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Film: American History X

American History X is a drama film made in 1998.

Edward Norton and Edward Furlong star as brothers Derek and Danny Vinyard: both promising students who are drawn into involvement with a Neo-Nazi gang in California's multicultural Venice Beach area. The charismatic Derek is the leader of a racist gang and a hero to his young brother, until his trip to prison radically alters his previously held convictions. Derek is spurred to prevent Danny from going down the same path he did.

The film is framed as starting near the end, with Danny writing a paper about the events that led to Derek being sent to prison. The film covers the transition from hatred to the gradual realization of the pointlessness of resentment, as well as the nature of racism.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Derek's sister notices Seth trying to upskirt her with his camera and... rearranges herself.
  • Accidental Pervert: At the start of the story, Danny tries to alert Derek that a couple of black guys are breaking into his car. Derek happens to be boning the crap out of his girlfriend at the time.
  • Alliterative Family: Dennis and Doris Vinyard name their children Derek, Davina, and Danny. Averted with the youngest, named Ally.
  • American Title: Of the subversive variety. The film covers the changing views of two Neo-Nazi brothers on contemporary America; at first they advocate white supremacism, then through Character Development realize that the ideology is a load of hogwash and adopt a more sensible outlook on life.
  • Angry Black Man: Sweeney says he was an angry young man, admitting that he was Not So Different from Derek in being consumed by hatred earlier in his life.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Has anything you've done made your life better?"
  • The Atoner: Derek at first was a violent and racist Jerkass, but he tries to save his little brother from the same fate once he gets out of prison.
  • Ax-Crazy: Derek's girlfriend Stacey is always visibly excited, manic even, by violence.
  • Bald Black Leader Guy: Avery Brooks as Dr. Robert Sweeney, who is willing to fight for the Vinyard brothers, in whom he sees echoes of his younger self.
  • Bald of Evil: The skinheads. Could be considered an Invoked Trope, although they're deluded enough to think they're the heroes.
  • Battle Discretion Shot: The scene where Cameron and a compatriot are attacked by some random black guys. A deleted scene shows them hassling an interracial couple then being chased down. The final cut has it happening entirely off-screen.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Derek turns away from his neo-Nazi lifestyle as he realizes how unhappy and crappy it has made his life:
    "And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this shit? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did ever took that feeling away. I killed two guys, Danny, I killed them. And it didn't make me feel any different. It just got me more lost and I'm tired of being pissed off, Danny. I'm just tired of it."
  • Big Bad: Cameron Alexander started the skinhead gangs in Venice Beach and still controls everything from his beachside house, distributing racist literature and acting as a mentor to troubled youths scared of gang violence. Played with, in that the impersonal concept of racism itself (by all sides) is presented as an even greater evil and is obviously something that far preceded Cameron.
  • Big Brother Mentor: For better or worse.
  • Big Brother Worship: Played with.
    • Danny plays this perfectly straight. Derek is his idol and Danny will follow in Derek's footsteps. Period. When Derek goes neo-Nazi, Danny goes neo-Nazi. When Derek comes home and says, "No. This is not the way.", Danny gives it up and eschews Nazism in all its forms.
    • Davina, the elder sister, is more complex. She adores Derek in the present and thinks he's wonderful. She's willing to follow his lead and, indeed, is very nearly silent except for criticizing Derek's former and Danny's present neo-Nazi friends. In the past, she was willing to go after Derek with a baseball bat (though not without some fairly heavy provocation). Clearly, she loves the man her brother is now much more than the boy he was.
    • Henry, the kid at the end who murders Danny did it because his big brother told him to.
  • Big Eater: Seth. When sent out of the room, he complains that he's hungry. He even picks the black jelly bean out of a bowl of white jelly beans and pours them into his mouth.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Derek has sworn off racism, but not before he could prevent his brother's death in race-related violence.
  • Black And Black Morality (no pun intended): While the film makes it abundantly clear that being one of Those Wacky Nazis is plain and utterly wrong and that the justice system is racially prejudiced, it also goes to considerable lengths to show that the black gang subculture is by no means better (and, in fact, responsible for the violent deaths of both Derek's father and brother for pretty much no reason).
  • Black Comedy Rape: Subverted. When Derek meets Cameron again after his release from prison, Cameron jokes about Derek's Prison Rape. It's only used to highlight Cameron as a Jerkass; the rape itself is portrayed dramatically.
  • Blatant Lies: "I want to talk to my brother. Seth, go wait in Danny's room. I'm glad to see you. I'm glad to see you, man."
  • Bullying a Dragon: Turns out it's a very bad idea to steal an angry skinhead's car. Worse still, it was the truck that his father, whose murder by black drug dealers ignited his hatred, had left him.
  • Butt Monkey: Derek and Davina are both more than happy to berate Seth in the present. He's a fat racist, which makes him an Acceptable Target, but you wonder why he sticks around. He used to be Derek's bestest, most racist friend. When Derek was the Dark Messiah of Southern California's Neo-Nazi movement.
  • Catch Phrase: Lamont, aight?
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Played for laughs in a rare moment of humor in the film. Seth asks Danny what he believes his creed as a Neo-Nazi is. Danny sarcastically replies that he believes in "death, destruction, chaos, filth and greed!" Even his sister Davina has to laugh at this, but after more prompting by Seth, Danny then goes on a more articulate and genuinely vile racist rant, to which Davina responds how much it pains her to see her brother become like this.
  • Category Traitor: The Neo-Nazis at the party, including Derek's ex-girlfriend Stacey, consider Derek a traitor simply because he refuses to espouse their ideology after his stint in prison. This gets really obvious when they make it clear that they don't even consider him white anymore, shouting the N-word at him like it's some sort of proof of his inhumanity.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Henry, the black kid who Danny confronts in the school bathroom. Literally.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: From beginning to end, all Derek says in the rape scene are "Fuck you!"
  • Cool Old Guy: Sweeney.
  • Cool Teacher: Sweeney was apparently so cool that Derek still respected him even after becoming a skinhead. He also gives personal attention to Danny in hopes of turning him away from racism.
  • Coming of Age Story: Simultaneously that of Derek and Danny.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The murder that lands Derek in prison - paralyzing a black robber, then dragging him to the curb, placing his mouth against it, and stomping on it.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: In the fight that lands Derek in prison; Derek takes on three men, two of them armed, with only a handgun and the element of surprise, he quickly shoots the two, and the third while he tried to drive away. He then drags the remaining man over to the curb and has him place his mouth on it, then he invokes this trope literally.
  • Dark Messiah: Derek was an evil messiah-figure to the Neo-Nazi movement in Southern California. After he gets out of prison, the reformed Derek is referred to as "Father Vinyard" by some impressionable youths.
  • Death Glare: Derek. See the above picture.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The flashbacks.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Danny died before Derek got on the scene in the climax, but his balking brother cradles his corpse in agony.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Derek curb-stomps a man for trying to steal his truck, but moreso for simply being black.
    • The gangsters themselves decided to barge onto Derek's property with guns and steal his father's car because he beat them in a basketball game. Derek was an openly racist jackass on the court, but the guys themselves were after all crips, so it's probably less about moral outrage and more about deciding to teach someone they consider an enemy a lesson.
    • Lamont bumped into a cop while stealing a TV, so the cop lied and charged him with assault with a deadly weapon.
    • Henry murders Danny for giving him a dirty look and blowing smoke in his face. There was peer pressure and reputation involved, but that's all Danny actually did to warrant it. Note: the deleted scenes show that the act was the young man's gang initiation, although this is unclear in the theatrical cut.
  • The Dog Bites Back
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: The film's message is "racism is bad", but the contrast between the generally charismatic Nazis and the villainous black gangs, along with some general Misaimed Fandom tendencies among certain audiences, means that the film is actually quite popular in certain white supremacist circles. Which is just plain maddening the more you think about it...
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Lamont stole a TV from a shop right next to a donut store. There were three cops there when he came out.
  • The Dragon: Derek was one to Cameron
  • Easy Evangelism: To be fair, what Derek went through is likely to make anyone do some reflective thinking.
  • Eccentric Exterminator: Seth, though how he works in the service industry with visible Neo-Nazi tattoos is anyone's guess.
  • Embarrassing Tattoo: Derek's no longer proud of the swastika on his chest.
  • Epilogue Letter: The ending.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Derek loves his family. He turned to Neo-Nazism from grief over his father. Even in his most militantly racist, he's around to "protect" his mother from a liberal, Jewish suitor. Deconstructed, as he may love his mother, but the mother in question despises him for his racist actions and spitefully tells how she is ashamed that he came out of her body. They reconcile later on as Derek loses his Neo-Nazi ways, though.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The neo-Nazis all assume that prison messed with Derek's head or that he's scared of revenge for the murder he went to prison for.
  • Evil Is Petty: Seth is a fat Neo-Nazi who's also a Big Eater. In one of the most pointlessly petty acts of racism possible, he eats a scale full of jelly beans, but picks out a single black one first. There's no one else in the room so he's not trying to impress any of his Nazi friends, it's not directed against a member of any race he hates, he rejects a piece of candy that no one will know about simply because he's a racist.
  • Evil Mentor: The white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander manipulates whole scores of youngsters into the Neo-Nazi lifestyle by presenting himself as a wise mentor. Like a true evil mentor, he also has no problems selling out his followers when it suits him.
  • Evil Old Folks: Cameron Alexander, the creepy old fascist who is manipulating Danny into joining his gang.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Derek's hair growing back out in prison shows his change of heart and the passage of time.
  • Fan Disservice: The prison shower scenes show a lot of men nude, but the setting doesn't make it appealing in any way. One instance even ends in a Prison Rape on Derek.
  • Fat Bastard: Seth, the morbidly obese and hilariously inept sidekick of Derek.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Cameron Alexander is friendly, polite and seems to have affection for the kids under his rule, seeing himself as a father figure to many of them. This makes him even worse as it shows just how much power he has on these impressionable, misunderstood kids. Derek also points out that Cameron has no problem selling out any of the youngsters in his movement to save his own ass, seeing them more as tools to further his fascist beliefs than kids he thinks he needs to take care of.
  • Flashback Effects: The flashback sequences to Derek's childhood are Deliberately Monochrome.
  • Foreshadowing: The Magical Negro says to Derek, "Lemme tell you something, you better watch y'ass."
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Cameron Alexander is the sinister xenophobic leader of the Californian Neo-Nazis. He is indirectly responsible for all the bad that happens on the course of the movie, since practically every action is made by the brainwashed youngsters as a result of nothing but his hideous manipulation and evil influence.
  • Freudian Excuse: Derek's father was a kind of Archie Bunker-style blue collar racist who plants the seeds for Derek's future political views. When his father is murdered by black gang members, Derek interprets this as an indication that his father's racial politics were right all along.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Justified in that it's a Prison Rape.
  • Gangbangers: The black street gangs in Venice Beach. Apparently crips, judging by their blue clothing. In opposition to them, Derek formed a gang of white skinheads who were sick of being pushed around.
  • Gangsta Style: Deconstructed Trope. Ironically, Seth points a gun at Derek this way. Turns out to be as hilariously impractical as it is in Real Life, as Derek easily disarms him.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Cameron sports a villainous-looking scar above his lip.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Good people are portrayed as victims of smoking (Derek's mom), evil people enjoy smoking (all dem neo-Nazis). Derek specifically criticizes Danny for smoking and gently criticizes his mother for the same.
    Derek: She's coughing her lungs out and you're blowing this shit in her face all day?
  • Gorn: The murder that sent Derek to prison and the death of Danny.
  • Heel Face Door Slam: Danny. Not long after he does an about face, he is shot and killed by the one he dissed earlier.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Derek loses his racist ways in prison and breaks ties with the Neo-Nazis after he gets out.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Turns out Cameron's vaunted prison time was just a two month stint before he rolled on some kids.
    • Derek criticizes the Aryan Brotherhood for compromising their beliefs by dealing with ethnic gangs while he himself happily talks basketball with Lamont.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Danny berates his mom for smoking, then takes a drag before stubbing out the cigarette.
  • I Have No Son: After Derek attacks his own sister during a family dinner and drives his mother's Jewish boyfriend away, she realizes how lost her son is to her and disowns him. When she later visits him in prison she tells Derek that Danny worships him and is starting to follow in his path, but she doesn't want to give up both her sons. After Derek gets out of prison and becomes The Atoner, his relationship with his mother has improved a lot.
  • I Resemble That Remark: Derek takes exception to his sister calling him "Mister KKK". He's not part of a low rent organization like The Klan. He has class. Danny's impressed.
  • The Illegal: The focus of some of Derek's rants and at least one raid.
  • Important Haircut: Derek shaves his head when he becomes a skinhead. Danny wears his hair cropped very short when he becomes under the sway of the skinheads. Inverted later on when Derek grows his hair out to demonstrate his disaffection with the neo-Nazis.
  • Ironic Echo: Derek sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo. Lamont sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo.
  • It's All Junk: The Nazi decorations and posters in Danny's bedroom. You can feel healing going on as Danny and Derek tear them down together.
  • Jaw Breaker: Derek kills a man in a disturbing scene with a curb stomp.
  • Jerk Ass: Almost all of the characters. But Derek himself counts, at first.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Derek's villain dinner, ranting about the Rodney King riots that culminates with him grabbing his sister by the hair and choking her with a handful of ham, then delivering an anti-Semitic screed chasing away his mother's boyfriend. This is also when we see the murder that landed him in prison.
    • Every time Cameron shows up.
    • The attack on the grocery store, where the Nazis destroy the merchandise and assault the staff for being minorities. The most sickening act is probably when a bunch of the thugs torture a terrified black clerk by pouring milk on her face to "make her white".
  • The Klan: As a joke, the black prisoner Lamont holds up a piece of cloth as a Klansman's hood and mocks the Deep South hick stereotype associated with it. Earlier, Derek also dismisses them as a bunch of disorganized idiots and claims to have higher standards. In fact, that describes his own gang quite well.
  • Knight Templar: Derek before he gets out of prison. He thinks he is absolutely right in spouting his racist ideology even when he organizes attacks and horrifying brutalities against minorities. By contrast, the Aryan Brotherhood are presented as Straw Hypocrites. Which is largely the point that the film tries to get across. The reason destructive ideologies like white supremacism can become so powerful is because their adherents believe themselves to be the heroes, not the bad guys. For the Evulz is not a motive many real life humans actually use to justify their actions, especially to themselves.
  • Knight Templar Big Brother: Derek threatens to feed Cameron's heart to him if he continues trying to corrupt Danny like he did with him.
  • Little Brother Is Watching: After Derek gets out of prison, he tries to convince his little brother to stop imitating his white supremacist life style.
  • The Load: During the basketball game, Seth just shuffles around and whines that no one is passing to him.
  • Magical Negro:
    • Lamont, who protected Derek from the African-American gangs in the prison he was incarcerated in.
    • Averted with Dr. Sweeney, whose role is to challenge Derek and Danny to grow beyond their origins, not to "save" them per se.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: The shower scenes.
  • Man Hug: After Derek gets out of prison, he and Danny share one. Even includes the line, "What's the matter, too big to give me a hug, tough guy?"
  • Meaningful Background Event: When Danny stops to watch a near fight at a basketball gamenote , it seems to continue the story of Danny's Real Time difficulties with some black kids at his school. Then we learn that it mirrors the basketball game that preceded the attempted robbery that sent Derek to prison.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted with Derek. Most men would cry after they've been put through a gang rape or witness their little brother having been shot to death, even if they try to project a "tough guy" image.
  • Monochrome Past: The flashbacks are in black and white.
  • Motive Rant: Derek's angry rant to a reporter after his father's death is shown as his first step into the racist waters. Although we later discover that Derek's father was an armchair racist, Derek himself had up to that point resisted racism and admired his black teacher.
  • Mr. Fanservice: A jacked Edward Norton spends an awful lot of time with his shirt off.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Henry's reaction immediately after he shoots Danny, as he realizes that he just murdered someone and blew his own life away for something as minor as receiving a dirty look from a racist.
  • Not So Different:
    • The Neo-Nazis and the black gangbangers. In particular, Danny and Henry. Both are raised in a gang subculture and both worship their brothers and try to emulate them.
    • Derek realizes this about himself and Lamont in prison, which helps to deprogram him.
    • Sweeney also says this is why he understands Derek so well. Sweeney actually successively hated white people, then all of society and finally God for all the bad things he saw happen to black people by a racist system. He eventually realized that hatred from whatever direction didn't solve anything, only contributed to the problem.
  • Oh, Crap: Danny's expression of sheer horror after he witnesses Derek crush a black man's skull.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Type 3. Oh so much. It doesn't help that he's Jewish, and dating the mother of a skinhead leader..
  • The Peeping Tom: Seth drives to the Vinyard home as soon as Derek gets out of prison. He has a camera. One of the first things Seth does is zoom in on Davina's crotch.
  • Pet the Dog: Derek and Danny both repeatedly demonstrate that they're sweet and loving with their family.
  • Picky Eater: Seth, despite being a Big Eater, picks out the black jelly beans. Also an example of Evil Is Petty.
  • Police Brutality: Talked about in the Rodney King discussion. Also, while not "brutality" per se, police corruption is definitely the reason why Lamont is in prison. This is also a key factor in making Derek realize the error of his ways. It makes him realize that the system really is rigged against minorities, and they are not just "Prone to crime" like he originally thought.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Cameron Alexander is a Neo-Nazi leader and remains a villain throughout the film.
  • Prison Rape: It happens to Derek in prison. At the hands of the Aryan Brotherhood, which he was a member of. Ironically, he first burned his bridges with them because they weren't racist enough for him.
  • Promotion to Parent: Derek steps up after his father dies. The dinner scene even has him sitting at the head of the table.
  • Psychologist Teacher: Dr. Sweeney chose to be the principal of a Venice Beach high school despite his high credentials and is a law enforcement liason on the local youth gang activity. He is familiar enough with the Vinyard family that he goes through some effort to turn the two sons Derek and Danny away from their Neo-Nazi racism, but he makes it clear that he's not a saint; his help is not unconditional and the Vinyards ultimately have to effect their own salvation.
  • Rape Portrayed as Redemption: After Derek is prison raped by his "comrades" for associating with a black inmate (ironically, the man who rapes him deals with a Mexican), it's one of the turning points for him abandoning his Neo-Nazi ways. The rape occurs because Derek, as a Neo-Nazi who got his start before going to prison, disapproves of the prison Neo-Nazis associating with non-whites. They later rape him to teach him a lesson.
  • Redemption Failure: Some alternative endings have Danny's murder cause Derek to revert back to his old, racist ways.
  • Rousing Speech: Derek gives a rousing and convincing speech about illegal Mexican immigrants, before the attack on the grocery store.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Derek to Cameron.
  • Second Face Smoke: Danny blows smoke in Henry's face.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Danny learns not to be racist only to be killed by a black kid he made fun of earlier. An alternate ending features Derek shaving his head and giving a Nazi salute in response to Danny's murder. So after turning into a skinhead, spearheading the Southern California Neo-Nazi movement, committing murder, going to prison, realizing the error of his ways, and then saving his brother from a similar fate, Derek winds up being a Nazi again.
  • Shower of Angst: Derek in the prison shower. Guess what happens to him after...?
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Via a punch to the mouth
  • Skinheads
  • Slasher Smile: Look at Cameron's expression when Seth points his gun at Derek.
  • Soapbox Sadie : Many of the characters, on differing sides of the racism card.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: In the basketball game flashback, the triumphant-sounding score that blares when the racist white players defeat the black players, banishing them from the court. It's entirely appropriate for how the main characters feel during the scene, but not for how the audience is supposed to feel.
  • Stepford Smiler: Doris. Davina's much more willing to call her brother out.
  • Stereotype Flip: The black inmates not taking their revenge on Derek, after the Aryan Brotherhood has dumped him.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Derek does not allow his followers to smoke marijuana. Real life white supremacists often look down on pot due to its association with black culture.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Derek gets this feeling after returning home from prison. He is a changed person who does no longer fit in with his former skinhead gang and their racists ideology.
  • Straw Hypocrite: The Aryan Brotherhood in prison is shown to make use of racist imagery, while not actually believing in it themselves. It's left a bit ambiguous whether the alliance their leader makes with Mexican gangs is a case of Pragmatic Villainy or hypocrisy, but it's shown either way that he doesn't care about the hateful ideology he pretends to speak for.
  • Spiteful Spit: After curb stomping one of the guys who broke into his truck, Derek spits on his corpse.
  • Tattooed Crook: Everyone in prison.
  • Title Drop
    Sweeney: The name of this course will be American History... X.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: The Disciples of Christ (DOC), a racist skinhead gang headed by Derek.
  • Tragic Bigot: Derek became a neo-Nazi after his father, a fireman, was murdered by black drug dealers when he tried to extinguish a fire. Although the end of the movie shows that dear old dad was already planting some racist thoughts in a young Derek's mind prior to dad's death. These were far less racist and hurtful things than what Derek later wound up swallowing wholesale from the neo-Nazis, but nonetheless...
  • Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: The two main characters join a skinhead gang after their father was killed by an African American. The rest of the movie deals with their struggling with and eventually rejecting their bigotry.
  • Twist Ending: After heavy implication that the skinheads are plotting to exact revenge on Derek, Danny is shot by the Chekhovs Gunman.
  • Wag the Director: Tony Kaye was removed from the project after shooting completed and Edward Norton delivered the final cut of the film. He's been accused of vainly giving himself more screentime, while others seem to believe that he merely stepped in to rescue the film from the scrap heap.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: The Armor-Piercing Question that convinces Derek Vinyard to stop being a skinhead after he's been sent to prison for killing a black guy is "Has anything you've done made your life any better?"
  • Wearing a Flag on Your Head:
    • At the beginning of the film, Danny snags a tiny paper flag from a secretary's pencil jar and uses it as a toothpick. Probably meant to invoke skinhead protestations of patriotism during the confrontation with Sweeney that follows.
    • The flashback video showing Derek's response to his father's death features an American flag waving in the background.
    • In the deleted scene before Seth and Cameron get jumped, Seth rails at an interracial couple as he waves a small American flag he had bought off a beggar outside.
  • Wham Line: In-universe when Derek reveals to Cameron that he has reformed since they last spoke, because to the audience it's not a real shock.
    Cameron: You made the fat kid a little nervous, he thought the joint messed with your mind.
    Derek: It did.
    [Cue Cameron withdrawing into a sulk expression]
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After the party, Danny confronts Derek.
  • Where Da White Women At?: A deleted scene features Seth and Cameron harassing a black/white couple. It's not shown if race is even a factor in the relationship, though; from what brief interaction the couple gets they just seem to like each other.
  • You Are Fat: Pretty much how everyone responds to Seth.
  • You Killed My Father: Derek's father was killed by a black man, and this is how he comes to view all blacks. Right before Derek murders the car-jacker, he screams out: "You ever shoot at firemen?! You ever shoot at my father?!"

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alternative title(s): American History X
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