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Film / American History X

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American History X is a 1998 crime drama film directed by Tony Kaye (in his feature directorial debut) and written by David McKenna. McKenna wrote the film's script based on his childhood and experiences of growing up in San Diego.

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 becomes a hero to both the neo-Nazis and his young brother until his trip to prison radically alters his previously held convictions. Now reformed, Derek is spurred to prevent Danny from going down the same terrible 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.

A follow-up, African History Y, with Kaye returning as director and starring Djimon Hounsou, was in active development as of 2020.


  • 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, and she even calls him a "fucking pervert" as she rushes to cover herself.
  • Alliterative Family: Dennis and Doris Vinyard named their first three 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 supremacy, then through Character Development realize that the ideology is a load of hogwash and adopt a more sensible outlook on life.
  • "Angry Black Man" Stereotype: Sweeney says he was an angry young militant, admitting that he was not so different from Derek in being consumed by hatred earlier in his life. While visiting Derek in prison, he admits that he knows that place all too well.
    "I know this place. I know the place you are in. There was a time where I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me. That I saw happen to my people. I used to blame everybody. Blame white people, blame society, blame God! I didn't get any answers because I was asking the wrong question."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Has anything you've done made your life better?"
  • Asshole Victim: Those gang members who attempted to steal Derek's truck were anything but upstanding citizens themselves, even if killing them was a very steep drop in Derek's descent into madness.
  • The Atoner: Derek at first was a violent and racist Jerkass, but after prison, he renounces that path and tries to save his little brother from the same fate. However, Derek still bears the consequences of his legacy, as illustrated by his swastika tattoo and ultimately his brother's death.
  • Ax-Crazy: Derek's girlfriend Stacey is always visibly excited, manic even, by violence.
  • Axes at School: Danny is shot to death in the school bathroom by a black kid he had dissed earlier.
  • Badass Bystander: Downplayed. One employee tries to bring out a gun as the Aryans are terrorizing his store during the flashback, but he gets knocked out before he can do anything.
  • Bald of Authority: 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 neo-Nazi skinheads. Could be considered an Invoked Trope, although they're deluded enough to think they're the heroes. Derek subverts it on both counts when he decides to atone for his own racism by growing his hair again.
  • 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.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Lamont is impossibly patient with Derek during their time working together in the laundry, eventually convincing him to stop trying to beet the sheets into submission and just do the job, then getting him to open up and eventually forming a friendship with them. Derek is convinced (Lamont never confirms it) that Lamont got the other inmates to to leave him alone after he rejected the Nazis and isolated himself.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Derek turns away from his neo-Nazi lifestyle as he realizes how wretched it has made his life. The Armor-Piercing Question (see above) that prompts his Heel–Face Turn essentially marks the contrast between this trope and Evil Feels Good.
    "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 is presented as an even greater evil and is obviously something that far preceded Cameron.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Derek plays this darkly at the beginning of the story, wanting to "protect" his family from Jews like Mr. Murray. It gets played straight after Derek returns from prison, as he seeks to keep his little brother Danny from making the same mistakes he did, to the point where he beats up Cameron for threatening to corrupt Danny.
  • 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 black 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. While his fellow nazis terrorize a grocery store, he just smacks a few things with a bat then constructs a giant sandwich.
  • Big "NO!": Danny when he sees Derek about to commit the curb-stomp murder that sends him to prison. He even tries to run out and stop him, but he's too late.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Derek has sworn off racism, but not in time to prevent his brother's death in race-related violence.
  • 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."
  • Bottomless Magazines: Derek somehow manages to get off twenty-four shots in a row from a Ruger P94 handgun, which has a 15-round clip.
  • Broken Aesop:
    • In a clearly unintended but quite tragically ironic way, the ending (Danny, reformed under Derek's influence and ready to renounce racism, being shot and killed by a black kid) can come across as this. While the message of the film is intended to be "Racism is wrong as there are good and bad individuals of every race and racial prejudice only perpetuates violence", those last minutes can almost make it seem as if the message were "Be nice to minorities, otherwise they'll just kill you for no reason", in what jarringly feels like an invalidation of the entire movie's point. There's a bit from the script that was cut from the final film that clears this up — the black kid was pressured by his brother into killing Danny.
    • Prison works, especially with the Prison Rape.
  • Broken Pedestal: Seeing his fellow neo-Nazis participating in the drug trade with black and hispanic prisoners angers the purist Derek. When he rejects them for it, they don't respond well. This finally moves him to open up to Sweeney and Lamont and move on.
  • 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 open to mockery, 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.
  • 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 whom Danny confronts in the school bathroom. Literally.
  • Coitus Interruptus: Danny sees the Crips breaking into Derek's truck and goes to his bedroom to tell him, only to find Derek and Stacy having raw and VERY noisy sex. It actually takes Danny a few seconds to get their attention.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Fuck" is used 214 times in this film. An example: from beginning to end, all Derek says in the rape scene are "Fuck you!"
  • Cool Old Guy: Sweeney. He can't help being cool, with Avery Brooks playing him.
  • 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 then stomping on his head to kill him.
  • Cruelty by Feet: The infamous curb-stomping scene where Derek Vineyard, in full Neo-Nazi hate mode, forces one of three would-be car thieves to bite the curb and then stomps down hard on his head with horrifying and fatal results. His younger brother is left in total shock by the scene.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: Derek renounces his racism and convinces Danny to do the same. They are later seen destroying Danny's neo-Nazi paraphernalia. It's headed for the inevitable Happy Ending it should have... Then the black kid Danny taunted earlier pops up out of nowhere note  and murders Danny.
  • 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 tries to drive away. He then drags the remaining man over to the curb and has him place his mouth on it before killing him with a vicious stomp to the head in the trope-naming murder. Note that in truth a curb stomp would break your jaw and shatter your teeth, but isn't necessarily fatal. Derek was especially brutal in that moment.
  • Cycle of Revenge: The message the film was going for. Hatred never solves anything, it just launches more hate. Derek's father is murdered, Derek commits murder, Danny gets murdered. The tragedy at the end is that all of that death is pointless. Sweeney and Lamont solved so much more with patience and hard work than any of that violence ever could.
  • 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.
  • Dead Man Writing: The ending. Danny, after his murder, narrates the film's ultimate Aesop that hate drags people down and traps them in cycles of never-ending revenge. He's actually reading out the conclusion of the paper he wrote for Principal Sweeney, which he had finished before his death.
  • Debate and Switch: In a Flash Back, Derek and his deceased father Dennis discuss the banning of now-politically incorrect literature from school curriculum and the affirmative action policy. In regards to the latter, Dennis bemoans the practice of hiring lower-skilled people on the basis of immutable characteristics like skin color, especially in regards to high-risk professions such as his job as a fireman. However, he follows this up with a bunch of racist remarks directed at Derek's black teacher, showing that Dennis is arguing in bad faith without addressing the merit of the argument itself.
  • Death Glare: Derek. See the above picture.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The flashbacks to Derek's past are all monochrome.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Danny died before Derek got to the scene in the climax, but his bawling brother cradles his corpse in agony.
  • Disapproving Look: In the deleted scene, the homeless veteran shoots Cameron one over his racist comments.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Derek curb-stomps a man for trying to steal his truck, but more so 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. Granted, Derek was an openly racist jackass on the court, but the guys themselves were also Crips, so it's probably less about moral outrage and more about deciding to punish someone they consider an enemy.
    • 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 
    • Henry's introduction scene is him and two other gang members beating up a white kid who allegedly ratted Henry out for cheating in class.
  • Don't Split Us Up: Implied Trope. When Derek is arrested after the curb-stomping murder, he and Danny are forcefully separated by police officers as Derek is dragged off to jail. They both look heartbroken; Derek is the only male role figure Danny had left at this point.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Lamont stole a TV from a shop right next to a donut place. There were three cops there when he came out.
  • The Dragon: Derek is Cameron's Dragon, prior to his time in prison.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Male on Male: Subverted. While Cameron jokes about Derek having been raped in prison, the rape scene itself is rather serious and dramatic, Derek is even shown in the prison's infirmary in the aftermath of it, clearly traumatized and bursting into tears.
  • Downer Ending: Derek has abandoned his former neo-Nazi ways, but the racist Disciples Of Christ gang is still active and has now been incited by an assault that sent their leader Cameron to the ICU, while Derek's little brother Danny was killed by a black kid less than a day after following Derek in renouncing neo-Nazism. This is even worse in the original ending, where Derek returns to neo-Nazism, meaning everything was completely for nothing, though this is thankfully not the one used in the canon film.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Derek stumbles into this trope when he's giving a Rousing Speech to a gang of skinheads. In a rare reversal of the trope, it's his own line that he calls out.
    Derek: 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!
    (The assembled skinheads laugh.)
    Derek: Don't laugh! There's nothing funny going on here!
    (The skinheads immediately fall silent.)
  • Eccentric Exterminator: Seth, though how he works in the service industry with visible neo-Nazi tattoos is anyone's guess.
  • Embarrassing Tattoo: After prison, Derek's no longer proud of the giant swastika on his chest.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Derek loves his family. He turned to neo-Nazism from grief over his father's death. Even in his most militantly racist, he's determined to "protect" his mother from a liberal, Jewish suitor. Deconstructed, as he may love his mother, but she despises his racist attitude and spitefully tells him that she's ashamed he came out of her body. They reconcile later on as Derek renounces 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. Cameron, Stacey, Seth, and even (initially) Danny all completely fail to understand how Derek could possibly even want to abandon their racist movement.
  • Evil Feels Good: When the police arrive to arrest Derek mere seconds after the brutal "curbstomp" scene, he surrenders to them with a disturbing grin, not seeming to care in the least that they've caught him red-handed.
  • Eviler than Thou: Derek's reformation starts because, of all things, he thinks the other members of the Aryan Brotherhood aren't racist enough. He has a great distaste for members of the gang doing deals and having friendly interactions with members of other gangs, and as he's used to a leadership role in the Disciples of Christ, he voices these criticisms. However, in the Aryan Brotherhood, he's just another skinhead, so his lecturing just serves to annoy. It's the first step that Derek takes on the path to realize how meaningless and empty the ideology ultimately is.
  • 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 (as they also are not present), he rejects a piece of candy that no one will know about simply because he's a racist.
    • Derek himself also counts. His actions as a skinhead range from genuinely homicidal to purely childish: stomping a black man's skull, choking his sister by shoving meat down her throat, pouring milk on a nonwhite woman's face to "turn her into a white person"...
  • 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 to save his own ass.
  • 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. We also briefly see his hair pre-skinhead before and just after his father's death.
  • Family Theme Naming: Dennis and Doris name their children Derek, Davina, and Danny. Perhaps to show that family is what we make it, it's Dr. Sweeney.
  • Fan Disservice: The prison shower scenes show a lot of muscular men nude, but the setting doesn't make it appealing in any way. One instance even ends in a Prison Rape on Derek. Before the prison sequence, Derek also spends a lot of screen time shirtless and parading around like a star athlete... but his giant swastika tattoo more than ruins his sex appeal.
  • 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 youths under his influence, acting as a father figure to many of them. This affability makes him even worse, as it shows just how much power he has on these impressionable, misunderstood kids. In reality, as well, Cameron has no problem selling out any of his followers to save his own ass, and has already done so in the past. To Cameron, the kids are nothing more than disposable tools to further his fascist goals, not anyone he actually gives a shit about.
  • Finishing Stomp: Derek Vineyard's murderous finish to a scuffle with two would-be car thieves, involving Derek forcing one of them to bite the curb and then stomping down hard on his head with horrifying and fatal results.
  • First Rule of the Yard: Variation. Derek Vinyard is sentenced to three years in prison for manslaughter, and knows he has to join a gang to survive. He does this by deliberately working out in front of a black gang with his massive swastika chest tattoo on full display, while also in view of a group of onlooking Neo-Nazi gang members.
  • Flashback Effects: The flashback sequences to the Vinyard family's past are Deliberately Monochrome.
  • Foil: Sweeney is the foil to Dennis as an older father figure. Where Dennis pushes Derek toward racist hatred, Sweeney tries to push him away from that and finally convinces him. Henry is also a foil to Danny, as they're both motivated by their older brothers to follow the Cycle of Revenge.
  • Foreshadowing: In prison, one of the first things Lamont says to Derek is "Lemme tell you something, you better watch y'ass."
  • Former Bigot: Derek became the leader of a Neo-Nazi movement after his father was murdered by a black drug dealer. After serving a prison sentence for the revenge killing of a black home invader, and enduring a gang rape at the hands of the Aryan Brotherhood, and having a former mentor make him question his path in life, Derek renounces his old ways. When he gets out of prison, he also helps his brother Danny to break free from the movement before Danny is murdered for a wholly separate incident by a teenager with ties to the local Crips chapter. Tragically, the alternate ending shows Derek shaving his head again.
  • 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 an 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 bigoted 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 supremacist skinheads who were sick of being pushed around.
  • Gangsta Style: Deconstructed. Ironically, Seth points a pistol at Derek this way. Turns out to be as hilariously impractical as it is in Real Life, as Derek easily disarms him.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Good people are portrayed as victims of smoking (Derek's mom), evil people enjoy smoking (all of the 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.
  • Hate Crimes Are a Special Kind of Evil: Played with.
    • On one hand, after being sent to prison for horrifically killing two black gang members in an act of racism-motivated Disproportionate Retribution, Derek's Character Development includes renouncing his Neo-Nazi ties and convincing his younger brother Danny to do so as well, a clear redemption arc.
    • On the other hand, Henry, a black teen Danny taunted earlier in the movie re-enters the film right at the very end to murder Danny, making both Danny's and Derek's efforts at reform (one of Derek's main reasons for changing his ways was to prevent Danny from following a similar path) ultimately hollow.
  • 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. 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, in the past he has been more than willing to throw his followers under the bus when it benefits him. 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.
    • We also get Seth, a Fat Bastard who focuses on gluttony and hatred and tries to upskirt Davina. Where Cameron is the cool and composed leader of a movement who profits from the pain and violence inflicted on and by young men, Seth is one of those young men and we don't see that he deserves a redemption arc. He doesn't have Derek's charisma or Danny's intelligence.
  • Head Crushing: Derek infamously ends his scuffle with a trio of car thieves by forcing the last one to bite the curb, before bringing down his boot onto his skull, practically pulverizing it.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Danny. Not long after he does an about face, he is shot and killed by the boy he dissed earlier.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Derek loses his racist ways in prison and breaks ties with the neo-Nazis after he gets out.
  • Heroic BSoD: Twice, in Derek's case. When the Aryan Brotherhood leave the scene after raping Derek in the prison shower, he lies on the floor, numb to the world, and shortly thereafter breaks down on the hospital bed. Later, at the end of the film, Derek is reduced to a blubbering mess when Danny dies.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Derek might consider black people to be inferior beings, but he refuses to call a foul on one during a basketball game on game point, even after being elbowed in the mouth viciously.
    • Derek refuses to re-join the Aryan Brotherhood in prison after his hospital stint, even when they invite him back, partially due to the promises he made to Sweeney and partially because he's not going to get over being raped so easily. Lamont points out that without their protection, he's going to get killed by the other gangs, and Derek says he's fully aware he's a dead man but stands by his decision.
  • 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 black and Latino gangs while he himself happily talks basketball with Lamont. Though his opening up to Lamont was depicted as part of his Heel–Face Turn and took place long after the Brotherhood leader told him to stop preaching about racial separation.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Danny berates his mom for smoking, then takes a drag of his own from the cigarette before stubbing it out.
  • 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 throws him out. When she later visits him in prison she tells Derek that Danny worships him and is starting to follow in his path, going as far as to bitterly state that Danny is "flushing his life down the same toilet" as Derek. After Derek gets out of prison and becomes The Atoner, his relationship with his mother has clearly improved a lot.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: In the flashbacks, 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 skinhead raid.
  • Important Haircut: Derek shaves his head when he becomes a skinhead. Danny wears his hair cropped very short when he comes under the sway of the skinheads. Inverted later on when Derek grows his hair out to demonstrate his break with the neo-Nazis.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Danny interrupts Derek having sex with his girlfriend to tell him his car is being stolen. Later, said girlfriend looks on with disturbing glee as Derek gets in a fight.
  • Ironic Echo: Derek sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo. Lamont, a black man, also sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo, as does Sweeney.
  • 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.
  • Jawbreaker: Derek kills a man in a disturbing scene with a curb stomp.
  • Jerkass: A great deal of the characters. But Derek himself most of all... at first.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: What ultimately makes people like Cam, Derek, and even Dennis dangerous is that they're able to articulate their arguments well and make correct observations and statements to support their worldview, and then convince others to join them in their beliefs, and perhaps even commit extreme acts in support of those beliefs. The raid on the corner store is a great example, where Derek makes an impassioned anti-immigration speech with many valid points, but then gets a large gang of people to believe that, because his points are valid, they should react by destroying a store owned and run by immigrants. Contrast with someone like Seth, who lacks the intelligence and charisma to present his beliefs with the same legitimacy, and is very transparently a white supremacist for no other reason than blind hatred for people who aren't like him.
  • Karma Houdini: What happens to Henry after killing Danny at the very end of the film is left to the viewer's imagination.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Derek's villain dinner, ranting about Rodney King and the LA 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. Practically every line out of his mouth is vintage white supremacy garbage.
    • 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 next time Derek returns to the prison lunchroom after the Aryan Brotherhood gang have raped him in the shower, they signal for him to join their table with cruel, leering expressions.
  • 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, despite how "disorganized idiots" describes his own former 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 horrifying brutalities against minorities. By contrast, the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang are presented as straw hypocrites who don't even care about their own ideology even as they remain violent scumbags. Which is largely the point that the film tries to get across. The reason destructive ideologies like white supremacy 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.
  • 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. Derek even teases Danny by saying "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.
  • Meaningful Name: Vinyard.
    • It of course refers a farm that grows grapes. Such as The Grapes of Wrath, which is a story poor white farmers driven to California, which title itself comes from The Battle Hymn of the Republic (which Seth sings a twisted version of) and refers to Revelation and how God would deliver people from oppression. The film's message is that wrath will not and cannot deliver anyone.
    • Danny and Derek didn't spring from nothing. They grew into neo-Nazi hatred from seeds planted by their father. This isn't just an indictment of the Cycle of Revenge, but of generational trauma and hatred.
    • There is a branch of white supremacy that has adopted Vinland as their ideal (the name Norse explorers gave to North America when they arrived), styling themselves the true owners of the New World. It started in the 90s and was especially prominent in the early 2000s, while this film was written and made.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted with Derek. Most men would cry after they've been put through a brutal gang rape or seeing their little brother's corpse immediately after he's been shot to death, even (or especially) if they've always projected 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. The swastika tattoo somewhat takes away from his appeal, though.
  • 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.
    • As he's crying over his dead brother, Derek says "What did I do?"—possibly indicating he blames himself for what's happened, as he realizes he helped radicalize Danny, thus provoking the black kid who shot him.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Sweeney 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 under a racist system. He eventually realized that hatred from whatever direction didn't solve anything, only contributed to the problem.
  • Obviously Not Fine: Doris, who may give off a Stepford Smiler vibe at first, but is obviously ill and has also completely given up on her racist sons (at least before Derek returns from prison as a reformed man). Davina, meanwhile, is much more willing to call her brothers and their Neo-Nazi friend Seth out.
  • Oh, Crap!: Danny's expression of sheer horror after he witnesses Derek crush a black man's skull.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Notably averted. Doris's budding romance with Mr. Murray lasts only until he gets a load of Derek.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Almost. The Disciples of Christ are throwing a party at Cam's compound for Derek's release from prison, and the reformed Derek plans to officially leave the gang during the party. He knows it's probably going to get messy, perhaps even violent, and so he wants Danny to not be at the party. Of course, he doesn't explain to Danny that he's been reformed by his time in prison or that he's intending to leave, so Danny thinks he's just being a stick in the mud and goes. At the party, Derek beats Cam up, but can't immediately leave because he has to find Danny, which gives people time to realize what's happened and turn on Derek. Only Seth's incompetence allows Derek to escape with his life.
  • Only Sane Man: Davina certainly must have felt like this in her family before Derek was arrested, given his racism and the others' passivity towards it.
  • 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 Are Useless: averted. They don’t get much focus but they did arrest Derek for murder and show concern about the gangs, meeting with Mr. Sweeny and looking into the situations rather than ignoring them. Played straight with the mentions of police brutality below.
  • 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.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: After instructing a man to put his teeth on the curb, Derek says "Now say goodnight!" before stomping on his head.
  • Prison Changes People: Derek enters jail as a Neo-Nazi and leaves as a reformed man.
  • 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 liaison 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.
  • Re-Cut: Differences between the theatrical cut and the workprint can be found here.
  • Redemption Failure: Some alternative endings have Danny's murder cause Derek to revert back to his old, racist ways.
  • Reveal Shot: In one scene where Danny is typing his paper, he writes a sentence revealing that had he testified at Derek's trial with what he saw that night, Derek would have gotten a life sentence instead of three years. A few seconds later, however, he deletes the line.
  • Revised Ending: The original ending was of Derek standing in front of a mirror, shaving his head after Danny was shot. This was to make sense of the endless cycle of violence and tie the otherwise disjointed plot together but was removed after Edward Norton objected.
  • Rousing Speech: Derek gives a rousing speech against illegal Mexican immigrants to a group of skinheads, before the attack on the grocery store.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Derek to Cameron's gang.
  • 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!: Derek to Cameron, via a punch to the mouth.
  • Skinheads: The film focuses on the racist, neo-Nazi kind.
  • Slasher Smile: Look at Stacey's expression when she's witnessing something violent.
  • 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.
  • Spiteful Spit: After curb stomping one of the guys who broke into his truck, Derek spits on his corpse.
  • Start of Darkness: At first Danny thinks Derek went down the wrong path when their father was killed, but then he realizes it started before that, when their father went on a quiet racist rant about "N-Word bullshit"note  over dinner.
  • Stereotype Flip: The black inmates not taking their revenge on Derek, after the Aryan Brotherhood has dumped him. It's later heavily implied that Lamont protected him from them, and this further leads to an erosion of Derek's racist views.
  • 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 no longer fits in with his former neo-Nazi skinhead gang and their racist ideology.
  • Straw Hypocrite: The Aryan Brotherhood in prison is shown to make use of racist imagery, while not actually believing in the cause 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 (in real life it may be the latter, as they originally allied against the black gangs).
  • Stupid Crooks: Lamont is hesitant to tell Derek about how he got in prison because it was by robbing a TV store... next to a doughnut shop. However, this leads into a darker reveal when Lamont tells Derek that the racist cops conspired to get him a very harsh sentence because the stolen TV that Lamont was holding accidentally fell on one of the officer's feet, and thus the cops falsely claimed he was assaulting them.
  • Sub-Par Supremacist: As a film centered around Neo-Nazi gangs, it is chock full of these.
    • Seth, Derek's neo-Nazi comrade, is an obese, slow-witted, and perverted loser. He is so inept, he can't even kill Derek while holding him at gunpoint.
    • Cameron, Derek's Evil Mentor, talks tough about white supremacy and solidarity among the whites, but he's just a power-hungry Dirty Coward who will throw his own "kids" under the bus to save his skin. Derek outright calls him a chickenhawk, and then sends the bastard to the floor with a single punch.
    • The Aryans Derek encounters in prison yell at Derek for hanging out with a black guy, but they're all too eager to do business with a Mexican drug gang. And when Derek calls them out for this, they proceed to rape him in the shower. This incident is what opens Derek's eyes to how sick and twisted white supremacy really is.
    • The fact that Derek himself averts this made him a prime target for Cameron's efforts to turn him into a "white power messiah". He's intelligent, articulate, and athletic, being driven to racism by the murder of his father. He's also the only neo-Nazi in the film who has an epiphany and turns away from it (along with his brother Danny, but he's really just following Derek's lead).
  • Surrounded by Idiots: In a deleted scene, Cameron asks Seth to deliver racist materials. Seth decides he wants to make a musical comedy. The look on Cameron's face says it all.
  • Tattooed Crook: Everyone in prison.
  • Thin-Skinned Bully: Little Henry beats up a kid in the bathroom who (supposedly) told a teacher that Henry was cheating, flanked by his friends. Danny steps between him and the kid, and when some threatening words fail to intimidate him, Little Henry quickly leaves despite having the numbers advantage.
  • Title Drop
    Sweeney: The name of this course will be American History... X.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: The Disciples of Christ (D.O.C.), a racist skinhead gang headed by Derek and Cameron.
  • 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 at a crack house. 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.
  • Truth in Television: Neo-Nazis feed on troubled teens, catching them before they have the depth of knowledge to understand that their twisted ideology is built on lies and Insane Troll Logic. Whether they're isolated loners like Seth or victims of trauma like Danny and Derek, the cult of white supremacy draws them in with promises of meaning and brotherhood, then isolate them so they never hear any other message.
  • Twist Ending: At the end of the story, after a reformed Derek reluctantly agrees to do something to reduce tensions among the local neo-Nazis (despite how he is now a Persona Non Grata to them), Danny is shot by the Chekhov's Gunman.
  • Two First Names: Cameron Alexander and Seth Ryan.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Danny, during his essay-writing process, admits he struggles with his role in Derek's incarceration, as he was the one who alerted Derek to the gang members trying to steal his truck, which leads to Derek committing the murder. Of course, in a roundabout way, Derek's time in prison ends up being good for him, and he very likely would have continued to throw himself deeper into the neo-nazi movement otherwise.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Perhaps. The character arc of Derek Vineyard bears some notable similarities with that of Frank Meeink, a real-life former neo-Nazi who changed his ways after a three-year stint in prison, and some sources have described the film as loosely based on his story. However, the writer and director have never admitted to using Meeink's story as an inspiration, and Meeink was never consulted during the making of the film. Meeink has said his experience was a lot worse than what's shown in the film, but that he nonetheless thinks the film will do a lot of good in the world. [1]
  • 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 sulky expression]
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After the party, Danny confronts Derek, unable to understand (at first) why Derek broke with the Neo-Nazi gang.
  • 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 Better Than You Think You Are: Sweeney has made it his mission to challenge Danny and Derek and convince them to abandon their Nazi path.
  • 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 one of the carjackers, he screams out: "You ever shoot at firemen?! You ever shoot at my father?!"


Video Example(s):


Derek and Cameron

Free from prison and finding out about his selfishness and for wasting two years of his life, Derek Vinyard confronts Neo-Nazi leader Cameron Alexander and delivers him a very scathing speech.

How well does it match the trope?

4.9 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / TheReasonYouSuckSpeech

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