Title: American History X
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Elliot Gould, Stacy Keach and Beverly D’Angelo
Directed by: Tony Kaye, 1998
“Hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time.” This is the message that director Tom Kaye attempted to convey in the movie American History X. Although I feel the movie was successful in getting this message across, some of the portrayals of characters and stereotypes throughout the movie were questionable and ultimately ended without a clear moral for its young audience to grasp.
Every instance of violence throughout the movie seemed to be perpetuated by an African American character committing the first act. The movie begins with a car full of African Americans in a Chevy Impala (stereotype) driving up to a house and breaking into a car, while armed with guns. Not coincidentally the car they broke into belonged to Darik Vinyard (played by Edward Norton) who was a powerful member of the white supremacy movement that had been building steam in the area. Darik hears the noise outside, loads his pistol, and shoots two of them dead. Later in the movie it shows the past history between one of the victims and Darik when they were playing basketball against each other and the African American is shown playing dirty, elbowing Darik hard and causing his nose to bleed. It makes it look like the white man’s violence is always out of self-defense and Darik’s sentence reflects that, as he receives only a three-year sentence for killing two people. This is a clear example of institutional discrimination. At the end of the movie, Darik’s brother, Danny, is murdered in the school bathroom by an African American classmate over a few cross words and nasty glances exchanged between the two. It appears to me as if neither the characters nor filmmakers grew in any way throughout the course of the movie.
At one point, the movie flashes back in time to depict Darik as a younger child (perhaps 14) showing respect for other cultures, while reading a piece of multicultural literature, “Native Sons,” which is being taught to him by an African American English teacher. However, Darik, still young and impressionable, is interrupted by his ignorant father who tells him not to buy into all of this “black history month crap,” and “affirmative blacktion.” His father, a firefighter, ends up becoming the victim of a shooting at the hands of an African American in a “black” neighborhood while fighting a fire, which causes Darik to abandoned the ideals of respect and tolerance for other races. Kaye does a good here of showing the perspective of both the whites and the minorities. He also illustrates the way discrimination is so often passed from the older generation to the younger, setting off an endless cycle of hatred. Darik’s father does just enough to plant the seed of prejudice in Darik that goes into full bloom when his father is murdered at the hands of a black man.
Years later when his mother’s new boyfriend is over for dinner, a debate ensues about Rodney King, the LA riots, and immigration. The boyfriend tries to calmly point out some of the disadvantages minorities are faced with in this country and the disproportionate power held by the whites. Darik refuses to see any of it and makes minorities the scapegoat for many of the problems in society today. He then proves his bigotry and his anti-Semitic tendencies when he throws the boyfriend out of the house and verbally abuses him with various racial slurs. Here we see the complete transformation of an innocent kid turned into a full-blown racist. Kaye establishes how this hatred is both a product of discriminatory views passed through the generations and one’s own personal experiences with certain groups of people. It’s certainly an extreme example, but it accurately portrays why existing racial tensions will be so difficult to break.
Though Kaye does an admirable job highlighting both perspectives and showing the metamorphosis of a young racist, I don’t think this movie consists of a strong moral to help eradicate racial tension that exists. It addresses there is a problem, but not how the problem can be solved. While serving time in jail Darik is seen making a substantial shifts back from white supremacist to a tolerant, civilized human being. He befriends an African American and turns his back on his former “white power” friends. For this he pays the price, but in the end is rewarded by having a new sense of enlightenment. Upon his release he tries to get his younger brother away from the influence of the “white power” movement and makes preliminary plans to work with the African American principal (his former English teacher) of his alma mater to dissolve the hatred that exists in the community between the blacks and whites. However, the movie abruptly comes to an end in a violent and tragic fashion.
The movie does not go on to show the methods the principal and Darik could have taken to create a harmonious atmosphere between the two races in the community. I think an ending such as this would have passed on a clear, positive message and better served to teach a lesson, rather than the actual climax that consisted of the murder of a white teenager at the hands of an African American. What are kids who grow up around racial tension left to think after this kind of ending? The message seems to say the cycle of hatred and violence between blacks and whites will continue to go on forever. Call me a dreamer, but I think we, as a society, can do better than that.