance by Edward Norton” (Todd McCarthy, 1998).

  One of the best shot in the movie: Derek smiles at Danny when he was arrested after killing two black men (screenshot from the movie).  

One of the best shot in the movie: Derek smiles at Danny when he was arrested after killing two black men (screenshot from the movie).  

Using the techniques learned from being an advertising director, Tony Kaye gives his debut film a visceral effect. The black and white sequences were well organized with intense lighting and stark contrast which glamorize Derek’s killings. The slow motion and accelerating level of violence are very identical to the rhythm of rock music videos of the 1990s. And I must appraise Kaye for the brave portrayal of the reckless skinhead teenagers through the valiant production design: swastika symbols, tattoos, piercings, Nazism flags, alcohol, torches, and even the iconic mustache of Hitler. 

There have been other movies about modern racism such as The Green Mile (1999) and Crash (2004) but neither of them succeeded in a full portrayal of a white racist like American History X. Since its subject matter is so intense, it is hard to distinguish a film about racism and a racist film. It has a dual effect: either to reinforce your neo-Nazi beliefs or to make you sympathize with the minorities. The glamorization of skinheads in the first half of the film is clearly disturbing and triggering.  Tony Kaye’s dramatic techniques even highlight a definition of supremacist biceps. Nevertheless, the multiple plot twists in the second half of the movie will challenge any prejudices you may hold.

Charlottesville reminds us that it is crucial to understand the cause of racial violence. American History X did not only expose the cause of white supremacy and ultra-nationalism in this country but also examined the hidden racist values of the so-called “American Dream.” American History X is a difficult movie to watch but lessons learned from this movie are essential to any ongoing movements toward our post-racial America (only if you can watch it until the end).

            * This movie is only available in DVD format. You can buy it online at Amazon.com or order a DVD with subscription of Netflix.

Kien LeComment