‘American History X’ Was the Film That Taught Me a Lesson About Masculinity
It's just a shame the benchmark of masculinity that it set revolved around a violent, racist scumbag.
Remember when Edward Norton was in what felt like every must-see English-language film under the shimmering sun? There was American History X, there was Fight Club. There had been Primal Fear, there came The 25th Hour. Here was an American actor born to extend De Niro's legacy for a new generation of young male cinephiles in need of a role model; one who possessed an ability to play characters as relatable as they were intense.
For a brief moment, Norton owned the rights to a certain brand of Hollywood Hero. Make what you will of his reputation as a perfectionist-cum-complete-arsehole on sets, in his performances, at least, there's something endearingly and inimitably him: smart, confident, never too showy. He was the logical choice to shit-talk Generation Ikea and white-collar alienation in Fight Club, and we might view his articulate, calculated misanthropy in that film as a natural extension of the engineered schizophrenia he displayed in Primal Fear. Between and beyond these performances, there's a trace of Norton himself.
But it was his performance as Derek Vinyard in American History X that I fell in love with, because it was as Derek Vinyard that he was topless, chiselled, goateed, tattooed, immaculate, fit, assertive, masculine and principled.
Only, by "principled" I mean he plays a violent, despicable neo-Nazi; and by "tattooed" I mean he has a fucking swastika on his chest – which is enough to repel any teenager with at least some sense of what's right and what's wrong. There's nothing wrong, however, with being topless, chiselled, goateed, immaculate, fit, assertive and masculine. What teenage boy doesn't want to be all of those all at once? But a fascist? Needless to say, I was conflicted.
I didn't see American History X until I was about 14 or 15, in the early-to-mid 2000s, some way into what, for the sake of argument, we'll call an "advanced interest in cinema". The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface – I'd seen them all and was handsomely equipped to start filling in the gaps of what was to be a formative adolescence with the impossibly quick-witted shtick of Romper Stomper, Chopper and some of the films Guy Ritchie made before he turned Sherlock Holmes into a steampunk sociopath.
American History X had very little to do with Snatch or Lock Stock, other than their similar brand of hypermasculinity and the fact that I seemed to discover them all at the same time – probably around the time I was also discovering the joys of playing my Nintendo 64 until morning, soundtracked by Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory, which, at the time, was the greatest album ever made.
These films fitted into a certain brand of accessible, middlebrow seriousness made by Hardworking White Males aspiring to a kind of pseudo-European art house sensibility. They were tailor-made for burgeoning cine-literate – and perhaps working-class – boys like myself, making their way beyond the Francis Ford Coppolas and Martin Scorseses of this world. They're the directors to whom you'd pay lip service, while feasting daily on the quicker, more addictive, less challenging fix of... well, American History X.
To briefly recall the film's plot: LA racist skinhead Derek Vinyard is released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for killing an armed black man attempting to burgle his home. In jail, though, Derek discovered the joys of interracial fraternity after a) being paired for laundry duty with a not-so-bad black man by the name of Lamont (Guy Torry), and b) being raped in the showers by a bunch of neo-Nazis even worse than he is.
Out of prison and on the right path – as evidenced by his shaven face and a head of hair – Derek must save his kid brother Danny (Edward Furlong, somehow no older than he'd looked in Terminator 2 eight years earlier) from the clutches of his old gang, led by Stacy Keach, Derek's demented ex-girlfriend (Fairuza Balk) and Randy from My Name Is Earl.
And when I put it all down like that, I wonder why I was ever taken with this film. I suppose, at one point, I was its target demographic: a young, impressionable lad from Gateshead who, perhaps unable to appreciate a more complex dramatic rendering of racism – which might show it to be a historically ingrained, institutionalised process that sometimes appears unwittingly, or even with a smile – could instead be reminded that Racism Is Bad in the same way that snow is white and water is wet.
Watch the film as an anti-racist and you're able to champion its message that Racism Really Is Bad. Watch the film as a neo-fascist, not unlike Derek Vinyard, and your views are unlikely to be changed. Therein lies the problem when your target audience is already converted to your cause: it gives them permission to like, or even love, the alluring, insidious villain (because, here, the villain is also the hero!).
But picture a scrawny little kid with sauce-bottle shoulders, whose balls are dropping and whose daily bonds form around discussions of the previous night's episode of Eurotrash. You might then begin to see how I was duped by Edward Norton single-handedly winning a 3-on-3 basketball game that's shot and edited like a fucking Reebok advert, despite the fact its narrative pretext is a racially motivated turf war with the Crips. That the aforementioned rape scene is seemingly styled after a TV spot for a men's hair product that could be aired during the Superbowl only adds to the dread.
American History X wants it both ways. It wants to moralise about something anyone with half a brain doesn't need to be preached to about in the first place. But it also wants to ensure that, at no point, is its white male protagonist truly detestable. Even when Derek curb-stomps a black man to death, the camera can't help but fetishise over Norton's physique as he turns, mad-eyed, to proudly face the cops with his hands behind his head.
The black-and-white and slow-motion only emphasises the definition of his supremacist biceps. And all the while, it's fine not to be too repulsed, because the structure of the film tells us that Derek is already a reformed man. For his performance, Norton was duly nominated for an Oscar.
All of which is to say that American History X is a straw man made of counterfeit wicker. But I do owe the film something. That ludicrous basketball scene got my teenage self pumped, for a brief moment, at the thought of prioritising a fitness routine, of getting into shape, of going about things with the same kind of militant edge that Derek Vinyard does – without the racism, without the violence, without the fucking Swastika on my chest. Trouble is, Derek's hypermasculinity is a masculinity too far. Norton embodies it with such conviction that I thought I could, too – in the same way I think today that I can just nip along to my local pool hall and get a 147 after watching Ronnie O'Sullivan pot snooker balls for fun.
In the end, Norton's an actor, and a very, very good one: he makes it look easy. I, sadly, am not an actor. I'm also shit at basketball, and have as little time for dumbbells as I do for racists. As I do, in fact, for films that veil racial tolerance in the cloak of homophobic fear mongering. And as I do, finally, for any whiff of a suggestion that the best cure for hating black men is to be gang raped by white men.
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