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American History X

July 22, 2009
This review was already published by me at passionforcinema.

Rosa sat so Martin could walk, Martin walked so Barack could run, Barack ran so
we all can fly.

The above is a quote that has been making the rounds of the Net, ever since Barack Obama became the first non White person to enter into the hallowed precincts of 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue or what we better know as the White House.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true
meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal.”-Martin Luther King Jr in his famous I have a dream speech.

The reference of course is here to Rosa Parks the woman who refused to vacate her seat in a racially segregated bus in Montogomery, Alabama, an incident when taken in context, is as significant as Mahatma Gandhi’s refusal to vacate his seat in a first class compartmen in S.Africa, and his being thrown out of the train at Pietermartizburg st
ation. Rosa was later a key figure in the Civil rights moment led by Martin Luther King Jr, and the rest as
we say is history.

For a nation that was founded on the premise of “All men are created equal” and being led by a “Government of the people, for the people and by the people”, the US for a greater part of its history had to deal with discrimination and racism be it the treatment of Native Indians, the slavery system in the South and the segregation of the blacks from the white population in the early half of the 20th century.

Racism has not just been a question of Black and White in US. Jews, Irish, Italians, Poles, Asians have all suffered from racism in one way or another. And significantly the racism issue came whenever there was a large migration of people from other nations, into the US. For centuries the US of A has been and still is a becaon for immigrants all over the world. Some came to escape political persecution, some came to escape the poverty in their native lands, some came for bettter opportunities. In effect that made the US, one of the most diverse nations on Earth. But the diversity was something achieved at a great cost. Every time a new race started to arrive in hordes, people started to exploit the “outsider syndrome”, or in more simpler terms “see these dirty scum of earth, they are here to steal our jobs, our hapiness, our peace, drive them out”. The Irish experienced it when they migrated in hordes during the potato famine that impoverished Ireland, at the turn of the century it was the Italians and Poles who experienced hostility, later it was the Chinese who arrived in vast numbers on the West Coast as cheap labor for the construction of the great rail roads. In most of these cases, it was this fear of being swamped by “outsiders” that gave rise to racist attacks. The biggest irony is that those “natives” who were screaming hoarse about being displaced by “outsiders”, were themselves descendants of immigrants who displaced the native Indian tribes.

The racism towards blacks however had a different hue, here it was not the fear of “outsiders” taking over us. It was a belief that blacks were meant to be slaves and not good for anything else. Or more specifically blacks were sub human races, ”people of low character who cast lustful glances at white women, scum who indulged in robbery, murder and arson”. Or as the popular saying went “The only good black man was a dead one”. Civil war and Lincoln’s abolition of Slavery did little to improve their conditions. The terrible segregation faced by blacks in the Southern states, the mass lynchings, public hangings by kangaroo courts, the rise of the Klan were a painful era in American history. The civil rights movement in the 60’s, went a long way, in addressing the issues of black discrimination.

In contemporary US, segregation has become a thing of the past. Where riots broke out in 1900, when Teddy Roosevelt, invited a black educator, Booker T Washington, to the White House, today a Non White American of mixed origins occupies the Oval Office. Blacks have made a name for themselves as sportsmen, movie stars, musicians, artistes, writers and even businessmen. But has racism totally disappeared from US? While racially segregated spaces do not exist, and more blacks are a part of the mainstream, the fault lines still do exist. It bursts out at times like during the 1992 LA Riots or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where blacks complained of discrimination, during relief operations. While the Klan has gone underground, there are still a large number of White supremacist, Neo Nazi organizations, which dream of re establishing White supremacy again.

It is these issues which are explored in American History X, a look at racism in contemporary American society. The background here is not a remote Southern town in Missisippi or Alabama, dominated by rednecks. Rather it is the Venice Beach suburb of Los Angeles, a place having a diverse population. And Derek Vinyard( Ed Norton), is not your average ignorant redneck. Rather he is well educated, working but his racist ideology is of a different hue altogether. California for long has a reputation of being the most “liberal” state in US, and also a state where the non White population , notably Asian and Latinos, are more than the White Caucasian populations. The time period too is contemporary, the 90’s, not the 50’s and 60’s, where segregation was rife.

So what makes Derek the racist, white supremacist? Why is some one growing up in a “liberal” environment, along with other races, believe so deeply in White supremacy? Contrary to assumptions, not every racist, is an ignorant, red necked, bible thumping, Southerner who believes that blacks, Jews, Catholics should be exterminated. There are people like Derek, whose racism stems from the fear of being swamped by outsiders. Derek’s belief in racism, also stems from his family environment. His father,a fire fighter, was in a way responsible for his thought process. The most significant scene in the movie is the news clipping where Derek is interviewed after his father is shot dead, while putting out a fire in a run down neighborhood, notorious for its drug gangs.

Every problem in this country is “race” related. Every problem, not just
crime. These problems are rooted in the black community, the Hispanic community,
the Asian…every non-Protestant group in our society. Look at
the shit. Immigration…welfare…AIDS…they’re all the problems of the
non-white. Look at the statistics.

Again Derek’s thinking here is like that of any average individual. The country is beset with problems, needing a solution, so what to do. Take the easy way out. Find some one to blame it on. And in this case its the “others”. Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in WW1 and its economic misery, back home MNS-Shiv Sena blames North Indian immigrants for the problems Mumbai faces. It is much easy to blame some one for a problem, and then assuming kicking them out would solve it. So throw out all Bhaiyyas from Mumbai, and it would be a clean and green place with no crime, kick out all Latinos from US, and there would be no drug problems, throw out all Muslims and terrorism is eradicated presto.

The other catalyst for Derek’s thought process is personal. Quite often its human tendency, you have a couple of nasty encounters, with people of “X” community, so all people of that community are nasty. Being a Telugu person, i get those jibes, “You gulti guys gang up together and dont let others join a company”, replace Gulti with Mallu, Tam, Bhaiyyas and the tenor is same, “I had a bad experience with A, he/ she belongs to X community, so all members of X community are bad”. In this case Derek’s father was shot dead by couple of Black youths, in that neighbourhood, and that only further deepens his hatred.

Because my father was doing his fucking job! Saving a nigger
neighborhood he didn’t give two shits about! And he got killed by some
drug dealer who still collects a fucking welfare check.

The racism of people like Derek is more scary than that of an ignorant redneck you would encounter in the Deep South. Because Derek is some one who could as well be your neighbour, and unlike the person in the Deep South, Derek’s racism stems not from ignorance, but from knowledge, or more specifically half knowledge. Try reasoning with a person who goes on a rant against “X” community, and the response is “You cant face the truth, it always hurts”. More likely what is being given is the half truth. So statistics on Blacks being involved in crime, are taken as the basis for “All blacks are criminals” or statistics on illegal immigration become the foundation for “All Hispanics are illegal immigrants, who breed like rabbits, and steal our jobs”.

Derek also thrives on having the power, as a white supremacist member. The power which makes him a kind of hero for the people around him. His kid brother Danny( Edward Furlong) who totally hero worships him, his ditzy girlfriend Stacy ( Fairuza Balk) and his loser friend Seth who keeps hanging on with Derek. Derek in turn idolizes Cameron Alexander, a 40 plus leader of a white supremacist gang, who mentors Derek. Cameron, is a kind of hero to people like Derek, some one who defends them from the Black and Latino gangs in that neighborhood. In one way its a question of gang identity, and another way its a question of race identity. In the same way, people consider Arun Gawli, as a hero, because he stood up to the “Muslim” mafia gangs of Dawood Ibrahim. Cameron in turn uses Derek’s oratory skills and gift for rabble rousing to the best effect. He circulates the video tapes of Derek’s interview to other hate groups, as a kind of motivational tool, or as Dr. Sweeney, the black principal of Danny’s high school says a “Gettysburg Address for all hate groups”. Derek takes pleasure in his heroism, which include assaulting a Korean store owner, and challenging black players in basketball games. The basketball court becomes a venue for the race games played out by Derek, to show off their supremacy.

While Danny is impressionable, and easily swayed by what he considers as Derek’s “heroism”, Seth who is a total slob and loser, hangs around with Derek, to take a kind of vicarious delight in Derek’s heroics. Seth is even more racist than Derek, for him racism is a way of overcomming his inferiority complex, of not being good at any thing. The only sane persons seem to be Derek’s helpless mother Doris, who is unable to prevent her son’s slide into bigotry, and his sister Davina, who hates their bigoted views. For her Seth is no better than a “loser Nazi scumbag”. Derek’s blind racist rage hits the peak, when he brutally kills a black person, attempting to steal his car, in one of the most violent scenes ever. He is unrepentant about what he has done, and goes to prison like a hero. And which is another facet of racism, most of the times racists, have no qualms about what they do.

While American History X scores overwhelmingly in the scenes which explore Derek’s descent into racism, culminating in the horrifying scene, where he stomps the black guy to death on the kerb, it was Derek’s transformation from a rabble rouser racist to some one disillusioned with his ways, that seemed a bit too easy and simplistic for me. The scenes are well shot, but the sequence is totally predictable. So you know that Derek, is going to join up the Aryan Brotherhood, and he is going to feel cheated, by the gang’s dealings. Add in a prison rape in the shower, some brutal assault sequences, your friendly Black character Lamont, and a bit of preaching from Sweeney, and we have Derek turning a new leaf. Some how this transformation part seemed way too convenient. The post transformation part is a mixed bag again. Derek comes out of prison a reformed man, but now the poison of racism, has got into his brother Danny. For long Danny, had idolized his brother, and now he has totally imbued that racist ideology.

In one of the earlier memorable scenes, Danny is asked to explain his essay on Mein Kampf, by his school’s principal Dr. Sweeney and his Jewish history teacher Murray, where he comes out with the assertion of Hitler being a Civil rights icon. Something which prompts Dr.Sweeney to give him a history lesson in whats actually happening, or what he calls as “American History X”. Danny however is too deep in to the racist thought process, as we see by his VO, where he repeatedly blames the Asians, Latinos, Blacks for whats happening in the nation. And now it is Derek’s turn to purge the poison from his brother’s mind, the poisonous seed which he had planted here. Derek has to turn away from his racist past, from Cameron, Stacy, Seth people whom he hung around with. And most important he has to make sure that his brother does not go down the same path of self destruction he had.

American History X, is not a perfect movie. As i had mentioned earlier, the transformation of Derek, is a tad too convenient. And while the scenes where Derek tries to disown his legacy of racism and hate, as well as the scenes where he confronts his previous gang members are well shot, the scene where he thrashes Cameron is pretty much brutal, there seems to be an attempt to portray him in a totally white shade, as opposed to his greyish shade. Also while characters of Derek and Danny are well developed, most of the other supporting acts, are the kind of seen that already. The good hearted friendly Black guy, the helpless mother, the more liberal minded sister and the loser friend. But in spite of its flaws, i would still rate this as one of the best movies on racism. As a movie it does hit you hard, as it forces us to take a look at ourselves, our views, our prejudices. Derek could be us, it need not necessarily be Venice Beach, it could be some one sitting in Goregaon who idolizes Raj Thackeray as a hero, or the Indians idolizing Hitler as a hero, or those who believe Muslims are scum needing to be kicked out of the country.

American History X is not an easy movie to watch, apart from the continous shifting between flashbacks in B&W to the present day, some of the scenes do make you flinch, especially Derek’s violent assault on a black person. But as a movie it makes you question your views on “race” and “heroism”. It is a movie that does raise a lot of uncomfortable questions, of why racism is still prevalent, why do people of one skin color hate those of another one. And add to it, a superlative performance by Ed Norton, as Derek, brilliantly capturing the transition from a racist white supremacist to a repentant ex con, who has to stop his brother from heading down the same self destructive path. Watch the maniacal expression in his eyes after he clobbers the black guy to death, scary. And yet you see his vulnerability and sensitivity in the scenes, where he tries to convince his brother to abandon the path.

American History X is a movie that holds up a mirror to the ugly racism prevalent in us. Its not a pretty picture, but its something we can’t choose to ignore.
  1. damn good review…Its more than review, it is a commentory on the issue of racism. well done Sir.

  2. Very difficult topic to represent in film.I am impessed with the work done..So its very important to create an impact with this concept.I haven't seen this movie yet.I expect it to be a good free movies

  3. Very well analyzed and written, as always.

  4. I see and hear similar arguments where I live now as we saw in America History X. I feel that is where the power lies in the film, part of me sympathises with his frustrations but applauds the way he changes the direction his hate has taken him in. Another thought provoking piece.

  5. Like mahak above, I haven't seen the movie though I have read about it. So, as a commentary on racism, I can say the article is very good indeed.In my experience there are three manifestations of racism (four, if you count the involuntary kind that catches us all out from time to time): 1. 'Casual' Racism – I see it in the office all the time e.g. the kind who refer to unreliable/untrustworthy people as 'Arabs' but when they actually meet an Arab treat them perfectly correctly & normally. Perhaps lack of exposure and 'learned' attitudes/references are the problem here.2. Fearful Racism – very straight forward: "my job, community, way of life is threatened by these immigrants". This is down usually to a lack of understanding of the situation, a 'blame someone for my problems who doesn't look/talk like me' attitude. Often inflamed by the 'popular' press. It can be very parochial – Scots v English, Highlanders v lowlanders, my village v your village etc. Getting to know folk generally sorts this one3. Angry Racism – This is a raw emotion that you can walk into like a brick wall. No reasoning or logic will shake it for the simple reason that it IS emotional and completely illogical. You can find it in people with whom, otherwise, you may have had a substantial amount in common. At least in a work environment you can (if uncomfortably) "get on" with them. This, for me, is the most disturbing kind. Often I've tried to dig deeper, to see if there's an incident that may have caused it but with no success. Anger is used as a cloak, a shield against all intruders, an emotional repulsion of any logical argument that might otherwise sway them from their views. They may be in the minority but are not difficult to find. Unfortunately, they also create racist ripples that can leave nasty consequences in their wake.

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