AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998)
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Racism
CHARACTERS: Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton), Danny Vineyard (Edward Furlong, Derek’s Brother), Doris Vineyard (Beverly D’Angelo, Derek’s Mother), Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks, Danny’s Principal), Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach, Derek’s former mentor), Murray (Elliot Gould, Danny’s History teacher and Doris’s former love interest).
OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR TONY KAYE: Snowblind (2002), “Tony Kaye’s Documentary” (1995, TV Series)
SYNOPSIS: An American Neo-Nazi (Derek) goes to jail for race related charges (voluntary manslaughter). While in jail he becomes aware of the flaws in his idealist racial philosophy and changes his ways. After he’s released, he struggles to stop his younger brother (Danny) from following in his footsteps and eventually convinces him to give up the Neo-Nazi lifestyle. In a tragic turn of events, Danny is shot and killed by a black classmate that he’d insulted earlier.
1. The opening scenes of the movie depict a calm and beautiful beach filmed in black and white. What might be the symbolic significance of this opening scene?
2. In the film, Danny has a history assignment from Murray. The assignment is to be a report on a book relating to the struggle for civil rights. Danny turned in a book report on “Mein Kampf”. Murray sees this as “unacceptable” and “dangerous”. Dr. Sweeney disagrees, saying “You did this to yourself Murray; you told them they could do a paper on “anything related to the struggle for civil rights”, in plain English!” Is Sweeney’s argument justified?
3. Dr. Sweeney confronts Danny about his book report on “Mein Kampf” and brings up Derek’s release on the same morning. Danny replies, “If you brought me in here to talk about Derek you’re wasting your time, what happened to him has nothing to do with me,” to which Sweeney replies “Everything you do has something to do with Derek.” Given Sweeney’s thoughts on this, why is he so adamant that Danny’s new paper assignment be about Derek?
4. Why was the incident where Danny blew smoke in the black student’s face played in slow motion?
5. Derek’s father, who was a fireman, was shot and killed by a drug dealer while trying to extinguish a blaze in a bad neighborhood. A news crew did an interview with Derek shortly after. Derek argued that his father’s death was race related. Was Derek’s transformation into a Neo-Nazi already underway at that point, or was it his father’s murder that triggered it?
6. Several times in the movie, different characters refer to Cameron Alexander as a manipulator who preys on insecure children to bolster his ranks. Why might more insecure kids be better candidates for recruitment into such a life-altering philosophical schema?
7. In two scenes in the movie, the Swastika on Derek’s chest is covered by a hand. First, a police officer covers it coincidentally when Derek is being taken into custody, and second when Derek is back home and looking at himself in the mirror after exiting the shower. How might these events be symbolically related?
8. What difference in the convictions of Derek’s race philosophy and the other skinhead’s race philosophy sparked Derek’s split with them? Why would this event (aside from his subsequent rape) lead him to change his opinions about his philosophy?
9. What was the ultimate reason for Derek’s switch in his philosophy on race while he was in prison?
10. Later in the movie, the audience discovers that Derek’s initial racist thoughts might have been cultivated by his father, rather than by Cameron, as the audience has been led to believe. Does this situation accurately reflect reality and the way most young people acquire such beliefs?
Author: Carey McFarland