Major spoilers for American History X

One of the most startling criticisms of American History X is that the writing tends to favor the white supremacy arguments, and speeches made by Derek Vinyard and company are the ones that make the most sense. The conclusion to be drawn here is that the movie, in its attempt to counter racism, becomes racist.

I think it’s helpful to view the racism as a theme in American History X as a vessel of the truly significant theme: ideology. What’s important about the Neo-Nazism is not how it applies to race relations as depicted in the film, but that it is so strong. We witness Derek committing atrocities in the name of this mentality – assaulting a grocery store that had been taken over by a Korean and a group of illegal immigrants – and so it must be that his speeches are equally strong. It would be incorrect for us to take anything from these speeches but ‘he is so sick that he’s actually made sense of this.’

The change that Derek undergoes is so powerful because it is these strong ideologies that betray him and leave him entirely shaken. The black-and-white flashbacks to the first timeline show a Derek that is aggresive, strong, intelligent, and charismatic. Ethan Suplee’s character Seth and Derek’s girlfrield Stacy are both in love with him, but as the second timeline’s party sequence shows, they only love the Nazi within him. Once that Nazi was removed, he became the new Derek, released from prison, and an enemy of the cause.

The ultimate lesson taken out of American History X is that deeply ingrained philosophy and teachings can lead to narrow-mindedness, which is very dangerous. In this way, the Neo-Nazism in the movie which is such an important subject, could almost be swapped out for any other extremist ideal, and that bothers me as a fan of science-fiction, where the science-fiction elements are often not integral to the themes. That naturally leads me to the question: why were they selected? Sometimes there is a reason, as in the case of The Forever War, but I prefer the scenario where the SF is absolutely essential to the novel, as in the case of something like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That movie is about two things, and they’re both androids. It examines the android as a detached human being, and in this way, discusses at length the android as fictional creation.

In American History X, other than the fact that Neo-Nazism is an extension of Nazism, and this brings in discussion of hate from the past (more on that later), I still haven’t quite come to the most satisfying conclusion as to why it’s Neo-Nazism other than it would be interesting to see. And it is interesting – the things that these people do are interesting and often compelling. But a very similar movie could have been done with even Muslim extremists. If the heart and soul of the movie is a redemption story that so perfectly conveys the message, the skin is the Neo-Nazism.

I don’t believe that this is negatively impactful on the final picture, because American History X is extremelypowerful. The use of slow-motion and over-the-top scoring in tandem is used to heighten small moments, like the shower scene of Timeline: Present, or Timeline: Past’s scene where Derek’s mother looks back on the house after boyfriend Murray leaves her, and is very effective. Stand-alone sequences like the Rodney King discussion and the party-crashing are very memorable, and of course, are all held together by a famously good performance by Edward Norton. The redemption arc, which in itself is interesting as an inversion of the classic revenge tale, hinged on the power of Norton, and he came through.

Perhaps the most important thing that the Neo-Nazism as subject provides for the movie is creating a sense of disgust in our perception of the character of Derek, and the fact that he ends up sympathetic by the end pays a testament to the strength of the screenplay. Somehow this character executes a black person and we know that he does this specifically because he is black, and later on we are rooting for him. The redemption story is very well constructed; a rare instance where a nonlinear timeline was put to great use. Here, the timeline jumping from past to present compares constantly the character at the two ends of the redemption, and foreshadows that the past is not so easily forgotten, and may come back to haunt us – a parallel to the ending of the movie.

The redemption story is almost a revision of the revenge story, where the revenge story finds a hero and turns him into a monster, which is a time honored tale reaching as far back as Shakespeare and finding a particular home with our modern Chan-Wook Park, but I find this redemption story as a template more profound: we start with a villainous, easy-to-hate character who throughout the events of the movie, becomes a hero.

Of course, the lesson of the movie comes full circle by the end of the movie, where the redemption story, while doing good for our hero, isn’t enough. Danny is shot for his actions earlier, and with these young gangster types, as we learn from Singleton pictures, kids with guns are opportunists and don’t get pushed far to be considered pushed. Ultimately, the evils of the past have serious ramifications – but only if we continue to let them. Neo-Nazism may just be important because it is a continuation of Nazism, and American History X teaches us (the title of couse referring to such unconventional teachings, a la Higher Learning) that strong ideologies that existed yesterday, like Nazism, brought into today that we let invade our minds can not be treated – it has to be prevented.