- American History X portrays the dark reality of racism and the consequences of generational hatred.
- The use of black-and-white footage in the movie highlights Derek’s black-and-white perspective of the world as a neo-Nazi leader.
- Danny’s death, though not explicitly racially motivated, is a significant part of the larger conflict in the movie, emphasizing the generational baggage of racial tension.
Warning: Contains SPOILERS for American History X.The ending of American History X shows the dark reality of racism and the consequences of generational hatred. American History X is the 1998 feature film debut of director Tony Kaye (who also served as his own director of photography) with a script by David McKenna, and features performances from Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Ethan Suplee, Avery Brooks, and more. Edward Norton was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
After spending three years in prison for killing multiple black men during an attempted theft, former no-Nazi gang leader Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is trying to fix his life and the life of his family. Derek’s younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), is being groomed to replace him and the school principal, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), tries to intervene, asking Danny to participate in a one-on-one history class called “American History X” beginning with a paper about the circumstances surrounding Derek’s arrest and its impact on their family.
Why American History X’s Flashbacks Are In Black And White
American History X alternates between the movie’s “present-day” (1998) storyline, told in full color, and flashbacks to Derek and Danny’s past, told in black-and-white. Switching to black-and-white is a common movie tool to differentiate different timelines, used most notably to denote the timeline in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and while that’s certainly a component of American History X‘s storytelling approach, there’s another potentially on-the-nose reason for its use of black and white footage to explain the story of Derek’s past.
Since the black-and-white scenes are about Derek becoming a neo-Nazi gang leader, he has a very literal black-and-white perspective of the world. The black-and-white footage continues with his time in prison, but everything that happens after his personal transformation and release is shown in full color. While it’s a fairly straightforward, if not obvious, use of visual symbolism, there’s one small flashback that breaks the rule. During Derek’s shower at home, he remembers playing on the beach with Danny as young boys, and the scene is shown in full color, likely because they hadn’t learned to see the world through a “black and white” lens yet.
Why Was Derek a Neo-Nazi?
American History X gives multiple explanations for the origin of Derek’s racist beliefs and neo-Nazi associations. The first explanation comes during the police meeting investigating the skinhead Venice Beach Gang where Dr. Sweeney is consulting the police on Derek’s history. Sweeney says Derek was a protégé of Cameron Alexander, who was known for writing and distributing “white-power literature and videos” in Venice Beach. Sweeney says Alexander used Derek to recruit frustrated and impressionable kids into the neo-Nazi gang. Derek was seemingly motivated by the death of his father, a firefighter shot by black gang members while responding to a house fire. In a video, Derek says his father’s death was race-related.
While the death of his father and Alexander’s tutelage were major factors in Derek’s neo-Nazi perspective, it’s only part of the story. In his paper, Danny writes even Derek believed his father’s murder was the start of him becoming a neo-Nazi, but it actually started much earlier. In another black-and-white flashback, a young Derek is shown telling his dad about his English class with Dr. Sweeney and the book “Native Son,” which tells the story of a black man’s experience and the impacts of institutional racism. Derek’s dad derides the book, feigning a neutral stance, but slowly gets more politically charged, and eventually drops a racial slur.
Initially, Derek defended Dr. Sweeney as intelligent and compelling but gets less enthusiastic after his dad’s criticism of Sweeney, “Native Son,” and racial equality initiatives in general. Derek’s defense of Sweeney noticeably deflates, and while it’s a long way from being the leader of a neo-Nazi gang, it’s easy to see how it influences his path following his father’s death and opens him up to the more extreme teaching of Cameron Alexander.
What Happened to Derek in Prison
Derek initially thought he was a dead man in prison, but he quickly found protection from the neo-Nazi gang. While he maintained his strong-line ideology from the outside world, he noticed the gang was making deals with non-white prisoners, and was told he needed to stop preaching when he brought it up. During this time, he also began to befriend Lemont, the black man Derek helped do the prison laundry. Lemont’s friendliness and constant joking wore down Derek’s resistance until Derek finally began laughing at his jokes and discussing basketball with him. He also saw the conditions of Lemont’s arrest as unfair, contrasting with his previous criticism of Rodney King.
Derek didn’t just warm up to Lemont, but started mingling with the other black prisoners as well, even playing basketball with them (contrasting his previously racially charged basketball game in Venice Beach). After this, stopped sitting with the neo-Nazis at lunch, which was seen as a major sign of disrespect. As punishment, they cornered him in the shower and raped and beat him. While recovering in the infirmary, Dr. Sweeney visited him and asked “has anything you’ve done made your life better?” At this point, Derek is fully ready to leave his life behind, but Dr. Sweeney says he needs to more than just run from his old life.
After the attack in the shower, Derek continues to sit alone in the mess hall at lunch. Lemont criticizes him and says the only reason he’d even lived that long was because the neo-Nazis were protecting him from the black prisoners who wanted to kill him, but Derek refuses to go back to the neo-Nazis. Despite the lack of protection, Derek was ignored. He read books given to him by Sweeney and minded his own business for six months until his release. As he’s leaving, he realizes Lemont had probably been protecting him the whole time, although Lemont denies it; however, nobody else in the prison would have stood up for Derek.
Why Did Danny Get Shot?
After learning Derek’s prison story, Danny also decides to leave the Venice Beach Gang neo-Nazis and Cameron Alexander behind. He stays up all night to write his paper for Dr. Sweeney’s “American History X” class, but before he can turn the paper in, he’s confronted by a gunman in the school bathroom and shot to death. The shooter is the same black boy Danny confronted in the bathroom in the beginning of the movie, blowing smoke in his face after he was beating up another white student.
While neither Danny’s initial confrontation with the gunman, nor the actual shooting were explicitly racially motivated, the dynamics laid out in the rest of the movie make it impossible to separate race from the conflict. Danny’s reputation as a skinhead and generations of conflict and tension as well as institutional factors contributed to that moment. Danny’s death seems random and entirely unrelated to the plot of the rest of the movie, but at the same time it’s a significant part of the larger conflict in the movie, in the same way Danny and Derek’s dad’s death wasn’t explicitly a racially motivated attack, but still the consequence – and motivator – of racial conflict.
Danny’s Paper and American History X’s True Meaning Explained
Danny’s closing monologue – an excerpt from his paper – sums up the point of the movie fairly succinctly: “my conclusion is hate is baggage.” Danny learns this lesson in prison when Dr. Sweeney asks him “has anything you’ve done made your life better?” His actions had been motivated by hate and only made things worse for himself and his family. But Danny’s quote has an additional meaning when applied to his observation of their dad’s interactions with Derek. The baggage is generational. Generations of slavery, institutional racism, and more created a situation where Danny’s change of perspective and open-minded paper didn’t change the complex realities of racial conflict.
As Dr. Sweeney tells Derek in prison: “running just aint good enough.” Despite his new perspective after he’s release from prison, Derek was still trying to get things back to “normal” and trying to resist Sweeney’s requests to intervene in violence brewing between the Crips and the Venice Beach Gang. Derek virtually built the Venice Beach Gang, and can’t simply wash his hands of their actions after he walks away. Hatred is passed generationally, and just as Derek’s dad planted the seed in him, Derek needs to not only squash it from his life, but make sure he doesn’t pass it on. American History X ends with Danny quoting 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 they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”