American History X

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American History X
American history x poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tony Kaye
Produced by John Morrissey
Written by David McKenna
Music by Anne Dudley
Cinematography Tony Kaye
Edited by
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Release date(s)
  • October 30, 1998 (1998-10-30) (United States, limited)
Running time 119 minutes
94 minutes (Director's original cut)
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20 million[1]
Box office $23,875,127[1]

American History X is a 1998 American drama film directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna. It stars Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, and co-stars Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach, Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks, Ethan Suplee and Beverly D'Angelo. The film was released in the United States on October 30, 1998 and was distributed by New Line Cinema.

The film tells the story of two Venice, Los Angeles brothers who become involved in the neo-Nazi movement. The older brother serves three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, changes his beliefs and tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path. The film is told in the style of nonlinear narrative. It was given an "R" rating by the MPAA for "graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality and nudity". Made on a budget of $20 million, it grossed over $23 million at the international box office.

Critics mostly praised the film and Norton's performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In September 2008, Empire magazine named it the 311th Greatest Movie of All Time.[2]


Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong), a high school student and budding neo-Nazi in Venice Beach, California, receives an assignment from Murray (Elliott Gould), his history teacher, to write a paper on "any book which relates to the struggle for human rights." Knowing Murray is Jewish, Danny writes his paper on Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Murray attempts to get Danny expelled for doing this, but Principal Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) — who is black — refuses, instead informing Danny that he will study history and current events under Sweeney, and that the class will be called "American History X." Danny's first assignment is to prepare a paper on his brother Derek (Edward Norton), a neo-Nazi leader who has just been released from prison after serving three years for voluntary manslaughter. Danny is warned that failing to submit the paper the next morning will result in his expulsion. The rest of the movie alternates between a series of vignettes from Danny and Derek's shared past (distinguished by being shown in black and white), and present day events (shown in color).

Derek and Danny's father is Dennis Vinyard (William Russ), a firefighter who displays racist tendencies in reaction to the news that Derek's English teacher, Dr. Sweeney, had assigned Richard Wright's novel Native Son. He also reveals himself to be anti-affirmative action, as well as against political correctness. Sent on a call to fight a fire in a drug den, Dennis is murdered by black drug dealers. In a television interview conducted after Dennis's death, Derek erupts in a long racist tirade. Shortly thereafter, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) and Derek form a white supremacist gang called the D.O.C.

A skilled basketball player, Derek is reluctantly dragged into a 3-on-3 game against three members of the Crips in which the prize was control of the recreation center basketball courts. Derek and his friends won the game. That evening his mother, Doris (Beverly D'Angelo) invites Murray (Elliott Gould), whom she is dating, home for dinner. A dinnertime discussion about Rodney King and police brutality turns into a full-blown argument between Derek and Murray. When Derek reveals his swastika tattoo and threatens Murray with violence for "invading his family", Murray leaves and Doris orders Derek out of her home. That night, as Derek has sex with his girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk), Danny hears people (the three gang members whom Derek beat at basketball) attempting to steal Derek's truck. Derek grabs a pistol and heads outside. He shoots one of the thieves to death and curb stomps another. Immediately arrested, Derek is sentenced to three years at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

Derek is given a job in the prison laundry and is assigned to be the partner of Lamont (Guy Torry), a black man who is serving six years for assault. Lamont stole a television set from a store and broke the arresting officer's foot when he accidentally dropped the television on it. The pair develop a rapport from their shared love of basketball.

In prison, Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood but, after about a year, he becomes disillusioned with the racist gang, particularly over the group's hypocritical friendly relations with a Mexican gang member, and their trafficking of narcotics. In response to Derek's criticisms, Aryan Brotherhood members savagely beat and rape him in the shower. While recovering from the attack, Derek is visited by Sweeney, whom he asks for help to be paroled. Sweeney informs him of Danny's involvement with neo-Nazis, and warns that he is on the same path as his older brother. Sweeney confesses that he hated white people as a youth, but eventually realized that hatred is pointless.

Derek further distances himself from the Aryan Brotherhood and changes his outlook on life. He spends the remainder of his time in prison alone, reading books that Sweeney sends him. He fears that the prison's inmates will attack him, but they leave him alone, thanks to Lamont's persuasion. Finally realizing the error of his ways, Derek leaves prison a changed man.

In the evening that Derek returns home from prison, he finds that Danny has a D.O.C. tattoo. Derek tries to persuade Danny to leave the gang. Later that night, they both go to a neo-Nazi party, where Derek tells the leader, Cameron, that he and Danny will no longer associate with the neo-Nazi movement. Cameron provokes Derek, who beats him up. In response, Danny's neo-Nazi friend Seth Ryan (Ethan Suplee) runs after Derek and aims a pistol at him, which Derek wrestles from him and points at the angry crowd before running away. Danny angrily confronts Derek, who tells him about his experience in prison, which seems to prompt a change in Danny. Back at their home, they remove all the white power posters from their bedroom walls.

The following morning, Danny finishes his paper and Derek gets ready for a meeting with his parole officer. Derek walks Danny to school before his meeting, and on their way they stop at a diner where they are met by Sweeney and a police officer. They tell Derek that Cameron and Seth were attacked the previous night and have been hospitalized.

At school, Danny is confronted by a young black student named Little Henry, with whom he had a confrontation the previous day. Little Henry pulls out a gun and shoots Danny in the chest, killing him. When Derek arrives at the school, he runs into the bathroom and tearfully cradles his dead brother in his arms.

The film ends with a voice over of Danny reading the final lines of his paper for Dr. Sweeney. Stating "Hate is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it." and then quoting the final stanza of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address.



All music composed by Anne Dudley.

No. Title Length
1. "American History X"   4:46
2. "The Assignment"   2:36
3. "Venice Beach"   1:28
4. "Playing to Win"   3:49
5. "People Look at Me and See My Brother"   1:41
6. "If I Had Testified"   4:05
7. "A Stranger at My Table"   3:31
8. "Putting Up a Flag"   2:06
9. "Raiders"   3:02
10. "Complications"   1:38
11. "Starting to Remind Me of You"   1:43
12. "The Right Questions"   3:24
13. "The Parth to Redemption"   2:56
14. "We Are Not Enemies"   2:05
15. "Two Brothers"   2:31
16. "Storm Clouds Gathering"   2:04
17. "Benedictus"   3:35


Shooting took place in Los Angeles, California. With some suggestions from New Line, director Tony Kaye made a second heavily shortened cut, which New Line rejected as it bore little resemblance to the first. Film editor Jerry Greenberg was brought in to cut a third version with Edward Norton.

Kaye disowned the third version as the final cut of the film, as he did not approve of its quality.[3] He tried and failed to have his name removed from the credits,[4][5] openly telling some interviewers he tried to invoke the Alan Smithee pseudonym which the Directors Guild of America used to reserve for such cases. When his request was denied, Kaye tried "Humpty Dumpty" as an alternative name.

Joaquin Phoenix was offered the role of Derek Vinyard but turned it down.[6]


American History X grossed $6,719,864 from 513 theaters in the United States, and a total of $23,875,127 worldwide.[1]

The film, as well as Norton's performance, received critical acclaim. Based on the reviews of 81 critics collected on Rotten Tomatoes, 82% of critics gave the film a positive review, making the film "Certified Fresh", with the consensus being "A compelling and provocative story led by an excellent performance by Edward Norton." In addition, 96% of audience members gave the film a positive review.[7]

Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, regarding it as "always interesting and sometimes compelling, and it contains more actual provocative thought than any American film on race since Do the Right Thing".[8] Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle gave the film two out of five stars, saying, "in some places the dialogue is surprisingly stilted. Far worse, the ending is a misfire."[9]

Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Derek Vinyard, but lost to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful. In 2006, the film was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers.[10]


  1. ^ a b c "American History X (1998)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  2. ^ "Empire's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". Empire Magazine. March 24, 2012. Retrieved March 24, 2012. 
  3. ^ Maurer, Monika (September 1998). "A Quick Chat with Tony Kaye by Monika Maurer". 
  4. ^ McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Archived from the original on July 23, 2009. Retrieved July 23, 2009. "It is possible that some otherwise well-disposed critics may restrain their praise, even unwittingly, in knee-jerk sympathy with director Kaye, who disowns this cut and lost his bid to take his name off the picture." 
  5. ^ Kaye, Tony (October 25, 2002). "Losing it". The Guardian. Retrieved March 20, 2009. 
  6. ^ "Great roles actors have turned down". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  7. ^ "American History X". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixter. Retrieved July 23, 2009. 
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 30, 1998). "American History X Review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved October 5, 2011. 
  9. ^ LaSalle, Mick (October 30, 1998). "Neo Nazi with a Conscience – Norton Shines, But History Disappoints". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 5, 2011. 
  10. ^ AFI's 100 Years ...100 Cheers Nominees

Further reading[edit]

  • Frauley, Jon (2010). "Subculture and American History X". Criminology, Deviance, and the Silver Screen: The Fictional Reality and the Criminological Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-61516-8. 

External links[edit]