In this assignment, I was challenged to find important historical and cultural connections of the film American History X and analyze the important rhetorical of my findings. I went about choosing American History X by placing a poll on Facebook listing out the films that I had any slight interest in considering for this assignment and American History X won by a landslide. I was actually somewhat disappointed, because I wanted to do The X-Files, but I chose to stick to my promise and go with whatever text won. I watched American History X some years after its release in 1998. Although, I know I must have watched it sometime after I got out of high school because at the time of its release I was 12 years old and with the amount of violence in that film I know I did not watch it with my parents. From the little memory I had of the film from the first time, I could only recall that American History X had a lot to do with white supremacy and racism, that Edward Norton played the lead role and that the kid who played in the first Terminator was his brother and was all grown up. I hesitated watching the film again for quite sometime because I knew I would need to dedicate a solid two hours of mental energy towards it.
One could argue that I was merely just procrastinating; however, I benefitted from having done so because future class discussions provided a foundation for how I could study the film. After reading about and discussing in class the topic of approaching a text organically, I decided to implement that mentality and view the film as objectively as non-object individual can. It is difficult to say whether it was that approach that ultimately led to my findings in the film, or if I would have discovered them anyway since it was my second time viewing the film. Everyone can appreciate that after the second and third time of watching any film you begin to pick up on things you missed the first time. In either case, I found the movie to be incredibly eye opening and I enjoyed having to research the history surrounding the film and, ultimately, the state of the nation during what was my childhood. American History X is a film that depicts a traditional white family in the mid 1990s, but spotlights the two brothers’ journeys into maturity.
The movie focuses on the older brother Derek, played by Edward Norton, and how Derek’s Neo-Nazi associations in his life greatly influence his younger brother Danny, played by Edward Furlong. Fueled by rage of his father’s death, the film opens with a scene of Derek brutally killing three young black men who were attempting to steal his father’s truck. Derek is then sent to prison for 3 years during which time his younger brother Danny begins to follow in Derek’s footsteps with the Neo-Nazi organization. The movie flips between black-and-white scenes of the past and color scenes of the present. The black-and-white flashbacks attempt to illuminate Danny’s perception of Derek’s past life while intermittently presenting how Derek overcame is his own hatred. The color scenes portray the present and highlight the effects the hatred has had on the entire family. Overall, the movie critiques on not only the effects of urban racism and bigotry, but also the how minds of young people are so impressionable.
The film even succeeds in creating a sense of sympathy for characters that are typically hated, Neo-Nazi racist skinheads, and paints them not as foolish, uneducated racist bigots, but instead as misguided intelligent human beings. On the surface the film discusses racism, violence, and bigotry, but upon closer examination I found a deeper message within the film. Watching it a second time, I realized that this film is really emphasizing the lack of critical thinking skills in young people, particularly in teenagers and young adults and how impressionable their minds are. Then, upon further research related to those very topics it touches on in the film, I discovered that the entire movie itself actually harbors an obscure form of racism that was reflected in many movies throughout the 1990s. Needless to say, even in today’s society we deal with these same issues of racism and intolerance for other people’s beliefs.
However, within the most recent years it has evolved to focus more on the gay, lesbian and transgender community. History certainly can be seen as repeating itself as many of the arguments that gays and lesbians make regarding their civil rights and discrimination almost mirror the same arguments made back in the 1960s during the civil right movement. Reverend Dr. Phil Snider made this connection so blatantly clear in his speech that went viral on YouTube that he gave before the Springfield City Council of Missouri just a few weeks ago. In his speech, Dr. Snider cleverly took quotes directly from speeches given by white preachers in favor of racial segregation in the 1950 and 1960s and merely substituted select words and inserted ‘gays and lesbians’ (“Preacher Phil Snider Gives Interesting Gay Rights Speech”). I think the twist of his speech highlights the main issues regarding any form of racism and discrimination and they most certainly could be applied to the issues of racism that America faced in the 1990s.
The 1990s was saturated with debates over, court cases involving and numerous media outlets centering on the issues of racism and affirmative action. In May of 1992, Newsweek printed an article entitled “The Crossroads of Shattered Dreams” that summarized the conflicts of racism in the early 90s stating, “white[s] charge that affirmative action is unfair…blacks respond that it was unfair for them to be starved of opportunities by 300 years of slavery and discrimination.” That same year, the verdict of Rodney King’s case outraged the black community and sparked riots lasting six days with over 2,000 people injured and 55 people killed (“Riots Erupt in Los Angeles”). In March of 1996, the three white law school candidates charged that they were unfairly discriminated against and rejected for entrance into the school for less qualified minorities in the famous case Hopwood v. Texas Law School (“Hopwood v. University Texas Law School”). Just prior to the release of American History X in 1998, California enacted Proposition 209, which amended the state’s constitution to ban preferential treatment of any persons based on race or gender in public sector education, employment, and contracting (Parker).
All of these enormously impactful events and numerous others shaped much of the discrimination that occurred in the 1990s. In fact, sociological research confirms “discrimination is more often the result of organizational practices that have unintentional effects” or predispositions “linked to social stereotypes and does not so much stem from individual prejudices” (Tomaskovic-Devey). Nevertheless, the culmination of these types of incidents led to a demand for Hollywood to “headline positive characters of color” (Hughey 549). Producers and directors felt pressure to make-up for their own history of racist filmmaking and, consequently, this also gave rise to the development of a veiled type of racism within films referred to by Hughey himself as the “cinethetic racism”(550).
Cinethetic racism in the 1990s was typically found in films that have a black character whose purpose in the film is to support the white protagonist. Typically this black character, coined the “magical Negro” by Hughey, was portrayed as the voice of reason, or having some other type wisdom, within the film and who selflessly helps the white character achieve his goals. “These films rest on friendly, helpful, bend-over-backwards black characters that do not seek to change their own impoverished status, but instead exhibit a primordial, hard-wired desire to use their magical power to correct the wrongs in a white world” (Hughey 556). The concept expressed in this quote is clearly evident in the film American History X during the many scenes of Derek in prison working in the laundry room with Lamont, a friendly black prisoner who attempts to befriend him. Eventually Derek is able let down his guard and the future interactions between them usually consist of Lamont humorously explaining how things work within the prison.
There is one scene, however, that does somewhat contradict this concept of a “magical Negro” and, instead, causes Derek to experience a form of guilt. This contradiction is depicted in the scene of Lamont and Derek working in the laundry room and Derek very genuinely asks Lamont why he is in prison. Lamont explains how he was sentenced for assault on a police officer because he accidently dropped a TV on the officer’s foot that he was trying to steal. Derek initially resists and jokingly asks Lamont to tell the truth, but Lamont insists that he did not assault the police officer and only dropped the TV on the officer’s foot. This is the pivotal moment within the movie that shows Derek’s guilt and sympathy for the first time towards a black person.
I think this is the most important scene throughout the entire film because it gives the audience exactly what they want: they want to see Derek experience this epiphany and for him to recognize how he has perpetuated discrimination against black people. But it does not take very long for the film to revert right back into the traditional cinethetic racist ways. In Derek’s last interaction with Lamont, the audience learns that during Derek’s stay within prison Lamont was protecting him from further beatings and rape after Derek chose to no longer affiliate with the Neo-Nazis within the prison. That scene ultimately preserves the concept of the “magical Negro” and that black people have this underlying desire to serve to the needs of white people. I liken this idea of cinethetic racism to what actors refer to the subtext of a script.
Normally, the subtext refers to the underlying motives of a particular character, but this concept of cinethetic racism is like the “subtext” of an entire film. “Of greatest critical concern is how [magical Negro] films advantageously shore up white supremacist and normative orders while ostensibly posturing as an irreverent challenge to them” (Hughey 553). On the surface it appears to be a film that tries to defeat racism, but ironically there are hidden agendas that completely go against the moral of this story. Just as magical Negros are a disguised form of racism found in American films in the 1990s, there were also disguised forms of racism going on politically throughout the nation, more specifically in California.
During the 1990s, racism and civil rights disputes were approaching the heights they reached in the civil rights era of the 1960s. However, after many decades of affirmative action policies attempting to right the wrongs minorities faced and with California experiencing an economic downturn, many whites became less tolerant of minorities receiving preferential treatment through affirmative action programs (Alvarez). Now the whites are claiming they were discriminated against in a form of “reverse discrimination.” What I find so interesting about the idea of “reverse discrimination” is that it implies that discrimination only naturally goes in one direction: whites against minorities. And, furthermore, that there will always be a certain level of racism, as if to suggest that there is a threshold for which it is acceptable, but also that it is the responsibility of the majority, white people, to keep it in check.
Yet the moment any form of racism or discrimination is felt against whites, it is completely intolerable and demands political action. It was the supporters of Proposition 209 that argued that current affirmative action programs led public employers and universities to reject applicants because of their race, and that Proposition 209 would “return [us] to the fundamentals of our democracy,” as summarized in an article capturing the main arguments of Proposition 209 entitled “Prohibition Against Discrimination.”
With in the same article it preached, “let us not perpetuate the myth that ‘minorities’ and women cannot compete without special preferences…vote for fairness not favoritism.” The fairness of Proposition 209 has been hotly debatably ever since it was enacted in 1997, but I think the dinner scene with Derek and his father in American History X most succinctly sums up the mindset of the many supporters of Proposition 209. The scene opens with a dinner table conversation between Derek and his father about the material he is learning for his English class. His father than expresses his distaste for such material with the following monologue:
“All this stuff about making everything equal… it’s not as easy as it looks…you gotta trade in great books for black books now? You gotta question these things Derek. We are not just talking about books here, we’re talking about my job. I got two blacks guys on my squad now that got their jobs over a couple of white guys who actually scored higher on the test. Does that make sense? They got their job because they were black not because they were the best? America’s about if you do your best you get the job…not this affirmative blacktion crap….it’s nigger bullshit.”
This dinner scene perfectly exemplifies the concept that 1) the moment whites feel they are being discriminated they instantly raise the red flag and 2) that “discrimination is more often the result of organizational practices that have unintentional effects […] and does not so much stem from individual prejudices,” as I stated earlier.
Another aspect that I find so interesting about American History X was how writer David McKenna was able to pull directly from real life situations to add dialogue into this screenplay. McKenna and Edward Norton actually rewrote a portion of the script quoting from Governor Pete Wilson’s speech advocating Proposition 209 in 1995 (Goldstein). More importantly, it was used in a scene where Derek is trying to energize a group of young skin heads before they vandalize a grocery store owned by minorities. I find it so ironic that the character of a racist Neo-Nazi was reciting actual words from a speech promoting the removal of affirmative actions polices that were, allegedly, intended to reduce discrimination and increase equality. When I discovered this tidbit of information I was completely blown away. I had no idea how closely this movie reflected real problems going on in society in the 1990s. McKenna’s use of Pete Wilson’s speech is clearly an example of art reflecting reality, but Pete Wilson’s speech was not the only source from reality in which McKenna got his inspiration.
McKenna grew up in Southern California, where the film story takes place, and personally witnessed bigotry and racism (Bruce). From his encounters and extensive research, McKenna decided that the point he tried “to make in the script is that a person is not born a racist…[McKenna] wanted an accurate portrayal of how good kids from good families can get so terribly lost” (Bruce). Personally, I think McKenna succeeded in having that be the main message of the film: the impressionability of a young mind and that all behaviors are learned.
The film simultaneously follows Derek’s upbringing and how he becomes involved in the Neo-Nazi organization and how his involvement with that group greatly influenced his younger brother Danny. The dinner scene I detailed above is the key scene from McKenna’s screenplay that supports the idea that racism is a learned behavior stemmed from outside organizational practices. However, despite how well received the movie was and the numerous nominations Edward Norton received for his performance, that is not the original message the director intended.
Tony Kaye was the director of American History X and, ironically, he also turned out to be a major competing persuasive force throughout the entire film making process. Kaye battled with directors, producers, writer David McKenna and Edward Norton himself claiming that New Line Cinema never allowed him to create his vision of the film going as far as to take out full page ads in trade magazines bashing the film and even requested to have his name removed from the film entirely and replaced with the pseudonym “Humpy Dumpty” (Goldstein). In a statement made shortly after the film’s release, Kaye contended that Edward Norton edited a majority of the film in order to increase his screen time in the film and that the producers did not allow Kaye an “opportunity to present a black voice to provide depth and balance to the film” and furthered that he wanted the film to be an “homage to free speech and responsibility” (Leinberger).
I think the main reason why Kaye’s original vision never made it to the film was because it clashed so much with McKenna’s original message. McKenna wrote the film based off of his personal experience witnessing acts of racisms in Southern California in throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whereas, Kaye is not only much older than McKenna, but grew up in United Kingdom and had only been living in the United states for a few years before he got involved in the film at all, and, therefore, did not quite have the same outlook for the script (Topel).
It should also be noted that this was Kaye’s first feature film and his previous directing experience came from extensive work with TV commercials and music videos (Goldstein). And while McKenna himself may not have been directly involved during the filming process, as most writers are not, I think Edward Norton and the producers all believed in and followed McKenna’s vision because of how much it related to the struggles that America was facing at that time. This is not to suggest that Kaye’s vision for the film was wrong, but that producers have to consider what the audience wants and expects to see.
From studying American History X, I have learned how racism evolved in a very peculiar fashion. As racism, specifically towards black people, became less and less accepted by whites over the last 150 years, certain segments of society seemed to find ways to continue a small, but undeniable level of racism since it was no longer socially acceptable among the general population to outwardly express it with for instance, lynching. Racism and discrimination has certainly come a long way over the last sixty years, but it has definitely not been eradicated. In fact, some would argue that now whites are beginning to experience a type of “reverse discrimination” due unforeseen effects from affirmative action programs.
In regards to American films however, one would have to sit down personally with directors and producers of 1990s films to determine if they intentionally created these magical Negro characters in order to perpetuate racism. Aside from the fact that it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever openly admit to that, I personally think that cinethetic racism and the magical Negro were just an unintended consequence of a fad that was going on throughout Hollywood at the time, the fad being to have black people portray certain qualities of wisdom and “magical powers” within films.
In either case, it is very curious that a movie such as America History X meets the qualifications for cinethetic racism. In my opinion, for a film that was intended to enlighten the audience of the problem of racism in America, yet ultimately perpetuated a veiled version of it, could no more flawlessly fit into this concept of cinethetic racism. Also, the argument of whether or not reality reflects art or if art reflects reality is just as frustrating to argue as whether the chicken or the egg came first. But in the case for this film, I would contend that American History X, art, is reflecting reality. In fact, the notion behind cinethetic racism and the magical Negro tie in so neatly with the arguments for Proposition 209 and Gov. Pete Wilson’s speech that it is just uncanny. With a closer look into both, one can see that each share their own masked form of racism veiled as though whites are helping minorities. Art was imitating the subversive racism that was occurring in reality.
As an actor myself, I think it is unfortunate for director Tony Kaye that, for whatever reason, he was not able to get his original vision of the film produced. I think because of the numerous racially historical events that were occurring the 1990s that producing a movie which centered on the freedom of speech around racism as Kaye originally intended, was the last thing any audience wanted to watch in a theatre. All in all, I think film did a fabulous job highlighting historical events and attitudes going on throughout society during the 1990s, despite the fact that the film may be perpetuating racism at a subversive level.
American History X. Dir. Tony Kaye. Perf. Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. New Line Cinemas, 1998. Film.
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