American History X

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American History X
American History X poster.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTony Kaye
Produced byJohn Morrissey
Written byDavid McKenna
Music byAnne Dudley
CinematographyTony Kaye
Edited by
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • October 30, 1998 (1998-10-30)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$20 million[1]
Box office$23.9 million[1]

American History X is a 1998 American crime drama film directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna. It stars Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, and features 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 brothers from Venice, Los Angeles who become involved in a white supremacist/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. Made on a budget of $20 million, the film grossed $24 million at the worldwide 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]


Note: the film is non-linear; this plot summary has slightly reordered some parts of the film for ease.

Seventeen year old high school student Danny Vinyard is assigned a history essay on "any book related to the human rights struggle", but submits an essay on Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, a direct affront to Mr. Murray, his Jewish history teacher. African-American principal and outreach worker Dr. Bob Sweeney refuses to expel Danny, instead telling Danny that he will study history in terms of current events under his own direction or else be expelled, and that the class will be called American History X. Danny's first assignment is to prepare a paper for the next day on his brother Derek, a former neo-Nazi leader who is that day being released from prison, and to analyze the factors which led Derek to that path, and the impact of it on Danny's own life. Danny then goes to the bathroom and finds a white student being bullied by three African-American students, and steps in, openly disrespecting the black students.

Dr. Sweeney later meets with some police officers who are being briefed on Derek's release and the violence that could potentially occur as a result. He explains the history behind the case. Some years earlier, Danny and Derek's firefighter father, Dennis, had been murdered by black drug dealers after being sent on a call to fight a fire in a drug den. In a television interview conducted after Dennis' death, Derek erupted in a long racist tirade. Shortly thereafter, Cameron Alexander – a high profile, middle-aged racist – became a mentor to Derek, which led to them starting their own violent white supremacist gang, the Disciples of Christ (D.O.C.).

The rest of the backstory is further revealed piecemeal throughout the movie. The D.O.C. frequently hang out at the local recreation center basketball courts. As a skilled basketball player, Derek is dragged into a basketball game against several members of the Crips in which the prize was control of the courts. After winning with his friends, Derek leads a large gang of skinheads to attack a supermarket owned by a Korean that employed African-American and Latino workers, firing up the gang beforehand with a speech about how it used to be owned by, and employ, White Americans. During the raid, the skinheads physically assault the employees, including beating up the owner and restraining an African-American woman and forcing food into her mouth before "whitewashing" her skin with milk whilst verbally racially abusing her. During the raid, then-fourteen year old Danny films the entire thing on a camcorder.

At a later date, Derek's mother invites Murray, at the time her boyfriend, home for dinner, and the evening deteriorates into a heated argument centered around Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, culminating in Derek assaulting their sister Davina (who holds democratic views), Murray leaving, and Derek's mother kicking Derek out. Derek coldly replies that he'll be gone in the morning, with his antagonistic girlfriend Stacy announcing to his family that he can move in with her. That night, an opportunistic gang of black men made up of the Crips Derek earlier insulted on the basketball court attempt to steal Derek's truck. Danny hears glass breaking and runs to tell Derek. Derek shoots and kills one of the thieves and curb stomps another (this was the opening scene of the film), leading to a sentence of three years in the California Institution for Men for voluntary manslaughter.

In prison, Derek realizes that he is very much in the minority as a white man and is at risk of repercussive violence. Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood, and is respected for his actions on the outside. He is given a job in the prison laundry and assigned to be the partner of Lamont, a black man who was serving six years for robbery and assaulting a police officer, although Lamont strongly implies that the latter was a trumped-up charge. At first, Derek is silent and standoffish to Lamont, wanting nothing to do with a black man. The pair later developed a rapport over their shared love of basketball. After about a year, Derek becomes disillusioned by the politics of prison gangs. Derek strongly believes in the ideology, but the rest of the gang have extensive dealings with other non-white gangs, which Derek disapproves of. After publicly turning his back on them, he is punished by being severely beaten and raped in the shower by the Aryan Brotherhood members.

Derek lies in the hospital wing after receiving several stitches to his face and anus. He is visited by Sweeney, with whom he pleads for help to get out of prison. Sweeney informs him of Danny's involvement with the D.O.C., and warns that he is on the same path as Derek. He says that his help is not free, and will need to be repaid by Derek's active decrying of the D.O.C. when he leaves prison. Upon leaving the hospital wing, Derek ignores the Aryan Brotherhood and Lamont warns him that by doing so, he is making it clear to all that he no longer has their protection and therefore "The Brothers", meaning the black gangs, will come for him. Derek admits he knows this but replies that if they're going to come for him, there's nothing he can do about it. He waits for an attack, but one never comes. He spends the remainder of his time in prison alone, reading books that Sweeney sends him. On his morning of release, he bids goodbye to Lamont and says that he thinks that Lamont may be the reason for him not getting attacked. Lamont denies this but his face gives away his true actions. Finally realizing the error of his ways, Derek leaves prison a changed man.

Upon arriving home, Derek finds that Danny sees his neo-Nazi past as admirable and is seeking to emulate him, sporting a tattoo of the D.O.C. and a skinhead hairstyle. Derek tries to persuade him to leave the gang, while Danny feels angry and betrayed that Derek no longer follows the ideals that Danny is now emulating. Derek's best friend, Seth - also in the D.O.C. - frequently visits their house and openly berates and disrespects the female members of the Vinyard family whilst simultaneously grooming Danny. Both Seth and Danny are being closely controlled by Cameron.

That evening, Derek attends a neo-Nazi party being thrown in honour of his release (with Danny sneaking in against Derek's wishes), to tell Cameron that he and Danny will no longer associate with the movement, and that he now sees Cameron as a predator and manipulator who persuades vulnerable youths to do his bidding while escaping accountability for the crimes and distress that he brings about. He also reunites with Stacy, and tries to persuade her to leave with him, but Stacy is absolutely dedicated to the cause. Cameron, Stacey, and the other neo-Nazis in the group turn harshly on him. Derek assaults Cameron after the latter insists that Danny will remain within the group as a hero and under his influence, and Seth holds Derek at gunpoint. Derek manages to disarm him and flees.

Danny runs after Derek and attacks him, in tears. Derek calms Danny down. Afterwards, quietly, Derek tells Danny about his experience in prison, which seems to prompt a change in Danny. The pair return home and remove all racist posters from their shared bedroom.

The next morning, Danny completes his paper. It reflects deeply on why he had adopted white supremacist values and why they were so flawed. He also comments that although Derek's racist views may seem to have arisen from anger over his father's death, Danny knows that the seed for his brother's views was planted years earlier; their father used to overtly rant in a racist manner about subjects such as affirmative action and used racial epithets at the dinner table. His father's death was the catalyst that caused all of his anger to be misdirected into racist beliefs. Derek walks Danny to school, stopping at a diner for breakfast on the way.

Sweeney and a police officer meet Derek in the diner and inform him that Seth and Cameron were attacked the previous night and are now in ICU. They ask for Derek's help figuring out what happened, meaning they want him to go and talk with the very people he has denounced. A stressed Derek bleakly jokes that they're going to get him killed by a bunch of white guys. He agrees, but says he will drop Danny at school first. During the walk there, Derek is acutely aware that he may be being followed by a car. He bids Danny farewell and warily heads off alone. Meanwhile, Danny greets his girlfriend and then heads to the bathroom. A changed person, he is nevertheless ambushed in the bathroom by the young black student with whom he had a confrontation the previous day (also a friend of the two Crips Derek killed). He is instantly shot and killed. A mortified Derek runs to the school and cradles Danny's bloodied corpse in his arms.

The epilogue shows a voice-over of Danny reading the final lines of his paper for Dr. Sweeney, before quoting the final stanza of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address.



Shooting took place in Los Angeles, California.[3] 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 of the film and 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]

Release and reception[edit]

Box office[edit]

American History X was released on October 30, 1998, and grossed $156,076 in seventeen theaters during its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $6,719,864 from 513 theaters in the United States, and a total of $23,875,127 worldwide.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Edward Norton's performance was critically lauded and he went on to receive multiple accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor

The film received positive reviews upon release with many critics directing particular praise towards Edward Norton's performance. Based on the reviews of 83 critics collected on Rotten Tomatoes, 83% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7.33/10; the website's consensus reads: "A compelling and provocative story led by an excellent performance by Edward Norton."[7] By comparison, on Metacritic, the film holds a 62/100 average rating based on 32 reviews of top mainstream critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[8]

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, awarding American History X four stars out of four, described it as "a shockingly powerful screed against racism that also manages to be so well performed and directed that it is entertaining as well" and stated that it was "also effective at demonstrating how hate is taught from one generation to another." Siskel singled out Norton's performance and called him "the immediate front-runner" for an Oscar.[9] Todd McCarthy, writing for Variety, gave the film a positive review stating, "This jolting, superbly acted film will draw serious-minded upscale viewers interested in cutting-edge fare." He gave special praise to Norton's performance, saying "His Derek mesmerizes even as he repels, and the actor fully exposes the human being behind the tough poses and attitudinizing."[10] The New York Times's Janet Maslin wrote, "Though its story elements are all too easily reduced to a simple outline, American History X has enough fiery acting and provocative bombast to make its impact felt. For one thing, its willingness to take on ugly political realities gives it a substantial raison d'être. For another, it has been directed with a mixture of handsome photo-realism and visceral punch."[11] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of four, stating that it was "always interesting and sometimes compelling, and it contains more actual provocative thought than any American film on race since Do the Right Thing." He was critical though of the film's underdeveloped areas, stating that "the movie never convincingly charts Derek's path to race hatred" and noting that "in trying to resolve the events of four years in one day, it leaves its shortcuts showing". Nevertheless, Ebert concluded, "This is a good and powerful film. If I am dissatisfied, it is because it contains the promise of being more than it is."[12]

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle expressed disappointment at the film, though he did praise Norton's performance as Derek, commenting that he "is perfect for the role". LaSalle felt that while the film succeeded in portraying Derek's descent into neo-Nazism, it failed to portray his renouncement of his past beliefs: "We had to watch him think his way in. We should see him think his way out." LaSalle also noted other problems: "In some places the dialogue is surprisingly stilted. Far worse, the ending is a misfire."[13] Stephen Hunter, writing for The Washington Post, was highly critical of the film and gave it a negative review, calling it "an old melodramatic formula hidden under pretentious TV-commercial-slick photography".[14]

Awards and honors[edit]

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.

Norton's performance was ranked by Total Film as the 72nd-greatest film performance of all time.[15] Norton's Academy Award loss was also included on Empire's list of "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices".[16]

Award Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [17]
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [18]
Golden Reel Awards Best Sound Editing: Music Score in a Feature Film Richard Ford Nominated [19]
Golden Satellite Awards Best Original Screenplay David McKenna Nominated [20]
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Edward Norton Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Drama Beverly D'Angelo Nominated
Online Film Critics Society Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [21]
Political Film Society Awards Peace Nominated [22]
Saturn Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [23]
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Won [24]
Taormina International Film Festival Best Actor Edward Norton Won [25]
Youth in Film Awards Best Supporting Young Actor in a Feature Film Edward Furlong Nominated [26]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home media[edit]

The film was released on VHS by New Line Home Entertainment on August 24, 1999.[28] The film was later released on DVD in both 2002[29] and 2008[30] and on Blu-ray on April 7, 2009.[31]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c "American History X (1998)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  2. ^ "Empire's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". Empire Magazine. March 24, 2012. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  3. ^ "American History X Filming Locations". Movie Locations Guide. Retrieved August 28, 2013.
  4. ^ McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Archived from the original on April 23, 2010. 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. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  7. ^ "American History X". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 5, 2019.
  8. ^ "American History X Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (October 30, 1998). "A Shocking Film About Racial Hate". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  10. ^ McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  11. ^ Maslin, Janet (October 28, 1998). "'American History X': The Darkest Chambers of a Nation's Soul". The New York Times. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 30, 1998). "American History X". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  13. ^ LaSalle, Mick (October 30, 1998). "Neo-Nazi With a Conscience / Norton shines, but `History' disappoints". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  14. ^ Hunter, Stephen (October 30, 1998). "'American History X'". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  15. ^ Total Film (December 11, 2008). "150 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time". Total Film. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  16. ^ De Semlyen, Phil (February 27, 2014). "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices". Empire. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  17. ^ "71st Academy Awards Winners". Academy Awards. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  18. ^ Tribune staff (January 19, 1999). "Chicago Film Critics Name Their Favorites". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  19. ^ J. Olson, Eric (February 22, 1999). "Sound editors shout Golden Reel noms". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  20. ^ "1999 Awards". International Press Academy. Archived from the original on February 11, 2001. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  21. ^ "1998 Awards (2nd Annual)". Online Film Critics Society. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  22. ^ "Previous Award Winners". Political Film Society. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  23. ^ J. Olson, Eric (March 8, 1999). "Out of this world". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  24. ^ "1998 SEFCA Best Films of the Year". Southeastern Film Critics Association. Archived from the original on June 13, 2004. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  25. ^ Rooney, David (August 3, 1999). "U.S. pix help revive Italy's Taormina fest". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  26. ^ "20th Annual Awards". Young Artist Award. Archived from the original on November 28, 2016. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  28. ^ "American History X [VHS]". Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  29. ^ Joshua Klein (4 April 2002). "American History X". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  30. ^ "American History X". Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  31. ^ "American History X Blu-ray". Retrieved 10 February 2017.

Further reading

  • 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]