American History X

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Edward Norton and Edward Furlong star as brothers Derek and Danny Vinyard: both promising students who are both drawn into involvement with a Neo-Nazi gang in California's multicultural Venice Beach area. The charismatic Derek is the leader of a racist gang and a hero to his young brother, until his trip to prison radically alters his previously held convictions. Derek is spurred to prevent Danny from going down the same path he did.

The film American History X is framed as starting near the end, with Danny writing a paper about the events that led to Derek being sent to prison. The film covers the transition from hatred to the gradual realization of the pointlessness of resentment, as well as the nature of racism.

Tropes used in American History X include:
  • Abhorrent Admirer: Derek's sister notices Seth trying to upskirt her with his camera and... rearranges herself.
  • Accidental Pervert: At the start of the story, Danny tries to alert Derek that a couple of black guys are breaking into his car. Derek happens to be boning the crap out of his girlfriend at the time.
  • Affably Evil: Cameron Alexander is friendly, polite and seems to have real affection for the kids under his rule, seeing himself as a father figure to many of Them. This makes him even worse as it shows just how much power he has on these impressionable, misunderstood kids.
  • Alliterative Family: Dennis and Doris Vinyard name their children Derek, Davina, and Danny.
  • Angry Black Man: Sweeney says he was an angry young man.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Has anything you've done made your life better?"
  • The Atoner: Derek at first was a violent and racist Jerkass, but he tries to save his little brother from the same fate once he gets out of prison.
  • Ax Crazy: Derek's girlfriend Stacey is always visibly excited, manic even, by violence.
  • Bald Black Leader Guy: Avery Brooks as Dr. Robert Sweeney, who is willing to fight for the Vinyard brothers, in whom he sees echoes of his younger self.
  • Bald of Evil: The skinheads. Could be considered an Invoked Trope.
  • Battle Discretion Shot: The scene where Cameron and a compatriot are attacked by some random black guys. A deleted scene shows them hassling an interracial couple then being chased down. The final cut has it happening entirely off-screen.
  • Being Evil Sucks
  • Berserk Button: "I'm not fat! I'm husky!"
  • Big Brother Mentor: For better or worse.
  • Big Brother Worship: Played with.
    • Danny plays this perfectly straight. Derek is his idol and Danny will follow in Derek's footsteps. Period. When Derek goes neo-Nazi, Danny goes neo-Nazi. When Derek comes home and says, "No. This is not the way.", Danny gives it up and eschews Nazism in all its forms.
    • Davina, the elder sister, is more complex. She adores Derek in the present and thinks he's wonderful. She's willing to follow his lead and, indeed, is very nearly silent except for criticizing Derek's former and Danny's present neo-Nazi friends. In the past, she was willing to go after Derek with a baseball bat (though not without some fairly heavy provocation). Clearly, she loves the man her brother is now much more than the boy he was.
    • Henry, the kid at the end who murders Danny did it because his big brother told him to.
  • Big Eater: Seth. When sent out of the room, he complains that he's hungry. He even picks the black jelly bean out of a bowl of white jelly beans and pours them into his mouth.
  • Blatant Lies: "I want to talk to my brother. Seth, go wait in Danny's room. I'm glad to see you. I'm glad to see you, man."
  • Butt Monkey: Derek and Davina are both more than happy to berate Seth in the present. He's a fat racist, which makes him an Acceptable Target, but you wonder why he sticks around. He used to be Derek's bestest, most racist friend. When Derek was the Dark Messiah of Southern California's Neo-Nazi movement.
  • Catch Phrase: Lamont, aight?
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Henry, the black kid who Danny confronts in the school bathroom. Literally.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: From beginning to end, all Derek says in the rape scene are "Fuck you!"
  • Cool Old Guy: Sweeney.
  • Cool Teacher: Sweeney exercises remarkable influence over Derek as a great teacher, until Derek's father squelches it as "n****r bullshit". He does the same for Danny, though he's since been promoted to principal. That he and Derek have that connection is what makes his later intervention so effective.
  • Coming of Age Story: Simultaneously that of Derek and Danny.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The murder that lands Derek in prison.
  • Curb Stomp Battle: Literally. Possibly the Trope Namer, if not the Trope Codifier.
  • Dark Messiah: Derek even looks like the page picture. He's referred to as Father Vinyard after he gets out of prison by some impressionable youths.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The flashbacks.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Danny.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Derek kills a man for trying to steal his truck.
    • Also, Derek killed a man while Lamont stole a TV. Lamont was in prison before Derek got there, he's still there when Derek leaves.
      • Three-strikes law?
  • The Dog Bites Back
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: The film's message is "racism is bad", but the contrast between the generally charismatic Nazis and the villainous black gangs, along with some general Misaimed Fandom tendencies among certain audiences, means that the film is actually quite popular in certain white supremacist circles. Which is just plain maddening the more you think about it...
    • The most (in)famous scene in the film is when Derek curb-stomps that black man from the basketball courts; you're not supposed to think it's cool or awesome.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Lamont stole a TV from a shop right next to a donut store. There were three cops there when he came out.
  • Downer Ending
  • Drugs Are Bad: When Derek establishes himself not just as a bad guy (see: Curb Stomp Battle) but as a leader, he makes one of his followers drop and stub out a joint. "We don't do that. Have some respect." On the other hand, a lot of white supremacist groups dislike marijuana for its associations with black culture.
  • Easy Evangelism: To be fair, what Derek went through is likely to make anyone do some reflective thinking.
  • Embarrassing Tattoo: Derek's no longer proud of the swastika on his chest.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the face of his multiple pro-Nazi tattoos and the fact that he went to prison for the brutal murder of a black man, and the fact of his incredibly racist rant on national television, and the fact that his little brother wrote a racist screed on Mein Kampf, why should we like this guy? Oh, he's spent the last ten minutes being dismissive and insulting of the big fat racist. So has his beautiful sister. Surprisingly, it works.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas
  • Everybody Smokes
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The neo-Nazis all assume that prison messed with Derek's head or that he's scared of revenge for the murder he went to prison for.
  • Evil Old Folks: Cameron Alexander, the creepy old fascist who is manipulating Danny into joining his gang.
  • Evil Mentor: Cameron Alexander, again.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Derek's hair growing back out in prison shows his change of heart and the passage of time.
  • Fan Disservice: The prison shower scenes.
  • Fat Bastard: Seth, the morbidly obese and hilariously inept sidekick of Derek.
  • Foreshadowing: The Magical Negro says to Derek, "Lemme tell you something, you better watch y'ass."
  • Freudian Excuse: Derek's father was a kind of Archie Bunker-style blue collar racist who plants the seeds for Derek's future political views. When his father is murdered by black gang members, Derek interprets this as an indication that his father's racial politics were right all along.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Justified in that it's a Prison Rape.
  • Gang-Bangers: The black street gangs in Venice Beach. In opposition to them, Derek formed a gang of white skinheads who were sick of being pushed around.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Good people are portrayed as victims of smoking (Derek's mom), evil people enjoy smoking (all dem neo-Nazis).
    • Derek specifically criticizes Danny for smoking and gently criticizes his mother for the same.

Derek: She's coughing her lungs out and you're blowing this shit in her face all day?

  • Gorn: The murder that sent Derek to prison and the death of Danny.
  • Heel Face Turn: Derek.
  • Hot Mom
  • Hypocrite: Turns out Cameron's vaunted prison time was just a two month stint before he rolled on some kids.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Danny berates his mom for smoking, then takes a drag before stubbing out the cigarette.
  • I Resemble That Remark: Derek takes exception to his sister calling him "Mister KKK". He's not part of a low rent organization like the KKK. He has class. Danny's impressed.
  • The Illegal: The focus of some of Derek's rants and at least one raid.
  • Important Haircut: Shaving it off shows that Derek has taken his father's racism Up to Eleven. Inverted later on when Derek grows his hair out to demonstrate his disaffection with the neo-Nazis.
  • Ironic Echo: Derek sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo. Lamont sports a shaved head and a goatee/mustache combo.
  • It's All Junk: The Nazi decorations and posters in Danny's bedroom. You can feel healing going on as Danny and Derek tear them down together.
  • Jaw Breaker: Derek kills a man in a disturbing scene with a curb stomp.
  • Jerkass: Almost all if not, every character. But Derek himself counts, at first.
  • Kick the Dog: Derek's villain dinner, ranting about the Rodney King riots that culminates with him grabbing his sister by the hair and choking her with a handful of ham, then delivering an anti-Semitic screed chasing away his mother's boyfriend. This is also when we see the murder that landed him in prison.
    • Every time Cameron shows up.
  • Knight Templar: Derek before he gets out of prison.
  • Knight Templar Big Brother: After he gets out of prison.
  • The Load: During the basketball game, Ethan Supplee's character is just a big fat cheerleader.
  • Magical Negro: Lamont, who protected Derek from the African-American gangs in the prison he was incarcerated in. Averted with Dr. Sweeney, whose role is to challenge Derek and Danny to grow beyond their origins, not to "save" them per se.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: The shower scenes.
  • Man Hug: After Derek gets out of prison, he and Danny. Even includes the line, "What's the matter, too big to give me a hug, tough guy?"
  • Meaningful Background Event: When Danny stops to watch a near fight at a basketball game[1], it seems to continue the story of Danny's Real Time difficulties with some black kids at his school. Then [2].
  • Motive Rant: Derek's angry rant to a reporter after his father's death is shown as his first step into the racist waters. Although we later discover that Derek's father was an armchair racist, Derek himself had up to that point resisted racism and admired his black teacher.
  • Mr. Fanservice: A jacked Edward Norton spends an awful lot of time with his shirt off.
  • Mugging the Monster: Turns out it's a very bad idea to steal an angry skinhead's car.
    • Worse still, it was the truck that his father, whose murder by black drug dealers ignited his hatred, had left him.
  • Not So Different: The Neo-Nazis and the black gangbangers. In particular, Danny and Henry. See Fridge Brilliance.
    • Noticing that this is true of himself and his Magical Negro prison confederate is part of what deprograms Derek.
    • Sweeney also says this is why he understands Derek so well.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Type 3. Oh so much. It doesn't help that he's Jewish, and dating the mother of a skinhead leader.
  • The Patriarch: The father has shades of the villainous patriarch. After he dies, Derek steps up and becomes a straight up villainous patriarch.
  • The Peeping Tom: Seth drives to the Vinyard home as soon as Derek gets out of prison. He has a camera. One of the first things Seth does is zoom in on Davina's crotch.
  • Pet the Dog: Derek and Danny both repeatedly demonstrate that they're sweet and loving with their family.
  • Prison Rape: It happens to Derek in prison. At the hands of the Aryan Brotherhood, which he was a member of. Ironically, he first burned his bridges with them because they weren't racist enough for him.
  • Promotion to Parent: Derek steps up after his father dies. The dinner scene even has him sitting at the head of the table.
  • Rape as Redemption: See above.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Not for who you'd expect, though.
  • Redemption Failure: Some alternative endings have Danny's murder cause Derek to revert back to his old, racist ways.
  • Rousing Speech: Derek gives a rousing and convincing speech about illegal Mexican immigrants, before the attack on the grocery store.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Derek to Cameron.
  • Second Face Smoke: Danny blows smoke in Henry's face.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Danny learns not to be racist only to be killed by a black kid he made fun of earlier.
  • Shower of Angst: Derek in the prison shower. Guess what happens to him after...?
  • Skinheads
  • Stepford Smiler: Doris. Davina's much more willing to call her brother out.
  • Stereotype Flip: The black inmates not taking their revenge on Derek, after the Aryan Brotherhood has dumped him.
  • Straw Man Has a Point: Intentional. The film doesn't shy away from giving racist characters the chance to make their cases, often revealing the kernels of intelligent arguments made in defense of racist ideologies. In these situations, it's the other characters who actually play the strawman to the racist's arguments, failing to put up much of a defense for racial tolerance. This was the cause of some controversy among critics, but the filmmakers felt that they had to accurately portray the ideological conflict, even the elements of it that would be unpopular, for the movie to be effective.
    • During the "Rodney King flashback", Derek argues that the riot was "opportunism at it worst," that the rioters were just "finding any excuse they can get to loot stores", that Rodney King's actions were criminal, and that police and firemen do not receive the respect they deserve from the community for their dangerous work. The others at dinner just half-heartedly defend the rioters by making Freudian excuses and playing The Victim Card for them. Even Derek's college-educated sister can't do any better than to break Godwin's Law, and gets agitated when she can't counter Derek's claim that Darryl Gates was simply a scapegoat the government and the media blamed on in order to calm down the rioters, and that the riot wouldn't have happened if Willie L. Williams was the chief.
    • Derek and Danny's father Dennis appears in a flashback and reveals himself to be an armchair racist, providing a latent reason for Derek's Freudian Excuse in becoming a skinhead shortly thereafter. Along the way, however, Dennis actually makes intelligent points criticizing the philosophy behind affirmative action and the way new books are replacing established classics in the canon to increase racial diversity.
  • Spiteful Spit: After curb stomping one of the guys who broke into his truck, Derek spits on his corpse.
  • Tattooed Crook: Everyone in prison.
  • Title Drop

Sweeney: The name of this course will be American History... X.

  • Those Wacky Nazis: The DOC, a racist skinhead gang headed by Derek.
  • Twist Ending: After heavy implication that the skinheads are plotting to exact revenge on Derek, Danny is shot by the Chekhov's Gunman.
  • Up to Eleven: After his father's death, Derek takes the man's racism Up to Eleven, from "it's n****r bullshit" to "my father's dead because n****rs are evil" and becoming a neo-Nazi Messiah.
  • Villain Protagonist: Derek, in the first half of the movie.
  • Wag the Director: Tony Kaye was removed from the project after shooting completed and Edward Norton delivered the final cut of the film. He's been accused of vainly giving himself more screentime, while others seem to believe that he merely stepped in to rescue the film from the scrap heap.
  • Wearing a Flag on Your Head: At the beginning of the film, Danny snags a tiny paper flag from a secretary's pencil jar and uses it as a toothpick. Probably meant to invoke skinhead protestations of patriotism during the confrontation with Sweeney that follows.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After the party, Danny confronts Derek.
    • Lamont also calls him out for dissing the neo-Nazis in public. He shouldn't be scared of the neo-Nazis, but of the brothers.
  • Where Da White Women At?: A deleted scene features this.
  • You Are Fat: Pretty much how everyone responds to Seth.
  • You Killed My Father: Derek's father was killed by a black man, and this is how he comes to view all blacks. Right before Derek murders the car-jacker, he screams out: "You ever shoot at firemen?! You ever shoot at my father?!"
  1. amongst a bunch of black guys, one of whom Danny had tangled with earlier
  2. we learn that it mirrors the basketball game that preceded the attempted robbery that sent Derek to prison