History Repeats Itself



Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard in American History X

Ian Obst, Online Editor

The following article contains spoilers for American History X, a rated R drama focusing on racism. Any quotes from the movie are verbatim, and do not reflect the author’s opinion.


The first time I watched American History X, it was only because of my familiarity with its leads. I had seen and loved the performances of Edward Norton in Fight Club and Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, respectively. To me, anything with them had to be at least watchable. What I had not expected was what the movie ended up being. American History X is a view of the brutal and harsh realities of racism and its roots within a person. It was shocking, uncomfortable and heartbreaking by the end credits. Even still, I consider it to be one of the best films I have ever seen. But with recent events, it can be hard to see this movie as just a movie. It becomes a statement on times that should have passed long ago, but still exist in some capacity, detailing the possible roots and effects of a racist ideal. While plenty of events show this throughout the film, the most impacting aspect is that of main character Derek Vinyard, whose story portrays modern possibility and sometimes reality.

To understand that statement is to know what the film is first, and to go through it in chronological order. Searching the film’s title on Google presents the following synopsis:

“Living a life marked by violence and racism, neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) finally goes to prison after killing two black youths who tried to steal his car. Upon his release, Derek vows to change his ways; he hopes to prevent his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes Derek, from following in his footsteps. As he struggles with his own deeply ingrained prejudices and watches their mother grow sicker, Derek wonders if his family can overcome a lifetime of hate.”

The views of these fictional characters prove to be the catalyst for many events throughout the story, including the beginning and ending. The neo-Nazi views are not an unknown idea at this point in time, as witnessed by this year’s events in Charlottesville. The film shows both a fictional depiction of the destructive nature the ideal can have, as well as its roots. Though the film is set in non chronological order, it is easy to go through Derek’s journey and analyze the film’s message. In a pivotal scene, the details of Derek’s mindset is shown. As Danny describes how Derek claims it started with the death of their father Dennis at the hands of drug dealers, a dinner scene shows the real cause: a seeming racist tirade from the father, upon hearing of an essay Derek must write over Native Son. Dennis immediately claims the book as a form of black action, replacing “great books for black books.”

Dennis’s speech goes on for several minutes before connecting it to his job as an officer, saying how black officers got picked for their jobs over white officers despite the latter scoring higher. This already prompts a change in Derek, seen in his interview following his dad’s death.

“How do you think I feel?” Derek tells the reporter. “I think it’s typical. Well this country is becoming a haven for criminals so what do you expect? Decent hardworking Americans like my dad are getting rubbed out by social parasites. Blacks, browns, yellow, whatever. Yeah, [my father’s murder] is race related. Every problem in this country is race related, not just crime. Like immigration, AIDS, welfare. Those are problems in them. The black community, the hispanic community and the asian community. They’re not white problems. They’re not products of their environment either, that’s [wrong]. Minorities don’t give two [expletive] about this country. They come here to exploit it, not to embrace it.”

Derek’s views here come from the moment he brought Native Son home, from the moment that his father implanted those views and prejudices. This is not uncommon. The internet is full of stories about people dealing with their family’s prejudices, such as Connie Schultz writing for the Atlantic. She described her father “[ranting] about black people he’d never met.” Schultz did not give into the family views, instead seeing her friends as confidants. But the opposite can also be seen as true, with older views successfully imposing themselves on youth. NFL player Benjamin Watson, speaking with Dr. Meg Meeker for her podcast Parenting Great Kids, responded to a question about the effects of the parents.

“In the same way we may want our children to pick up a trait that we’ve learned whether it’s carpentry or being a mechanic or being a lawyer or doctor…we have to do the same thing when it comes to dealing with race, when it comes to generosity and charity, when it comes to being kind to other people, when it comes to honesty or whatever you want to show them,” Watson responded. “You have to be willing to submit yourself to the hard work of demonstrating that to the best of your ability.”

As the film continues, the audience continues to see the pieces of Derek’s journey. In the time following his father’s death, he helps in founding a neo-Nazi group, enacting a race-charged attack on a grocery store, and committing the murders that put him behind bars. It is here, the moments where Derek is seen in prison, that the effects of hate and racism are seen in continuing brutality. As Derek becomes disillusioned with the ideals he was raised in, he becomes the victim of an attack by neo-Nazi inmates. As he recovers, with the help of high school principal Dr. Sweeney, his mindset changes, determined to save his brother Danny from the same path. Though its ending is far from the perfect outcome, the events leave Derek a changed man and leave the audience with a different or expanded view.

Watching American History X feels like a view of the past come true in the modern day. Between all of the controversy surrounding racism in society and the place of illegal immigrants, which form many of the points in-between Derek’s story, it becomes tricky to not view parts of modern society when watching it. No sides have to be taken with this movie; it really feels unnecessary to point out who’s right or wrong in a film that leans so far to portray racism and hate in the way it does. However, what can be said is the importance of this film. It provides a surprisingly modern view on society, seen from both angles of the world. Whatever side one may take, American History X is incredibly shocking and relevant. It just happens to also be a great film.