Very often does this happen, but rarely so effectively. American History X is no doubt the most successful attempt in cinema to counter racism, condemn neo-Nazism and bring forward themes of equality and justice. However, while offering this valuable American History lesson on screen, a number of racist crimes are committed, a series of racist remarks are made and plenty of disturbing narrow-mindedness becomes evident. In other words, it takes a highly racist film to make a point against racism.
Written by David McKenna (Blow) and directed by Tony Kaye (Detachment), American History X was released in 1998 and tells the story of two white brothers, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) who shared, at different times in their lives, the same racist ideology and fanaticism. After their father’s murder by a black drug dealer, Derek joined the neo-Nazi movement of Venice Beach in Los Angeles and quickly rose up to occupy a prominent place in the Californian racist circles. However, during his chief-racist time, Derek brutally murdered two black men who attempted to steal his car, and with this he was sent to prison for three years. When in jail, he received just as brutal of a treatment from his fellow white inmates, which caused him to gradually change his beliefs and finally recognize interracial hatred as meaningless baggage and a waste of time… Now that he is set free again, he finds his younger brother all skin-headed, immigrant-hating and an avid supporter of the former cause, which awakens Derek even further and forces him to realise the hidden-up-until-now and extremely dangerous consequences of his very wrong actions.
Both brothers and especially Derek, are extremely intelligent, strong and charismatic. They do well at school, they have friends, girlfriends, good looks and adamant beliefs. And although these beliefs are ultimately shaken, still most of the damage is done. Even though neo-Nazism and everything that it entails in the end betrays them, the fact remains that time has been lost, a big part of their youth has been wasted, passion has been invested in all the wrong things and lives have been thrown away for no good reason. Hatred of the past has been recycled over and over again, murder has given way to revenge and revenge to more killing.
All this makes the main character of the story the protagonist as well as the antagonist. Derek is the villain as much as he is the hero and the audience hates him as much as they cheer for him. The viewers are constantly stuck somewhere in the middle of it all, as they crave justice and want to see bad guy Derek getting punished for his actions, but at the same time they are the ones who want to see remorseful Derek being forgiven for his crimes, that were merely revenge for the murder of his father and self-defence against criminals who were trying to take away from him the only thing that his father had left him…
In other words, half the time we’re cheering for a racist.
And we keep falling in that beautifully and resourcefully set up trap. What’s more, the highly compelling actor portraying this racist earns an Academy Award for Best Actor for succeeding in having us torn and undecided for two hours of whether we love him or hate him. Edward Norton offers one of the most memorable performances in cinema history when he becomes a brutal neo-Nazi, kills every ‘non-white’ that comes his way and gives us scene after scene of nightmare material, trying to bring forward an important message: that if a sick fanatic like him can change and let go of old hatred, then everybody can. And everybody should.
Basically, he’s going too far, but only to make a statement. It is interesting to note that the film has to show everything from a white perspective, and more importantly, from the point of view of a young man who has been wronged, if it wants to succeed in teaching us the wrong doings of racism. Derek has turned racist because he has been harmed by people of other races in some way. Which justifies him in a very obscure way, for some part of the film at least. The time comes when he takes it too far, but up until then, we kind of like him. After he loses it, we hate him. And then we sympathise with him again.
However, racial hatred and violence never leave the front row and racist remarks made by tattooed skinheads never cease. Horrible crimes fueled by extreme ideologies are repeatedly committed in order for us to get the hint that hatred brings hatred and violence causes violence… Racism leads to more racism and if some of us haven’t fully understood this after American History X, then this definitely isn’t due to the filmmakers’ lack of trying… Indeed the most racist film in the world does manage to effectively show its audience the negative effects of racism and definitely makes its point clear. But yes, it takes that much racism for an anti-Nazi message to become evident.