by Jesse Davis
American History X is a drama film directed by Tony Kaye in 1998. The film tells the story of Derek and Danny Vinyard, two brothers involved in a neo-Nazi gang known as the D.O.C. (Disciples of Christ).Derek; the older of the two brothers founded the gang after their father was gunned down fighting fires in a predominantly black neighborhood. Derek ran the gang under the leadership of Cameron Alexander, a white supremacist known for producing racist propaganda.
The D.O.C committed various hate crimes and Derek eventually landed himself in prison for murdering two black men that were attempting to break into his home. With Derek gone, Danny falls into his footsteps and joins the D.O.C after being recruited by Cameron Alexander. While Danny is being taught lessons in hate and white superiority, Derek is unlearning those very lessons after experiencing a traumatic rape by his own people.
When Derek is freed from prison he goes home with the intent to leave his racist life behind and to help get his family on track, but unfortunately the damage had already been done. Derek and Danny agree to put their pasts behind them and start over and then Derek drops Danny off at school minutes before he is shot three times by a black student that Danny had previously had problems with.
This film is gritty and raw from start to finish. It never once pulls its punches, not even for a second. American History X shows the true ugliness of racism in a way that makes the audience cringe at times. The film jumps straight into the plot and shocks the audience immediately by opening with the scene where Derek brutally kills the men trying to break into his house. The scene is in black and white, as are all of the flash back scenes in the film. Derek shoots one man and forces the other to place his teeth on the cement curb. When the man’s teeth touch the cement they clink loudly like a glass being tapped with a rock and it is the most unsettling sound you can imagine. That sound is than quickly replaced with a loud snap as Derek’s boot finds the back of the man’s skull. This opening is so effective because it immediately captures the audience’s attention by starting the story off from a point of intense action.
When the police are arresting Derek he simply smiles at his traumatized brother who was watching the violence from the lawn. The entire shot is done in slow motion and the emotion on all of the character’s faces is captured perfectly and at that moment the characters are so believable that you fear for them. The camera does a close up on the black man’s face before Derek kills him and the terror in his eyes is downright undeniable. The film is only six minutes in at this point but you are drawn in as if it were the climax of the story.
For the most part the film is well written with realistic dialogue. The giant racist buffoon comes off as just that, Danny comes off as a deeply troubled teenager, and Derek comes off as a perfectly normal person trying to rebuild his life. There are times though, when the writing is so intensely powerful that I forget I am watching a film; these times typically come during flash backs. Throughout several points in the film the viewer is taken back to see what Derek was like before his miraculous transformation and he has several bone chilling rants about racism that are so upfront and honest it is disturbing. Derek is a very smart man and his opinions were spoken with such passion and clarity that it is hard not to get swept up into his speeches. One scene that illustrates this is the scene before the D.O.C. vandalizes the grocery store. In it, Derek gives a pre-game speech to inspire his troops in which he states “We need to open our eyes. There are over 2 million illegal immigrants bedding down in this state tonight! This state spent $3 billion last year, on services for those people who have no right to be here in the first place!$3 billion! $400 million just to lock up a bunch of illegal immigrant criminals, who only got into this country because the fuckin’ INS decided, “It’s not worth the effort to screen for convicted felons!” Who gives a shit? Our government doesn’t give a shit! Our border policy’s a joke! So, is anybody surprised that south of the border, they’re laughing at us?” This speech is so effective because the writer did not shy away from controversy; instead he embraced it, making the character even more believable.
Over the course of the film there are several monologues like this and they add so much depth to Derek as a character because only seeing the reformed Derek makes it hard to appreciate the changes that he brought about in his life. Among these powerful speeches and dramatic moments there is a healthy amount of irony driving the plot and it adds another level of complexity to the story. For example, Derek filled himself with hatred for the stereo typical black man, but yet the man that kept him alive in prison and one of the men that helped him escape his hatred was very much a stereotype. The man Derek meets in prison is named Lamont and he speaks in thick slang and repeatedly falls back to his preferred word, “Aight.” Derek forms a bond with this man and it helps him shed some of the false pretenses he has towards black men. Another example of irony is that Dr. Sweeny, the man responsible for Derek’s recovery, is the exact opposite of what he had been taught black people were. He had been taught that black people were unintelligent, unclean, lesser people than white people from an early age. Dr. Sweeny is a well-dressed, well spoken, and very smart man that only wanted to help Derek. When Derek was able to see Dr. Sweeny as a man that he could learn from rather than an ignorant black man, he was ready to shed his preconceived notions regarding black people.
One final aspect of the film that I enjoyed was the use of black and white as symbolism. The film begins the opening credits with a beach in the background in black and white, representing Derek’s outlook on the world at the time of the flash backs; he seen the world as being separated into sections of black and white, where colors cannot blend together in harmony. The film ends on a beautifully lit beach, full of color and life. This represents how vastly Derek and Danny’s viewpoints had changed, even if the change had come too late.
Aspiring writers should take note of the powerful and honest dialogue that the film uses to pull the audience in. The film never hides the worst side of Derek, and allowing the audience to know that side of Derek helps them appreciate the vast personal changes that he makes in prison, which in turn strengthens the emotional connection the audience feels to the character. If Derek had never been seen as a violent racist, his stunning recovery to a nurturing older brother would have seemed less genuine and quite frankly, less interesting. If you strive to make your characters feel more believable, you must embrace their flaws and their strengths, no matter how dark or controversial.