American History X
Author: Simon Doney
Keywords: Fascism, politics, racism, relationships, violence, human rights, redemption,
Film title: American History X
Director: Tony Kaye
Screenplay: David McKenna
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould
Distributor: New Line Cinemas
Cinema Release Date: October 1998
Derek Vineyard is an ex-skinhead fascist leader from Venice Beach California. After
spending 3 years in prison for the murder of two black gang members he has been released on
parole. His brother Danny, now 17, is now moving in the same skinhead circles as his brother
and is linked with the fascist gangs that are increasing in this area of Venice Beach. Derek
however has changed with the help of his former English teacher Dr Sweeney, a black
outreach worker who is now concerned about Danny. Derek is now concerned with trying to
show Danny that his hatred and fascist ideas have no place in the modern world. Danny
reflects his ideas through an essay that has been set by Dr Sweeney with the objective of
analysing and interpreting the events around Derek's imprisonment and Danny's personal
view of contemporary America. Dr Sweeney calls their history lessons American History X.
This is Tony Kaye's feature film directorial debut. Previously, he was involved in commercial
advertising for companies such as VW, Dunlop, British rail and the 1996 Olympic games.
Kaye - who has used his talent for charities such as Greenpeace and Drug-Free America - was
attracted to the script of American History X because of its relevant social issues. Kaye had a
struggle with the distributors of the film because he didn't agree with the final cut worked on
with Edward Norton. He threatened to take his name off the film but the Guild of Directors
wouldn't allow it. He has since disowned the film. Due to the budding controversy the film
was withdrawn from the Toronto Film Festival in autumn 1998.
Edward Norton worked out for three months for the film while many of the cast and Kaye
himself interviewed and hung out with ex-white supremacists. Norton was nominated for an
academy award for his role as Derek Vineyard. American History X has had a big impact on
society because of its social and political concerns. Amnesty International USA are screening
the film across America in colleges and AIUSA functions and using it to educate others about
racism and human rights.
1. Why do you think the film is entitled American History X?
2. What are your perspectives on Dr Sweeney, Danny's 'history teacher'?
3. What does Dr Sweeney mean by 'he learnt those things, now he can unlearn them'
when he is talking about Danny Vineyard?
4. In what ways does Cameron Alexander manipulate the rise of the fascist gangs?
5. Why do you think people are drawn to strong ideology like fascism? How does that
compare to why people are drawn towards Christ?
6. What are your views on the character of Mr Murray, the liberal teacher who believes
the Vineyard boys are 'lost'? Why do you think he believes that Danny should be
thrown out of school?
7. The film is full of Christian imagery such as crucifixes, the 'Disciples of Christ' and
Derek's arms outstretched ready for his arrest like Christ crucified. Why do you think
Christian imagery plays a large part in fascism? How does it compare to our own
perceptions of this imagery?
8. How does Dr Sweeney challenge Derek Vineyard's identity, his beliefs and values?
9. Derek's father expresses racist views that influence Derek when he is younger. What
does this say about attitudes that are regarded as acceptable in certain households?
How does this compare to modern views of asylum seekers?
10. Derek has a profound change in prison and his old friends regard him as traitor. In
what ways is this an expected response to a life-changing experience?
11. What do you think Derek Vineyard learns from his friend Lamont when they work in
12. How does Nazism give a structure to the hate that Derek and his gang members are
13. What are your views on Danny's conclusion that 'hate is baggage'? How does this
compare to Jesus' teachings (e.g. Luke 6:27, 6:35)?
14. One review states 'Derek is consumed by pain, grief and anger' due to his father's
death and 'eventually leading him into the skinheads'. In what ways do you agree or
disagree with this statement?
15. How should we respond to those who have such a violent and hateful ideology?
16. Do you think it is possible to love one another regardless of race, religion and ethnic
17. What conclusions can you draw about new life from the film? How does the ideas
compare to the biblical ideas about re-birth and new life?
18. What do you think identity really is? In what does your identity lie?
19. Does the film make any mention of spirituality? What part would spirituality play in
The story begins with a black and white flashback of the moment when Derek commits the
murder of the two young Afro-American's. Danny wakes up to see one of the men standing
by the front door but can't see whether he is armed or not. He goes to tell his brother Derek
who is in bed with Stacy, his girlfriend. Derek takes a semi-automatic pistol and sees two
blacks and one in the car ready for a getaway. Derek plunges out of the front door and shoots
the first Afro-American several times and spots the other trying to run away. He takes aim
and fires again mortally wounding the second. The car driver speeds off with Derek firing
several shots at the car, emptying the magazine. In slow motion he goes back to the wounded
man to finish him off and there the flashback finishes.
Back in the present, we are now in the office of the headmaster of Danny's school, Dr Robert
Sweeney and his tutor Mr Murray who are discussing an essay set by Mr Murray on civil
rights. Danny has done his essay on 'Mein Kampf' - Hitler's ideological book that he had
written while in prison in the 1920s. Mr Murray is appalled and believes Danny is like his
brother - lost and unable to turn back. Dr Sweeney refuses to give up on Danny and dismisses
Mr Murray's attempt to have Danny excluded from school. Dr Sweeney calls Danny in and
tells him that 'Mein Kampf' is 'rubbish' and throws it into the bin threatening to expel him.
Sweeney decides that he himself will be Danny's history teacher and the lessons called
'American History X'. He sets Danny an essay to be handed in the next morning in which he
should analyse and interpret all the events leading to Derek's incarceration and Danny's own
views of life in contemporary America. If he doesn't submit the essay Danny will be thrown
out of school. Danny decides to go home and think about the essay but while in the male
toilets a white teenager is being attacked by a black gang led by 'Little Henry'. Danny comes
out of the cubicle and is threatened by Little Henry but Danny just responds by blowing
smoke into the boy's eyes coolly. The gang departs and Danny picks up the other man telling
him 'You gotta learn to stick up for yourself'.
Meanwhile Dr Sweeney is going to a meeting at the LAPD about the rise of the skinhead
gangs in the Venice Beach Area. Sweeney is an outreach worker with some of the gangs in
and out of prison. The committee are told that Derek used to be a protégé of an older man
called Cameron Alexander who the police believe is the instigator of the race attacks and
skinhead gangs. He writes a lot of 'White Power' literature but the police having trouble
pinning anything on Alexander. Derek was used by Alexander to recruit gangs in the area
from insecure, frustrated and impressionable boys. They show an old news clipping from the
local news network about the death of Danny's father who was putting out a fire at a drug
den. When a young Derek is interviewed about the death he explodes into racist and right
wing ideology that the reason his Father died was because he was in a 'nigger area' shot by a
drugged up nigger 'who still collects his welfare payments'. Derek believes that all problems
such as AIDS, immigration, drugs are all race related. Dr Sweeney explains that Derek was
quietly released today and they are keeping an eye on the situation because something could
happen to Derek and it would get very ugly
Danny is on his way home and thinking about the changes that have occurred in Venice
Beach. Their Dad had moved them to Venice Beach a long time ago because it was quiet and
free of the troubles of the inner city. But now everything has changed - the gangs have spread
out from the inner cities 'like a plague' taking over all the parks; whole areas are under their
control. This is why Derek had started a local branch of the DOC (the Disciples of Christ) to
win back areas for the whites and away from the black gangs. He remembers that Derek had
challenged the blacks to a basketball match which Derek's team win with Derek's last minute
score watched by Cameron and Stacy. With some acrimonious arguments the blacks leave
pushed of by one of Derek's friends Seth Goodyear a huge skinhead who is part of the DOC.
Danny looks over the same basketball park now and sees that the blacks are back on it with
Little Henry the black gang member that confronted Danny earlier on.
Derek didn't allow his family to visit or write to him for the three years while he was in
prison. Now he is released and Danny comes home to meet him after school. They lost their
original home after Derek had lost his job and Doris Vineyard. Their mother is also unwell,
coughing and lying on the couch suffering probably from lung cancer. When Danny gets
home, Derek notices the tattoo on Danny's arm with the letters DOC underneath the logo.
Danny tells Derek that it was Cameron that had persuaded Danny to have it done. Derek is
not impressed but doesn't say anything. Seth arrives with his video camera to welcome back
Derek. Derek, meanwhile, is on the phone to Dr Sweeney who tells him about Danny's
assignment and Derek agrees to help Danny in his own way. Seth videotapes Danny reciting
right wing and skinhead ideology about hating that 'it is cool to be black' and the hip hop
influence on the suburbs. Derek finishes his phone call and is listening to Danny's views
while shaking his head.
Derek assembles the family in the room while Seth is left outside waiting to get something to
eat. He tells them that he is planning to move them out of the area so they can make a new
start. Derek also tells Danny that he is not to go to a party that had been organised by
Alexander but Danny refuses to listen.
Later on that night, Danny begins his essay with the words 'people look at me and they see
my brother'. Derek had started up DOC by recruiting all the frustrated whites who were being
whipped by the black and Mexican (Spics) gangs. In another flashback, Derek gives an
impassioned speech about immigrants taking over. The gang carries out a horrific attack on
the staff and customers of a grocery store which is owned by Koreans.
Danny is still in his room and remembers how Derek's views came as a surprise to everyone
one mealtime. Derek is present and with his girlfriend Stacey while Mr Murray is also there
because he is seeing Derek's Mum. They are looking at the riots that were happening over the
USA and the beating up of Rodney King in 1991. Derek is at loggerheads with Mr Murray
who he sees as a liberal. Davina, Derek's sister, is also arguing with Derek but to no avail.
Derek is an aggressive and good arguer but the discussion gets out of hand. Derek attacks
Davina forcing food down her throat while Danny and his Mum try to get Derek off his sister.
Derek then turns on Mr Murray - who is Jewish - shouting at him that he will never come into
this house because of his 'Jewish nigger loving hippie' views. As Murray leaves Derek show
him his tattooed swastika above his left breast saying, 'See this, it means not welcome'
cheered on by Stacy. Derek's Mum responds by saying 'I'm ashamed you came out of my
body' and then tries to get Mr Murray to come back saying, 'He's just a boy', but Mr Murray
responds 'you don't know what sort of a place your kids are growing up in'. He will not come
back believing the boy is 'gone'. Meanwhile, in the house Davina approaches Derek with a
baseball bat and tries to attack him but Derek who has now calmed down restrains her and
speaks to Danny to see if he is alright. Derek apologises for losing control and reinforces that
he would not hurt any of them and would do anything for them.
Danny is looking through his Nazi treasures and at the clipping of his brother's court case in
sadness as he remembers that night. It was the same night that the two men had come to try
and steal Derek's jeep that their Father left them. Danny imagines what would have happened
if he had not gone to Derek's room that night. Danny's mind goes back to the shooting
incident - Derek is coming back to finish off the wounded black. Derek stamps on the man's
head and breaks his neck in a horrific murder. Danny is racing to try and stop Derek from
committing his second murder but is too late and sinks to the ground. The Police have arrived
and arrest Derek who later gets three years in prison for manslaughter. It would have been
life if Danny had testified.
Jason and Chris - two of Danny's friends - come to collect Danny to go to the skinhead party
and Derek comes along to see Alexander. Danny goes in with Cameron where they laugh
over Danny's essay on 'Mein Kampf'. Alexander sees Sweeney as arrogant, manipulative and
trying to make people feel guilty for their views. Derek tries to persuade Stacy to leave all of
'this' and come with them elsewhere but Stacey refuses and tells him everything is so well
organised. Derek tells her he is a changed man and has left behind his right wing views and
wants to move on. Stacy is appalled and is left speechless.
Derek then comes to see Alexander and sends Danny out. Alexander is trying to recruit Derek
and tells him how organised they now are and that Derek started it all off. Alexander wants to
move away from the skinhead image and into 'something bigger' but Derek is having none of
it. He accuses Alexander of manipulating him and his brother. He threatens Alexander to stay
away from his bother but Alexander says 'he will come to me'. Alexander says to Derek that
'I'm more important to him than you'll ever be' and with that Derek attacks Alexander, leaves
him on the ground and walks out of the office. Seth, who is suspicious of Derek's newfound
beliefs asks Derek where Cameron is and finds Alexander in the office. Stacy meanwhile sees
Derek and accuses him of being a traitor and a 'nigger lover'. The crowd begin to bay for
blood but before they can do anything Seth is back and pointing a gun at Derek. The crowds
part for the confrontation. Danny shouts to Seth to put the gun down and while Seth's
attention is distracted Derek's wrestles away the gun, forces the crowd to stay back and
makes his getaway.
Danny catches up with Derek and is very angry asking him why he had beaten up Alexander
and changed his views. Derek tells Danny 'it wasn't meant to happen that way' and Danny
'can't go back to that life'. They sit down and Derek tells Danny about his time in prison.
Derek was working with a black gang member called Lamont who warns Derek 'I'm the most
dangerous person in this prison' and not to try anything 'because I control the underground'.
They always work in silence and at one point Lamont warns Derek that 'you're the nigger in
here'. Derek is still associating with the skinhead gangs but over a period of time realises that
they don't care much for his preaching or much for ideology either. The skins leader who
protects Derek from the 'brothers', is selling drugs bought from the 'Spic' gangs and 'didn't
believe in anything' much to Derek's disgust. While inside he also refuses to speak to his
Mum who has come to tell him that Danny is going the same way as him. Derek refuses to
take any responsibility. Over a period of time he begins to talk to Lamont, playing basketball
with other races and they get on very well talking about sport and women. As a result the
skinhead gang turns on him, gang rape him and leave him unconsciousness in the showers.
While in hospital Dr Sweeney comes to visit him and asks Derek whether anything he has
done has made his life better. Derek breaks down asking for help. Dr Sweeney says 'Runnin'
just ain't no good' and Derek has to face up to his past and his own life.
Despite the attack Derek still refuses to sit with his gang members which Lamont sees as
suicidal because the brothers will now attack Derek. Derek asks 'What can I do?' All he can
do is wait because he knows that they will come for him. Each day Derek hopes that the
attack will be quick but it never comes. Derek spends the time reading the books that Dr
Sweeney has left him. When Derek leaves prison he approaches Lamont and asks whether
Lamont used his influence to stop Derek from being attacked. Lamont doesn't reply but his
expression tells it all and Derek leaves with the black exchange of fists and 'I owe you man'.
Derek explains to Danny that he was wrong - his anger and hatred was just getting Derek
even more lost and eating him up. They both walk home and go into Danny's room and take
down all the Nazi insignia, posters, images and flags and then Derek leaves Danny to finish
the essay. Danny realises that actually Derek's views were formed much earlier than the death
of their Father. He remembers one mealtime when Derek mentions to their dad that he is
studying black literature under Dr Sweeney. Their Dad is less than impressed and begins to
argue against 'affirmative action' or 'blacktion'. He then says that Derek shouldn't be reading
'nigger' rubbish and Derek sheepishly agrees. Derek is in the shower when a car mysteriously
passes their house with Little Henry and his friends inside. It looks as if the gangs are
cruising around ready to attack Derek for his murder of two blacks. Danny sits in tears at his
computer while he remembers these things and then, as it is 5:40am, he decides to watch the
sunrise because he hasn't seen it for a long time.
In the morning Derek is dressed smartly to see his parole officer and takes Danny to school
with his completed essay for Dr Sweeney. They stop off at the café to get some coffee and
while there Derek is approached by Dr Sweeney and a police officer who tell him that Seth
and Cameron Alexander have been attacked and are in hospital. Derek finally agrees to go to
see his 'ex-crew' to see if he can find out exactly what has happened. As they travel to school
Derek is nervous that he is going to be attacked by the skinheads in retaliation for Derek's
beating of Alexander at the party. He leaves Danny at the entrance to school and goes on
looking at the cars passing by, waiting for anything to happen to him.
Danny goes into school with his girlfriend and is in the toilets when the door of a cubicle
behind him opens and he turns to see Little Henry with a gun. He raises it and shoots Danny
several times. Danny falls back in a pool of blood, his essay papers thrown into the air by the
force. Derek comes racing back and pushes his way through the crowd of people to find
Danny dead in the toilets. He takes Danny in his arms and asks ' What did I do?' Danny's
voice narrates the end sequence with the sunrise and calm seas against the sandy beaches. He
tells us of his conclusion, of what he has learnt. His conclusion is that hate is baggage, life's
too short and that is just not worth it. Danny ends his essay with a quote by Abraham Lincoln
where Lincoln states that 'we are not enemies, we are friends' and here the film ends.