Film review: American History X (1998) and the neo-Nazi movement

I finally got around to seeing this film that had long been on my list of things to watch. It tells the story of a young man Derek Vinyard (superbly played by Edward Norton) who, under the influence of an older neo-Nazi, gets drawn into a skinhead gang in Los Angeles with swastika tattoos and all, and becomes a leader and recruiter for the gang. He ends up killing two black men and goes to prison where he undergoes a change in views that causes him to abandon his prior beliefs. When he emerges, he tries to change the beliefs of his younger brother who idolizes him and, in his absence, has joined the gang that he had been in, under the influence of the same older neo-Nazi. What struck me most about this film is that though it was made in 1998, how contemporary it is in terms of the neo-Nazi ideology it articulates.

There are three powerful scenes (they are in black and white like all the flashback scenes). One is a flashback to the family dinner table where high-schooler Derek describes his excitement about his English course where he is reading the book Native Son. His fire fighter father advises him to reject the teaching of his charismatic black teacher because it is all propaganda designed to advance black people at the expense of white people. The film implies that this is what starts Derek down the road to racism.

The second scene is where Derek, now a fervent neo-Nazi, gives an anti-immigrant exhortation to his gang where he lists all the ways that he says that white people are being victimized in the US and why they must fight back. He and his gang members then rampage through an Asian-owned grocery store.

The third scene is back at the family dinner table around the time of the Rodney King case. Derek’s father has been killed by a black criminal and his mother is dating a Jewish teacher. Derek, supported by his girl friend, lets loose a tirade about black and Jewish people using racial and anti-semitic slurs, that appalls his mother, her boyfriend, and his sister.

All these scenes contain the kinds of white grievance rhetoric that we hear these days. What is different is that nowadays neo-Nazis seek to project a different image, aiming at recruiting more upscale young people who are working at good jobs, not just the working class and unemployed. Gone are the shaved heads and tattoos of swastikas and gang symbols, replaced by clean cut looks and khakis and golf shirts, and explicit racism has been covered up with a facade of irony. The packaging has changed but the ideas stay the same.

The film is depressingly relevant today and has been used for educating people about neo-Nazism.


  1. TGAP Dad says

    I watched this film when it was first released for VHS (!) rental. The grocery store and dinner scenes are certainly pivotal, the one that still haunts me is the curb stomp scene. I also remember a strikingly good performance by the underrated Avery Brooks. It’s an incredibly good movie that didn’t see as much success as it deserved.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    I saw it not long after it came out, on the telly. One of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, and amazing performances throughout.

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