American History X

American History X
Cut by: Davita Cuttita

So, it’s come to this. I am extremely fatigued and busy: university, work, midterms and so forth so I’m going to totally fuckin’ cop-out right now.

But it’s a good cop-out I guess! If you’re interested in racism, racial stereotypes and how they connect in the movies; that is. Yes, I know this post is long but I don’t care. I am digging my heels into racism so I can punch it in it’s ugly fucking face, and if I need to write a lot about it; I will type till my hands bleed. I am sick and tired of movies that over-simplify racism and used the anti-hero as the tool to prove my points.

Last year I ended up writing some essays in my film theory class. At the end of the term, we had to look at all the units we’d studied, combine two of them, then create our own original thesis. The end result was me writing about Tony Kaye’s film American History X. In it, Kaye takes the stereotype of the brute; the overly sexed, id-driven, violent Black man and applies it to a White neo-Nazi in California with very interesting results. I tried to explain pretty plainly so if you haven’t seen the film; it doesn’t really matter (but might be a bit better). I’ve cut out a lot just for the sake of length, but just as a warning, we are really going to get into the nitty-gritty of racism/White privilege/why racism exists/the psychology behind racism so…if it’s not your cup of tea to get THAT MUCH anti-racist rhetoric thrown at you at once, I understand. I also know I’m not some well-known person or expert but…that’s what this blog is for, right? To just shove stuff out there and say  “So…what’s YOUR opinion?”

Plus I got like an A or A+ or something on it. If that matters, I doubt it.

On a personal level, this is where Davita Cuttita started coming alive in regards to looking at race, the media and just…everything in general as I wrote this during the beginning of PDDP. This is when I really started to “cut”. (I’ll explain the third-person reference to myself on a better day…)

I’ve cut out all of the introductory stuff and done some slight tailoring to ease the aching length, so here is the essay in it’s rawest form; after the jump. And sorry for the cop-out but I promise some real shit by the weekend-ish. Feel free to read and/or say whatever you want…or not.



… As an audience, within and outside of the theatre we do not know where exactly racism originates from nor do we know how to appropriately deal with it. Racism is seen as an “other” force very much the same way a child perceives the notion of a monster lurking beneath their bed (Welko, Los Angeles Times)…

The anti-hero defies much of standard narrative by greatly lacking many of the qualities the traditional hero possesses: a strong sense of justice, admiration from all they encounter, infallible judgement between right and wrong as well as an inviting and attractive appearance. The anti-hero is unsure of himself and his ideals at times, occasionally does the wrong thing purposely and may not always have the best looks and has few admirers (McGrath, pg.2). By combining the two aspects of race and representation with ethnography, I will examine how the anti-hero is a valid component by which the racial dialogue can be presented and prove three crucial reoccurring arguments that result from the aforementioned units’ intersecting.

Firstly, the character of anti-hero himself is shaped by and a product of his concept of race and representation. Secondly, the anti-hero is not a new mode of racial stereotyping or profiling but rather a plausible, human depiction of an individual and lastly, that by using an anti-hero character within the dialectic of racial cinema, an authentic documentation of racist experiences is still possible; even if the film is of fictitious origin. Through this, we will be able to see that the anti-hero’s flaws, vulnerability and human nature make it is still possible to present to any culture the issue of racism.

In 1998, director Tony Kaye created the film American History X starring Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a White reforming ex-member of the fictitious Venice Beach Neo-Nazi gang “The Disciples of Christ”. His identity as the anti-hero in the film is established from early on as his aggressive-looking, racist character of three years prior is continuously contrasted against his present persona of caring and humility. Before his transformation, Derek was obsessively hate-filled after the murder of his father who was shot by a Black crack-addict while putting out a fire in a ghetto. He steadily declines into a life fuelled by intense hatred for non-Whites and is so consumed by his hatred that he even has a swastika tattooed onto his left bicep. He is quick to find any means by which he can further dehumanize and humiliate other ethnic groups and is only admired within his circle of Neo-Nazi friends. One night, he murders two Black men who attempted to steal his car; the first by shooting and the second by crushing in his skull on the concrete, and ends the violence smiling triumphantly and submitting himself to the cries of White police officers.

As the film continues, it is further established that Derek is shaped by racist experiences from his past that he had internalized and allowed to transform him into a hate-filled young man. From this, it is made apparent that racism is not some ominous force that simply “happens” to an individual, it is a learned and taught practice that operates mainly through the destruction and perversion of the concepts of race and representation. The practice of warping these ideals is the enabler that caused Derek’s prejudice to consume him to such an extreme. The notion of race was distorted by two men Derek trusted and rarely questioned: his father and the leader of the D.O.C, Cameron; his mentor. The result of this distortion was the idea that the White race was “superior” and that all other non-White races were “inferior”. The concept of the inferiority of these other races in turn altered Derek’s concept of representation as he began perceiving other Whites and himself representations of goodness; they represented fortitude, hard-work and intelligence whilst other races represented usury, petty opportunism and were parasitic in nature.

However, Derek un-learns this idyllic after he enters prison and slowly begins to question the White privilege he vehemently denied existence of as well as the notion of the inherent “goodness” accompanying a person’s skin colour. After falling out with the Aryan Brotherhood and consequently being gang raped in jail for his withdrawal, his only confidants throughout the entirety of his prison experience are both Black men; Dr. Bob Sweeny, Derek’s former highschool principal and Lamonte; an inmate he performs daily, menial labour with. Throughout the length of Derek’s prison sentence, we can see how he is slowly beginning a “deprogramming” process that even follows standard, psychological procedure. Psychologist Steve Dubrow Eichel describes this process in numerous ways in his book Deprogramming: A Case Study. However the following four are the most relevant to Derek’s actions during the film:

• voluntary or involuntary removal from the cultic milieu
• establishing a personal relationship
• disputing cult information and imparting new information on the cult
• interference with cult-supported intentional patterns thought to block the practitioner from outside influences (chanting, self-induced trance states, etc.)
• an overt or covert sign that the deprogrammee has renounced his or her allegiance to the cult

Derek’s removal from the outside world into the prison, his establishment of a friendship with Lamonte, questioning of neo-Nazi ideals, inability to attend neo-Nazi rallies and consequent denouncement of the D.O.C and former lifestyle upon release from prison illustrates that he has finally acknowledged that all races are capable of both fault and doing good and none are infallible or more deserving of civil liberties or respect than others. This new concept of race and representation gives way to an improved Derek that grows back his hair, discontinues being racist and at one point in the film, places a hand over the swastika on his chest rather than customarily bearing it proudly; illustrating his regret and change of ideals.

Moreover, it is crucial that we now examine Derek in relation to stereotype and his humanity. In Black, feminist writer Bell Hook’s book entitled Black Looks: Race and Representation, Hooks proposes that the Black male is often represented within the media as highly sexualized, ultra-violent, primitive and hyper-masculine; a stereotype formerly known as the “brute” (Hooks, pg.71). Now, it must be noted that before his enlightenment and reformation, Derek fit directly into this stereotype although he lacks black skin. At the beginning of the film, Derek’s girlfriend moans loudly, breasts exposed; as she engages in sexual intercourse with him. The camera continues to keep her face and nudity as its focal point as her cries grow louder, however we do not see Derek’s face—instead, all we are presented with are shots of his extremely muscular arms covered in tattoos commemorating WWII. When Derek’s younger brother interrupts the lovers to alert him of his car being stolen, we are confronted with the image of Derek’s bald head and body-builder like physique as he puts on his underwear and black combat boots. Shortly thereafter, he runs downstairs and kicks open the front door to reveal a look-out standing guard. After yelling “Fuck you!” and shooting the surprised man six times, the carnage continues until another life is taken; despite Danny’s calls to end the violence. By applying the stereotype of the brute to Derek, although the negatives of hyper-masculinity remain; another schism in racial stereotyping is presented as it calls into question the perception and stereotype of the White man as reserved, civilized, educated and courteous (Daley, Thusly, it is implied any man can act brutishly in spite of his skin colour. Derek strictly represents this archetype in his own unique way through his actions for half the film by lashing out in violence and racial epithets in one scene, headlining the destruction of a grocery store of Koreans with Mexican employees in the next and claiming exclusive ownership of a basketball court for “Whites Only” in another. However, once he enters prison his representation of himself is not extraordinary nor does it remain a means by which he can effectively silence and intimidate his opposition as many of the other male prisoners also represent themselves thusly. His representation of himself as a strong, powerful, aggressive White man is no match for the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood and his followers that also characterize themselves in the same “brute” manner and violently rape him in the bathroom.

Although the stereotype of the brute solidifies Derek as a threat, it is the breaking of it that establishes his humanity for the audience. It exposes his vulnerability thus allowing us to begin to feel sympathy for his character rather than intimidation or hatred as the embodiment of violence, aggression and hyper-sexuality has now been on the receiving end of the hostility he perpetrated and sought to represent through his physique and mannerisms. As he weeps quietly following the assault, it becomes more and more apparent that Derek is not an automaton driven by urges of the id. He is a man, a human being; one of us—not a hate-spewing monster. He is capable of the full spectrum of human emotion and the human condition. His emotional break-down deeply criticizes and even destroys the notion of the brute as Black, unpredictable, over-sexed and sociopathic as the imposition of this stereotype upon a White male further solidifies that these actions are not traits exclusive and inherent to Black males alone. Rather, any and all males are capable of representing themselves through this model if they feel that acting in such a manner is a representation of true masculinity.
Although the events of the film are fictitious, it does have some ethnographic qualities that parallel facts in reality. For example, in one scene we are witness to a Neo-Nazi rally filled with live performances of racist shock-rock, swastika flags, hate speeches and mosh pits. This scene is in striking parallel to a brief skit on Da Ali G Show by actor Sacha Baron Cohen entitled Bruno Goes to an Evil-Fest. An Englishman of Israeli-Jewish origin, Cohen dyes his hair blonde, dons an Austrian accent and enters the Neo-Nazi rally composed of the exact same festivities Kaye presented us with in X. Another parallel to racism in reality reinforcing X’s ethnographic properties is Derek’s experience in jail. During his incarceration, the rates of Black and Hispanic prisoners were on the rise and were also receiving lengthier sentences while the imprisonment of White males was on a steady decline with them receiving lighter sentences. According to the U.S Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics, in 1998, the same year of X’s release; there were 1,121,663 total males incarcerated. Of that number, 49.4% of those prisoners were Black while 47.9% were White. The remaining percentages of prisoners were either Hispanic, mixed or Native American. Moreover, the JBS is quick to point out that Black males were six times more likely than any other race to receive a prison sentence of more than one year regardless of the crime committed. These statistics present themselves in X as Derek is sentenced to three and a half years (which he only serves three of) for killing the two burglars while Lamonte is serving six years for the theft of a television and a false accusation that he threw it at an officer when in fact, he accidentally dropped it. In this respect, X can be seen as an ethnographic film as it does accurately document the statistical trends of institutionalization of racism within the American judicial system during that year.

Furthermore, it makes the practice of “learning” of racism, something seen as “other”, understandable to its audience. From Derek’s dinner table conversations with his father who routinely insults Blacks, Jews and affirmative action, it is shown that racism is something taught and learned in the home and from people an individual trusts, respects and deeply cares for. The documentation of Derek’s experience as one of many possible scenarios illustrates that racism has never been some sort of force that simply doesn’t happen to “normal” people. The mysticism behind our understanding of it is removed as we are forced to realize that anyone—our loved ones, our mentors, our friends—are capable of and responsible for its existence whenever they participate in or facilitate it; a realization that further enhances the ethnography of the film.

In retrospect however, it is important to note that certain truths had been omitted by Derek that may have changed his fate. For example, as Derek leaves prison it is implied that it is Lamonte who had intervened on his behalf with the Black and Hispanic gangs; keeping him safe from harm after the Aryan Brotherhood had withdrawn their protection. Although Lamonte shares the details of his crime with Derek, Derek never tells him that he is responsible for the deaths of two Black men. Ergo, one must question whether or not Lamonte would’ve withdrawn his friendship and protection from Derek had he told him that he had killed two Black men who, like Lamonte; were also thieves. However, this is also debatable as this action serves as a reminder of Derek’s anti-heroic role. Derek’s silence on the matter could’ve been a combination of his instinct for survival and loneliness. By keeping his crime a secret, he gained both the respect and friendship of Lamonte in a place where he was ostracized and also gained the protection necessary for him to leave unharmed and share his enlightenment with Danny, who was still trapped in the Neo-Nazi lifestyle.

In conclusion, Kaye’s American History X is a film of extraordinary proportions. Derek’s anti-hero role not only is a tactful mode by which Kaye addresses the issue of racism, but his anti-heroism also causes us to question our own perceptions and of race and representations of ourselves and others as it is proven that race is more than hollow stereotypes we can emulate as Derek did with his brutish behaviour. Furthermore, it gives the elusive and mysterious racism a human face, thus stripping it of its “boogeyman” like aura and empowers the audience; educates them to realize that it is a learnt and reciprocated ideal. Lastly, its ethnographic qualities have shown that things like institutionalized racism and Neo-Nazism are extremely real problems within society. Now that the social enemy of racism has been given a human face, we can now gaze upon its reflection and only hope that the face that gazes back is not all too familiar.



Daley, Mike. The Representation of Race in Mass Media. ( (c) 2007 Mike Daley

Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Routledge Books, (c) 1992.

Manthia, Diawartha. Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance. Braudy and Cohen, pages 892—900 (c) 2007.

McGrath, Kevin. The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in the Epic Mahabharata. (pages 1-2) (c) 2004

Welkos, Robert. The Thin Line Between Fear and Hate. The Los Angeles Times (c)1998


U.S Department of Justice: Bureau of Statistics (c) 1985—2008

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Kaye, Tony. American History X. New Line Cinema (c) 1998.

Lee, Spike. Malcolm X. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. (c) 1992.

Preston, Scott. Da Ali G Show: Bruno Visits an Evil-Rally. HBO (c) 2003


~ by davitacuttita on October 24, 2008.

2 Responses to “American History X”

  1. Another really great thought-provoking post! I love your blog 🙂

  2. Hi there Eve,

    Thanks for braving the storm that was this post! Much appreciated. I’m glad you like the blog, I like you; too! ^_^

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