'American History X' Premiered 20 Years Ago, But It's More Relevant Than Ever
With the rise of the alt-right in America, we look back at the film that tried to warn us of the pitfalls of neo-Nazism.
Two decades ago, American History X brought to life the ugly realities of white supremacy. Never before had moviegoers seen the horrifying minutiae of Neo-Nazi skinhead culture –– flowing blood and cracking bone, the hypocrisy, the devotion to hate, the difficult journey of leaving hate for good. It was billed as a “message” picture that showed how adherents to this horrifying ideology might leave that life behind. That they might even work toward redemption.
Today, the hate that American History X tried to explore as a cautionary tale of sorts is part of establishment political discourse. The film deeply underestimated the extent to which hate can infect, spread, and achieve widespread influence in American culture. That underestimation reflects our current ignorance of the origins of hate, of how hate can be combated, and suggests that greater awareness might ease its grip on our society.
“I don’t think anyone watching American History X in the nineties thought its white supremacist characters would ever become mainstream,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “In the nineties, these views were way outside the mainstream. Today, some of them are being echoed from the White House.”
The film depicts a young skinhead (played by Edward Furlong) analyzing and interpreting the events surrounding the incarceration of his older brother for voluntary manslaughter. The latter, however, leaves prison ready to abandon white supremacy for a life free of hate. The result overflows with racist rhetoric that reflects statements made by President Donald Trump himself.
The following, for instance, is from a speech shouted by Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton, in an Academy Award-nominated role) to his Neo-Nazi cohort prior to assaulting the non-white employees of a grocery store: "Our border policy's a joke! So, is anybody surprised that south of the border they're laughing at us? Laughing at our laws?” The idea of foreigners wantonly “laughing” at America’s immigration laws is a metaphor Trump has used for years. On July 30, Trump tweeted: “Illegal immigration is a top National Security problem. After decades of playing games, with the whole World laughing at the stupidity of our immigration laws…” The tweet goes on to suggest that the Democrats are conspiring to undermine America’s immigration system.
The laughter is gone from this discourse as the president, his advisors, and his allies have shifted to more militant language. Referring to the Migrant Caravan traveling north from Central America, Trump tweeted “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump has followed-up his venomous bluster against these migrants, in particular, by ordering the Pentagon to send up to 14,000 troops to the US-Mexico border as well as threatening to eliminate birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
In another scene, Danny Vinyard (Furlong) recalls how he idolized his older brother Derek for successfully driving people of color away from public spaces in Venice Beach, saying in voiceover, “For a while, he really made it like it was ours again.” Returning our supposedly broken social systems to some former glory is a core tenet of Trumpism, and the current iteration of America’s conservative movement. Danny’s sentiment, that Venice Beach was ours again, is merely a localized version of Trump’s perennial rallying cry to Make America Great Again.
Folks in the nineties understood American History X as a product of domestic terrorism. The film, in part, captured the public’s fear and fascination with militant white supremacist groups following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing orchestrated by Timothy McVeigh. The attack killed 168 people, the most destructive terrorist event on American soil until 9/11. Communities across the country feared that theirs would become the next target in an unfolding reign of terror aimed at establishing a white ethnostate.
The attacks on 9/11 upended those fears. The unspoken national concept of “terrorist” shifted from white American male to nebulous Arab foreigner. “If the terrorist is homegrown, there’s always a possibility that you’re going to give them some kind of pass. The unspoken impression is that they can’t be as bad as the brown people from other countries,” says Paul Smith, professor of cultural studies at George Mason University.
The nuanced tale unfolding throughout American History X turned out to be an aberration. Entertainment and popular culture eagerly cast Muslims as America’s bogeyman du jour. Meanwhile, the zero-sum nature of the American attention span left no room for fears of white supremacy and its fanatical adherents, forcing them to the farthest fringes of worries and fears. Films in the early-aughts like Arlington Road and The Sum of All Fears became the norm. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis were villains devoid of all but the most basic motivations for their morbid crimes.
“Even when homegrown terrorists were quite active in the nineties, we didn’t ask them very much about themselves,” says Smith. “Certainly, there’s a real absence of people pointing to the fact that white supremacist ideas have been around in American culture for a century and a half, and have appeared in different places at different times.”
This disinterest in a full view of history is endemic to American culture. It causes the past to become a mishmash of individual motives divorced from its own larger context. It’s a defense mechanism that prevents the assignation of blame for massive cultural traumas, like slavery and state-sanctioned racism.
American History X is, in part, a victim of this individualization of history. Its atomized story distills a complex journey into the bodies of Derek and Danny. And yet, we never see the payoff of either these characters confronting, head-on, the hate they helped to fester.
In the film’s final act, Derek convinces Danny to join him in abandoning white supremacism. Derek is himself called on by community leaders to confront his old gang over a recent incident. Derek wavers. He tries to find a way out of becoming an active participant in this struggle, but finally if noncommittally agrees to help. The promised payoff –– one last meeting between Derek and his former gang –– is permanently interrupted after Danny is gunned down by a black classmate retaliating over a confrontation the former instigated at the start of the movie.
According to the film, there’s never an end to the repercussions from the violence of white supremacists. There are pauses of random duration, but the film never makes clear how the tragedy they breed might translate into real change. Danny’s murder takes precedence over Derek confronting his former crew. A similar trauma started Derek on the journey that led to white supremacism. A single act of violence doubly interrupts both protagonists from turning their newfound anti-hate into actions that help stop the white supremacy both had actively spread. With Danny as Derek’s primary motivation to move beyond hate, he’s now left vulnerable to returning to that world.
Pauses between this kind of violence hardly seems to exist anymore. There’s no difference between the fundamental hate of the gangs represented in American History X and the various groups of today’s fringe right. Whether it’s the Alt-Right marching on Charlottesville, Proud Boys brawling in streets countrywide, an armed anti-Semite stalking death into a synagogue, or Derek Vinyard mid-curb-stomp, it’s all the same. White supremacy has existed for centuries. It’s lurked on the fringes of American power since the birth of this nation. Its reign in the White House may very well continue unless the people vote for non-racist and avowedly non-white-supremacist candidates over the course of the next several elections.
Still, there is at least one notable difference that makes today’s white supremacists far more dangerous than the skinheads of American History X. The movie portrays skinheads as visually different from non-hateful folks. They’re suited up in boots with red laces, heads gleaming from a fresh shave, and tatted with Nazi insignia and racist slogans. White supremacists today have largely adopted a policy of fitting into society rather than standing out.
“Nowadays, you have Richard Spencer wearing a polo shirt and some khakis. It’s a good branding effort that allows white supremacists to slink into spaces and attract audiences that someone wearing boots and some horrible racist t-shirt couldn’t back in the day,” warns Beirich.
Gavin McInnes* and his group The Proud Boys, who don't identify as white nationalists but share many of the core values, for example, sport Fred Perry polos as a kind of uniform. Neo-nazi blogger and founder of The Daily Storm Andrew Anglin similarly attempted to declare New Balance sneakers as white people’s official shoes. Viewed together, these seemingly frivolous sartorial preferences form a diabolical pattern.
“All these groups that are around now are just us from the nineties that have been polished up a little bit. I’ll hear some of this stuff and all I can think about is how I heard the same exact thing thirty years ago,” says Frankie Meeink, co-founder of Life After Hate, a group that helps white supremacists exit the movement. Meeink was involved with a skinhead gang during his formative years. He chose to leave after interactions with members of the Jewish and black community made him question his beliefs. Some claim that American History X was based on his story, though Meeink doesn’t care whether that’s true or not. The message of Life After Hate is what matters.
Trump himself has made white supremacist views part of his legacy, upholding those vicious values through his White House policies. “I’m a nationalist,” he cried out on a stage in Texas. He tweets, "Today’s Democrat Party would rather protect criminal aliens than AMERICAN CITIZENS - which is why the Democrats must be voted OUT of OFFICE!" His use of the term “Democrat,” in particular, reflects several moments in American History X. White supremacists in the film casually use the word as a pejorative against any who disagree with their views, especially women.
The entrenchment of these beliefs in the White House has granted white supremacists unprecedented influence around the country. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Historically, these groups rise during Democratic presidencies out of fear of gun control measures and federal law enforcement action against them. They typically decline under GOP presidencies. This has not been the case under Trump, whose radical views and bigotry may be energizing them in the same way he has invigorated hate groups.” A recent study, furthermore, found that close to 6 percent of whites in the US hold Alt-Right views, amounting to at least 11,000,000 people nationwide.
“Those numbers are massive compared to where they were when American History X came out,” says Tony McAleer, Board Chair of Life After Hate.
For McAleer, a former white supremacist, the lasting legacy of the film is its characters’ capacity for turning toward love and compassion. “It really presents an allegory to an exit program. It’s a brave, bold film, years ahead of its time,” he says.
The film, as such, builds to a moment when Derek, at his lowest, receives tough love and compassion from his high school English teacher Sweeney (played by Avery Brooks), who is black. He regularly visits Derek in prison and becomes the individual that tasks Danny with the essay about Derek’s life that gives the film its structure. In a defining moment, Derek is raped by Aryan Nation inmates for questioning their commitment to white supremacy. Sweeney arrives with books and consoles Derek, but asks, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” Derek sobs. No, his unspoken answer.
“At that moment, I started crying,” says McAleer. “I answered that question for myself the same way he did.”
Groups like Life After Hate believe that Sweeney’s approach of outreach, dialogue, and compassion is the surest way to end hateful tendencies. This can become problematic, since the burden of educating and reforming white racists can fall to black and non-black people of color. By this accord, Sweeney encapsulates the trope of the “Magical Negro,” tasked with variously solving the problems of white protagonists and absolving them of their racial biases.
Even so, Meeink believes that openness and the willingness to find common ground offer the best opportunity for changing the minds and hearts of white supremacists.
Meeink says, “When I talk to people about leaving these thoughts behind, we don’t even start out talking about their beliefs. I talk about life. It’s just about looking at your life and wondering if it’s where you’re meant to be.”
Major media outlets have struggled alongside many in the general public with how to talk about white supremacy. The New York Times, for example, received a swarm of critiques for a piece published that many believe pandered in bothsidesism regarding the rhetoric that inspired the MAGAbomber. It seems like every news cycle makes these groups an increasingly prominent part of the national discourse. People want a way to discuss and investigate what that means for the culture at large, but the violence inherent to white supremacy nullifies our capacity for focusing on anything outside its bountiful brutality.
Twenty years since it’s release, American History X could be a way for our culture to interact with this pervasive and complex issue. Through it, we can better understand both the need to hold white supremacists accountable for their actions, as Sweeney does for Derek, and invite them to embrace a life of love, as Derek does for Danny. It represents one of our few cultural touchstones documenting white supremacy. Its viewers can better understand just how deeply-rooted this problem is, and why it cannot be allowed to grow unabated.
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*Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of Vice Media. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded The Proud Boys organization in 2016.