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Played By: Edward Norton
- The Ace: Derek is good at many things, including basketball and school.
- The Atoner: After prison, he has abandoned his racist ways, and tries to make sure that Danny won't follow in his footsteps.
- Ax-Crazy: He became increasingly violent after becoming a Neo-Nazi, culminating in the curb-stomping of those gangbangers.
- Bald of Evil: During his D.O.C. days.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Before his change into Neo-Nazism and after his change from it, he's shown to be a Nice Guy. Don't mistake his change as weakness, as he personally kicks the shit out of Cameron for threatening to make Danny a Dark Messiah like him.
- Corpsing: He really tries his hardest not to laugh or smile anytime Lamont does something funny. It doesn't last.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The harrowing opener, wherein Derek kills two guys who are trying to break into his truck, Disproportionate Retribution to the basketball game they lost earlier. He even literally curb-stomps one of them.
- Dark Messiah: To the white gangs of Venice Beach.
- Death Glare: When he's arrested, the grin on Derek's face will haunt your dreams.
- Disproportionate Retribution: The death of his father at the hands of black drug dealers sparks Derek get revenge for this death against all minorities.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Derek may be a violent, racist jerkass, but he deeply resents being compared to a low-rent outfit like the KKK.
- Freudian Excuse: The death of his father at the hands of afroamerican gangbangers. His father, however, was also spouting some bigoted attitudes.
- HeelFace Turn: It's unclear when this happens, so much as it does. It either occurs when he's raped by the other White Supremacist inmates; when he gets a visit from Sweeney who asks him the Armor-Piercing Question; or when he makes friends with a black inmate, who possibly saves him from further violence.
- Ignored Epiphany: If one takes the deleted ending as canon, then it's implied by Derek shaving his hair off once more after Danny's death.
- Important Haircut: Played straight when he goes skinhead and inverted when he allows his hair to grow in prison. Zigzagged in the deleted ending when he shaves it again, after Danny is murdered by a black gangbanger.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Derek is a violent racist, but an intelligent one. It's hard to argue his point about the Rodney King case, in that the video was cleverly edited not to show the high speed chase or King's impaired driving. Likewise, both Derek and Dennis' points reflect a common working-class mentality toward the poor—for this reason, they are more sympathetic as sides of an issue than simple political Strawmen.
- Knight Templar: Derek believes that he's cleaning up the worst elements of his neighborhood and calling others to a cause, but he does so through racism and violence.
- Manly Tears: He sobs like a baby after being raped by the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and Danny's death, but can you blame him?
- My God, What Have I Done?: When he finds Danny dead in the bathroom, he sobs, "What did I do?"
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Until he realizes the error of his ways.
- Prison Rape: By the Aryan Brotherhood for denouncing their hypocrisy for playing basketball and trading drugs with non-white inmates.
- Rape as Drama: Part of his HeelFace Turn.
- Revenge Myopia: His father was killed by black drug dealers, however, Derek becomes a Neo-Nazi to avenge him by opposing all minorities, not just his father's killers.
- Straight Edge Evil: Derek is athletic and employed, gets good grades, and calls out one of his gang mates for smoking pot, because that's what "the enemy" does.
- Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil: He fully turns against Cameron when he finds out that he sold out two members of his gang, establishing that he doesn't even care about race when his skin is on the line.
- Villain Protagonist: Prior to his HeelFace Turn.
Played By: Edward Furlong
- Big Brother Worship: Towards Derek.
- Broken Pedestal: Danny's in tears when he discovers that Derek's abandoned his old ways. It quickly gets rebuilt when Derek gives him the full story of what happened to him in prison.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: After being shot by Little Henry, dies in Derek's arms.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Danny's school assignment frames the movie, so he's narrating the whole thing. However, Derek is the main focus of the story.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: Gets shot to death no less than a day after renouncing Neo-Nazism.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: At the start of the film, he's a smarmy little git who blows smoke in someone's face. Things get better as we get to know Danny and his circumstances, including his consideration for his family and the revelations that he's not really that racist, but mimicking his older brother. Notably, he quickly drops his own racism as soon as Derek does.
- Loophole Abuse: How the movie starts out. His history teacher assigns him to write a paper on any book related to the Civil Rights struggle. Naturally, Danny chooses Mein Kampf.
- What the Hell, Hero?: He is at first violently upset when Derek breaks with Cameron's gang. Thankfully, Derek is able to calm him down enough to explain himself.
Played By: Beverly D'Angelo
- Broken Bird: The loss of her husband and oldest son have really done a number on her. The smoking-related illness doesn't help.
- Ill Girl: She's tired and weak a good deal of the time we see her.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Doris has an undisclosed illness, possibly cancer or COPD.
- Useless Bystander Parent: She doesn't do much about Dennis' racist rants except chide him lightly, and the first time she makes overtures against Derek's racism, it's to throw him out over it. She's trying her very best to do better with Danny, but her failing health, Derek's absence, and Seth's corrupting influence are making it difficult.
Played By: Jennifer Lien
- Earn Your Happy Ending: In the flashback scenes, Davina is horrified about the path Derek is taking, but her relationship with him gets much better after he returns from prison, and she's one of the few who are genuinely happy about his change...
- Happy Ending Override: ...until, of course, Danny dies. He was HER little brother, too.
Played By: William Russ
- Asshole Victim: Downplayed, as his racism was not as overt as Cameron Alexander's, but he was still a racist.
- Death by Racism: He is racist and was killed by a black drug dealer.
- Deceased Parents Are the Best: Subverted. He was a racist and unintentionally fed into Derek's racism.
- Foil: To Cameron Alexander. Dennis is just an ignorant blowhard whose racism stems from a ton of unexamined prejudices. Contrast Alexander, who is (ostensibly) an ideologically committed Neo-Nazi whose hatred of minorities is intellectual and calculated. Their similar influence on Derek shows that, in the final analysis, the difference didn't really amount to much.
- Greater-Scope Villain: Him being a racist in the first place and his death motivating his sons to turn to racism as well would qualify him as this.
- Hypocrite: His rant about race over talent is framed by him dismissing Native Son — widely regarded as a classic of contemporary American literature — out of hand simply because it was written by an African American. Made even worse by the fact that Doris points out that Dennis himself barely reads at all, so he's really in no position to critique a literature assignment. Then, of course, is his contempt for Dr. Sweeney, holder of two doctorate degrees despite a troubled background, simply because he's black. A savvy viewer is meant to catch this, and the fact that it renders the whole conversation suspect, but not all of them did.
- Noble Bigot: He was a brave firefighter, but he was fairly racist. However, in his case, it's expressed mostly as an intense dislike towards affirmative action policies. He believes that one's character and personal qualities are what matters most when hiring new firefighters and he states his anger towards new black firefighters accepted into his squad is not out of sheer racism but because some previous white coworkers were laid off and these new black firefighters were not necessarily better at the job; The firefighters actually scored lower on the tests but were accepted to fill the black quota. His lecture to Derek actually sounds somewhat reasonable... up until the point when he uses the phrase "nigger bullshit" to describe Sweeney (who he's never met) and his English classes.
- Posthumous Character: His death triggers Danny and Derek's descent into madness.
- Unreliable Expositor: We only have his word to go on that the two black firefighters that were hired by his department were only hired because of their race, and given what follows, his word is at least a little suspect.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: He began Derek's descent into bigotry by decrying affirmative action. Despite his bigotry, he was still a brave public servant, and would have been aghast at his son turning into a Neo-Nazi. Despite his sons becoming Neo-Nazis in his name to avenge his death against all minorities, it would not be what Dennis wanted.
Played By: Ethan Suplee
- Big Eater: Several of the scenes involve Seth either eating (jellybeans, burgers) or whining about being hungry.
- The Brute: He's not very smart, and mostly acts as muscle to Derek, and later, Cameron.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Nowhere near as brutal as the scene that gives the trope its name, but it really says something that Seth can face down an unarmed Derek while holding a gun and still lose the fight.
- Fat Bastard: Chauvinistic, petty, racist, loud-mouthed, perverted and fat.
- Fat Idiot: He is frequently shown to be dull-witted.
- The Friend No One Likes: Everyone in the Neo-Nazi movement finds him irritating. Even Cameron Alexander, who at least tries to put up a veneer of being A Father to His Men, shows open contempt for him. The only reason they keep him around is because he's so dedicated.
- Hate Sink: Seth has no redeeming qualities as a friend, a basketball player, or a human being, to the point where even his neo-Nazi comrades find him tiresome.
- Miles Gloriosus: Is rather boisterous in spite of his extreme ineptitude.
- Pet the Dog: In a deleted scene, he gives some change to a veteran outside a burger joint. Though he did do it because Cameron told him to.
- Plucky Comic Relief: His idiocy and the sheer extent of his racism is the main source of the film's humor.
- Poisonous Friend: To Danny, encouraging his more racist tendencies and leading him to become a Neo-Nazi. Derek shows up before anything comes of it.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: The song, the racism, the open leering at Davina, and so on.
- Sir Swears-a-Lot: Pretty much every sentence.
- Stout Strength: He's morbidly obese, but at the end of the basketball game he easily lifts Derek up over Seth's shoulders.
Played By: Fairuza Balk
- Ax-Crazy: She is aroused by violence, to the point that she screams for Seth to shoot Derek after the former pulls a gun.
- Fair Weather Friend: She turns on Derek when he breaks with Cameron's gang. But even when he was a committed Neo-Nazi (and she was his lover), and despite her opinion that the black gang members he killed deserved exactly what they got, there's no indication that she ever made an effort to visit him in prison.
- Immodest Orgasm: Right at the beginning of the film, too.
- Lady Macbeth: She is fully supportive of Derek's ideology and does all she can to make him stay the course after they're reunited.
- Redemption Rejection: Derek encourages her to drop the Neo Nazism and leave the town with him... which she takes as a betrayal.
- Slasher Smile: Look at her whenever a violent act is about to happen.
- Yes-Man: To Derek, although it's eventually revealed that her loyalty to the cause runs deeper than her love for him.
Dr. Robert Sweeney
Dr. Robert Sweeney
Played By: Avery Brooks
- Angry Black Man: In his youth.
- Badass Bookworm: Sweeney grew up in "the hood" but has two PhDs.
- Bald, Black Leader Guy: During the "present" he's the principal at Danny's high school. He's also a consultant of sorts for the local police department, advising them on the rise of local neo-Nazi groups and helping them reach out to reformed neo-Nazis like Derek.
- Big Good: His decision to reach out to Danny and "not give up" on him spurs the plot.
- Cool Teacher: It really says something when Derek talks about him with great respect even when Derek was a Neo-Nazi.
- Non-Giving-Up School Guy: In contrast to Murray, Sweeney is willing to follow Derek even to jail to give him a shot at redemption, and earlier acknowledged Derek's intellect even after Derek became a committed neo-Nazi. Also, while Murray was willing to kick Danny out of school over his Hitler paper, Sweeney decides to give him an alternative assignment to help him explore the roots of his own racism.
- Title Drop: "We will call this class... American History... X."
Played By: Elliott Gould
- Adults Are Useless: His response to both Derek and Danny's racism is to pretty much throw up his hands and walk away. Granted, this is after Derek scared the hell out of him by physically intimidating him and subjecting him to a virulently racist rant, so it's not completely inexcusable.
- Informed Judaism: Gould (the actor) is Jewish, and the character is stated to be Jewish, but there's no real indication that he practices Judaism.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Sees Derek's violence toward his family and tries to call him on it, and rather than suspend or fail Danny over the Hitler paper, sends him to talk to Sweeney.
- Took a Level in Jerkass: Although genuinely concerned about Danny, he's one of the few good guys that refuses to believe Derek has changed. When he laments to Sweeney that Danny is becoming like his brother, Sweeney calls him out on it since he witnessed the change firsthand.
- Given the disturbing subject of the paper, and how he's more weary than unpleasant, Took a Level in Cynic might be more accurate.
Played By: Stacy Keach
- Asshole Victim: Being a racist who encourages violence against innocent bystander and brainwashing troubled youths into joining his gangs and accepting white supremacist culture is already enough reason for what later happens to him in the movie, but bonus points when Derek meets him after his prison release where he chews Cameron out for betraying skinhead members for reduced prison sentence and his racist ideology. When Cameron threatens to turn Danny into a member of the skinheads, Derek punches him. Cameron responds with an insult and Derek stomps him so hard he got knocked out unconscious. In addition later in the movie along with a fellow skinhead associates, Cameron gets jumped by black gangbangers and is implied to be beaten hard. Deleted footage shows they received a brutal jumping and just before the assault, they were harassing an interracial couple just minding their business.
- Berserk Button: Gets furious when Derek calls him a chickenhawknote and points out that he's a massive hypocrite, because nothing hurts more than the truth.
- Big Bad: The closest one the film has. By the time Derek is out of prison he's organizing several white supremacist gangs throughout the west coast.
- Dirty Coward: Threw two of his men under the bus to save himself from having more than two months of prison time, since he presumably couldn't stand watching out for his back any longer.
- Evil Old Folks: Neo-Nazi old guy who doesn't seem to have been worn down by age.
- Evil Mentor: To the D.O.C. in general, to Derek in particular. Took up Danny under his wing as well.
- Faux Affably Evil: Even when threatening Derek he keeps the polite façade. He also might be a pedophile, if Derek calling him a "chickenhawk" was anything more than a figure of speech.
- Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Stacy Keach wears some pretty bad tinted old-man glasses.
- Hate Sink: Despite the movie's message that hate is baggage, Cameron Alexander comes across as a completely despicable individual without a single redeeming quality who embodies the worst racism has to offer. He is responsible for the corruption of Derek and others, feeding into their latent bigotry and inciting hate crimes. While he acts the part of A Father to His Men, it's revealed that in the past, he has been more than willing to throw his followers under the bus when things get ugly. When Derek returns from prison reformed, he makes a mockery of his rape in prison. In a deleted scene, he appears to display compassion towards a homeless veteran, but only with the intent of spreading his racist beliefs. Shortly after, he menaces an interracial couple and drives them out of the diner.
- Hypocrite: For all his boasts of doing prison time and racial unity, he sold out two teenaged members of his own gang to have reduced jail time.
- Pet the Dog: Has a moment like this in a deleted scene where he tells a homeless veteran that it's not his fault that he's homeless, and then requests Seth to give him some money. It's ruined when he makes a racist comment to the veteran, though, which implies that he did less out of compassion and more in order to promote his political agenda.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: He's not just a racist. He is the leader of all racists this side of Los Angeles and specializes in grooming Politically Incorrect Villains by preying on their insecurities, their hatred and biterness, the crime rates and the unemployment to point the blame for everything towards every single immigrant individually.
- Straw Hypocrite: Derek, none too happy about learning the truth about Cameron's hard time, accuses him of this:Derek: But it doesn't matter if I don't, does it? 'Cause you got the next crop lined up and ready to go, you fucking chicken hawk! You prey on people, Cam! You use them! I lost three years of my life for your fucking phoney cause but I am on to you now, you fucking snake.
- Surrounded by Idiots: He enforces this on himself to an extent, since he chooses to be surrounded with people who follow him blindly and don't think for themselves. Not all of them have Derek's wits, however, and a deleted scene where he is talking to Seth takes it to the extreme, despite being only one idiot.
Played By: Guy Torry
- Actually Pretty Funny: At first, Derek tries to stay cold to Lamont, but Lamont's antics — mimicking the KKK with a bedsheet and his "angry sex" monolog — get through Derek's armor, which helps the latter recognize the humanity of black people.
- All There in the Manual: His name is never mentioned in the film.
- Almighty Janitor: He controls the underwear. Do NOT fuck with him.
- Disproportionate Retribution: He's doing even more time than Derek for the heinous crime of stealing a TV. He actually got as much time as he did because he accidentally dropped the TV on an office's foot, so they charged him with assault as payback.
- Magical Negro: Unlike Sweeney, Lamont is more of a plot point to make Derek question his own racist views. He does, however, have some unstated hold over the other inmates, and is implied to be the reason why the black gang members did not kill Derek after the neo-Nazi gang stopped protecting him.
- What the Hell, Hero?: He freaks out when Derek starts dissing the neo-Nazi prison gang. Not that Lamont would be inclined to stick up for the Aryan Brotherhood, but he's deeply concerned that Derek's going to get himself killed without anyone left to protect him.