Sunday, December 18, 2016

American History X

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 1998 film pulls no punches, in its violence, its political incorrectness, and in its language, which I will be quoting, despite my aversion for the “f” and “n” words, because the movie’s R-rated script fits the ferociousness of this story. It is a tale, primarily, about the influence of fathers, and father figures, on young, impressionable minds, and how that impact has the power to sway future generations toward anger and hate or peace and acceptance.
The plot here is not linear as there are times that the film, such as in the narrations of both Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and his brother Danny (Edward Furlong), provides backstory to throw light on how past experiences molded future attitudes and behavior. The first image we see is that of the ocean’s waves breaking on the beach. It presents the location, which is Venice, California, but it also implies that there is ebb and flow in life, that there is change, in nature, and which can also occur in humans as they add new experiences onto old ones. Derek’s last name is “Vinyard,” which can imply that there is the possibility of growth, but that the right seeds must be planted to reap a good harvest.


The first scene we witness is in the past, and is a pivotal one in the life of Derek. He is having sex with his girlfriend, Stacey (Fairuza Balk), when Danny interrupts them because some African American youths are breaking into his brother’s truck while carrying guns. The sex scene allows the audience to see Derek’s naked chest, which sports a Nazi swastika tattoo. This image reveals his aversion for black people, and thus, we expect violence from him toward those outside. Because we don’t know the whole story, we can only suspect why the black youths target him. That is the point of the film. If a person only has incomplete information, and is not willing to hear the whole story, one acts out of ignorance. Derek has a gun and shoots one of the intruders to death and wounds another. Some may say he should have called the police, but others may argue that he had a right to defend his home and property, and if he delayed, the young men may have escaped. But, he then forces the wounded man to place his mouth on the curb, and then stomps down on his head, breaking the neck, and thus, killing his victim. This action is no longer self-defense, it is murder, but, because Danny does not testify to what has happened, Derek goes to jail for manslaughter, and does not receive a life sentence for murder. His incarceration affects his family, and causes him, as he later tells Danny, to change his outlook on life.
We later have a flashback which indicates one reason why Derek became a Neo-Nazi. When he was younger, his father, a firefighter, was shot to death by an African American junkie while he was on the job. Shortly after the death, he rants to a TV reporter, saying, “this country is becoming a haven for criminals so what do you expect? You know, decent, hard-working Americans like my dad are getting rubbed out by social parasites.” And he elaborates by saying those “parasites” consist of people with black, brown, and yellow skin. He is not only indicting African Americans who were born here, but also non-white immigrants. His selective reasoning, which ignores any crimes committed by white people, in only blaming certain ethnic groups for problems, shows when he says that his father’s death was race related: “Every problem in this country is race related, not just crime. It’s like immigration, AIDS, welfare, those are problems in them.” He goes on to say that, “They’re not white problems.” He dismisses the argument that these non-white people are victims of their environment. He says that minorities have come here to “exploit” this country, not to “embrace,” a slap to all those hard-working individuals who journeyed to America and love and serve it. He says that white Europeans flourished within a generation, and that hasn’t happened with black people, who continually blame their past. One character, a failed father figure, Murray (Elliott Gould), says that Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years, and it doesn’t mean they should forget about that part of their history. Of course, Derek doesn’t take into account that blacks didn’t come here of their own accord, as did European immigrants, but that white men kidnapped them so that they and their offspring would serve as slaves, He fails to mention that black people were also persecuted after the Civil War, and that those of color, because they appear different than whites, can easily be the recipients of bigotry continuously, as opposed to those white Europeans, who blended into the mainstream. But, the truck those black youths were breaking into that night belonged to Derek’s father who was killed by a drug dealing African American, and that individual horror drives his anger toward a generalized blaming of all blacks.
His attitudes are shared by others, then and now, and sometimes understandable given the parameters of certain experiences. Derek talks about how Venice was once a safe, respectable community. But, ethnic gangs arrived, and white kids became victims of violence. The film reveals how a white audience can identify with Derek and his white supremacist friends when they beat black youths on the basketball court, winning a bet that means that the blacks must now never return to that piece of turf. The music, the depiction of athletic moves, have us, ironically, routing for the white boys. Then the guilt kicks in, realizing we wanted these Neo-Nazis to win. This scene also fleshes out the bigger picture shown in the first scene, which without context, looks like some random black boys attacked white people. Those young men turn out to be the losers in the basketball game who were deluged with racial slurs and humiliated by the bigots on the court, and who, then, unfortunately, seek illegal reprisal.
The first scene depicted in the present shows a controversy over a paper that Danny has written for Murray’s English class. The teacher assigned the topic of writing about a civil rights activist. Danny wrote about Hitler and Mein Kompf. Murray is outraged, but Principal Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), an African American, and an exemplary father figure, sees beyond what Murray is unable to do, that the boy is bright like his brother, who Sweeney taught and considered a brilliant English Honors student. He says Danny learned hatred, so he can “unlearn it.” He also objectively points out that the teacher gave the students free reign to write on the topic, so he shouldn’t shut it down once he established the rules. While Danny is waiting outside as the two men talk, he picks up a tiny American flag sitting on the receptionist’s desk, and waves it. The symbol here signifies the American right of freedom of speech, and, thus, freedom of thought, but it also illustrates how, with that freedom, comes responsibility, and how that freedom can be exploited to propagate fear.

Sweeney tells Danny that he will be his English teacher in an independent study format, and says their course will not deal with the past, but with current events. He calls the class “American History X,” which reminds one of what Black Muslims, such as Malcolm X, used to show how white men stripped their background from them, and they needed to reconstruct their heritage. Sweeney wants Danny to explore his past by assigning him a paper that he must complete by the next morning on his brother Derek, and how his life has affected his family. The principal at this point knows that the older brother, who became Danny’s primary father figure after the death of their dad, has gone through changes, and he hopes that Danny will discover what his brother has learned, and will do likewise.

Because this film is not a one-sided argument, it presents a scene where a group of black boys intimidate a timid white student in the school bathroom. Danny happens to be in the stall, and comes out staring down the leader of the bullies, blowing cigarette smoke into his face. But, the two exchange hostile looks later at a playing field, and someone tells the black student about Danny’s white supremacist ties. That, together with the earlier scene, sets up the final confrontation of the movie. Sweeney, who does outreach work in the community, meets with the local police because he knows that Derek is being released this same day, and he briefs them on a man named Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who preys on vulnerable kids looking for direction, and turns them into Neo-Nazis. He lets his recruits do all the overt activity, which insulates him from legal prosecution.
Derek comes home from prison with his hair grown out. He is concerned about his mother’s health, and doesn’t want Danny going to a fascist rally that evening. He gets a call from Sweeney who tells him of Danny’s controversial English paper, so we know he has been in contact with his ex-teacher, and we see that he is a different person from the one in the earlier flashback scenes. He tells Danny that Sweeney is a good teacher and should complete his assignments. Then there is a visitor in the huge form of Seth (Ethan Suplee). He wears an insect exterminator uniform. His profession mirrors his desire to treat non-white Protestant Americans the same way he deals with bugs. In the previously mentioned basketball game, he wears the number “88,” the eighth letter of the alphabet being “H,” and doubled here means “Heil Hitler” (thank you IMDB). His obesity here is placed in a context that shows him to be a creature who will devour anything in his self-centered path, oblivious to the needs or viewpoints of others. His size makes him appear threatening. He is a demonic father figure, as he interrupts Danny’s legitimate studying, and goads him to spout fascist anger as he films him (later Cameron talks about the beginning power of the Internet, and Seth’s video is probably headed there to influence those beyond the local neighborhood). He says to the boy he wants to know “what you have learned,” echoing Sweeney’s words about learning Nazi propaganda as a student. (Derek says to the black youth just before he kills him, “I’m gonna’ teach you a real lesson now,” showing how learning can have a demonic side if infested with hate). When Danny says that some ethnic types make be okay, Seth shuts him down, going to the extreme by saying they are all bad. He says that Cameron says that they don’t want to know “others,” as if it will pollute their way of thinking by associating with anyone who is not like them. His way of reinforcing compliance with his teaching is with the threat that Danny will be “pistol-whipped” if he doesn’t cooperate. While being recorded, Danny says about the possibly na├»ve belief that everyone should get along, “Save the rhetorical bullshit, Hillary Rodham Clinton, ‘cause it ain’t gonna fuckin’ happen.” Some may say that this line is a foretelling of the recent election.
Danny begins his paper by saying, “People look at me and see my brother.” This sentence shows the influence of older generations on the nurturing younger ones. He then recounts Cameron sending Derek out on a mission to rouse up the neighborhood malcontents. The young man’s speech warns against past, and as it turns out, current fears about letting unscreened illegal aliens into the United States who may cause citizens to lose their jobs, draw benefits from taxpayers, and possibly be a threat to national security. He tells the listeners that there are millions of illegal aliens in California, and that they receive billions of dollars in aid to which they have no legal right. He also says that the government spends millions locking up immigrant criminals that they should have screened out in the first place. He says instead of caring about “the tired, poor, and hungry” (which are noted on the Statue of Liberty) of other countries, we should concentrate on American citizens coming under those categories. But, he does not say vote, get elected, or demonstrate to change the system. Instead, he incites them to attack a grocery store run by Koreans who hired Mexicans, and which caused a couple of the youths to lose their jobs. They beat, vandalize, and terrorize those in the store. The youths undermine their own beliefs when they cover one Hispanic female with milk, saying sarcastically if they turn her white, she might be able to move up in life and get a better job. Ironically, this actually reveals that discrimination because of the color of her skin alone prevents her from becoming accepted and successful.

Danny relates a scene at a dinner with his family and the teacher, Murray, who at the time briefly dated their mother, Doris (Beverly D’Angelo). Derek makes an argument against the riots that occurred after the police incident in Los Angeles with African American Rodney King. He argues that the looting that took place was not politically or economically motivated, just an excuse to steal, and that the police had the right to do what they did because King acted criminally. But, again he pushes his arguments to extremes, shutting down all counter arguments raised by his sister, Davina (Jennifer Lien), telling her to “shut up” and knocking her around. He uses racial slurs against Murray, saying there is no way the teacher is going to have sex with his mother, and threatens him by saying he will cut off his “Shylock nose.” Murray doesn’t get what’s really going on with Derek, and thus isn’t able to reach him or later his brother. Doris sums it up by saying, “He’s just a boy. Without a father.” And, he has such anger because of how his dad died violently at a young age that he feels he needs to blame someone for that loss, and he is fertile ground for someone to exploit that hostility and point it toward someone to blame.
Back in current time, Derek finds Danny at the white supremacist rally, and hears Cameron continuing his indoctrination of his brother. He sends Danny out of the room and confronts Cameron, saying he is out of the movement, warns Cameron to leave his family alone, and that he is on to his lies. But Cameron says Danny will come to him, he won’t have to pursue him, because, he tells Derek, “I’m more important to him than you’ll ever be.” Again, Cameron is a negative father figure who children will seek out for guidance in the absence of other authority figures. Derek is so angry at Cameron trying to take over the parental role that he beats him up. He is able to escape Seth and the others. Danny confronts him, loudly banging his brother against a metal garage door which echoes the clash of loyalties he is experiencing.

Here is where Derek tells his brother of his imprisonment. Because his skinhead look and tattoos showed him to be a Nazi sympathizer, he was a target for the imprisoned blacks. He sought protection among the Neo-Nazis in jail. But he found friendship with a black inmate named Lamont (Guy Torry), who clowned around with him. Derek saw what it is like to be the minority person in prison. As Lamont told him, “You better watch your ass ‘cause you’re in the joint. You the nigger, not me.” When he is gets to know an individual, instead of a stereotype, an intelligent person such as Derek can open his mind to perceiving people differently. Lamont was serving six years for assault of a police officer because after stealing a TV, he accidentally dropped it on a policeman’s foot. Derek now realizes that there may be two kinds of justice for white people and non-whites. He had a shorter term for killing people than the black man for unarmed theft. He also sees his fellow Nazi inmates making drug deals with non-white convicts, and he questions their hypocrisy in their beliefs. His antagonism brings retribution. The skinheads rape and bang his head against the tie in the showers. He says to Danny that he thought he was unprotected, but he realized that Lamont told his black brothers to lay off. When he left, he said to Lamont he owed him, so he decides to cooperate with the police in a possible suicide mission to try and convince Cameron’s followers to end their ways. 


After Danny hears his brother’s story, they go back to their home and strip off the Nazi posters on the bedroom walls. It is like trying to “unlearn” the past and start new. This feeling is reflected in Derek’s taking a shower, trying to wash away in a baptismal act the sins he has committed. He looks in the mirror at his new self, and covers the swastika printed on his chest, trying to block out his past mistakes. He takes a legless teddy bear and gives it to his little sister while tucking her in at night, and then takes the leg and puts it under her pillow, symbolic of his wanting to restore the ripped apart pieces of his family. Danny says in his paper that the seeds of hate were planted before their father’s death. He relates a dinner conversation where their dad, legitimately upset about Affirmative Action causing the hiring of two black men who didn’t score as well as white ones, generalizes his anger against the Ph.D. educated Sweeney, saying he should be assigning “black” books instead of great traditional ones, assuming that neglected works by African American writers can’t be great.  He tells his son to watch out for “nigger bullshit.” It is here that Danny realizes that even the father you love can poison your future with hate.

 But, despite Derek’s current efforts, sometimes what people set in motion cannot be stopped. Derek leaves Danny off at school and he goes into that same bathroom where he confronted the young black boy. He is the one who comes out of the stall this time and commits an excremental act, shooting Danny dead. The sins of the fathers, and would-be parents, do often visit the children, and here the violence of an older generation is perpetuated by the younger ones.
While Derek is in prison, Sweeney visits him after his attack and tells Derek that he used to blame everybody else for his problems. He hated God, society, white people, but his hate gave him no answers to his problems. He was asking the wrong question, he says, and asks Derek “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” Derek tearfully shakes his head and says “No.” Danny at the end of his paper says he has learned that “Hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time.” He says that Derek said to him to end a paper with a quote because there was always somebody who said something better in the past. So, I’ll end with Danny’s last quotation which is from Abraham Lincoln:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The next film is The Hospital, after a two-week holiday break.

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