American History X

American History X Information

American History X is a 1998 American drama film directed by Tony Kaye from a screenplay written by David McKenna, starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. It was distributed by New Line Cinema.

The film tells the story of two brothers, Derek Vinyard (Norton) and Daniel "Danny" Vinyard (Furlong) of Venice, Los Angeles, California. Both are intelligent and charismatic students. Their father, a firefighter, is murdered by a black drug dealer while trying to extinguish a fire in South Los Angeles, and Derek is drawn into the Neo-Nazi movement. Derek brutally kills two black gang members whom he catches breaking into the truck left to him by his father, and is sentenced to three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. The story shows how Danny is influenced by his older brother's actions and ideology and how Derek, now radically changed by his experience in incarceration, which includes violent rape by white neo-Nazi inmates, tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path as he did. The film is told in the style of nonlinear narrative.

Shooting took place in Los Angeles, California. The film was released in the United States on October 30, 1998 and went on to gross over $23 million at the international box office. It was given an "R" rating by the MPAA for "graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality and nudity".

Critics mostly praised the film and Edward Norton's performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It was also named by Empire magazine in September 2008 as the 311th Greatest Movie of All Time.


Derek Vinyard (Norton) becomes a neo-Nazi after his father (Russ) is murdered by black drug dealers. Derek joins the neo-Nazi gang "D.O.C". When three Crips try to steal Derek's truck, he runs outside and opens fire, killing one, and curb stomps another. He is sentenced to three years at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

In the prison, he joins the Aryan Brotherhood. After about a year, he becomes disillusioned with the gang, especially over the group's friendly dealings with a Mexican prison gang member, and their trafficking in narcotics. His objections are rejected by the other white supremacists. Derek also develops a friendly rapport with black prison inmate Lamont (Torry). His fellow neo-Nazis take notice of this and savagely beat and rape him in the shower.

While recovering from the attack, Derek is visited by his black former high school English teacher, Dr. Bob Sweeney (Brooks), whom he asks for help to be paroled. Sweeney informs him of Danny's continued involvement with neo-Nazis, and that he is on the same path as his older brother. Sweeney then confides in Derek that he hated white people as a youth, but he eventually realized that hatred is pointless. This proves a turning point for Derek, who 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.

The morning Derek is due to be released from prison, Danny's history teacher reports Danny to Sweeney, now the principal, on account of Danny's history paper on Mein Kampf. Sweeney convinces the teacher to give Danny another chance, and tells Danny that he will now attend a history class called "American History X". For their first lesson, Dr. Sweeney asks Danny to write a paper on the events leading up to Derek's incarceration. Danny reluctantly agrees after Sweeney threatens expulsion.

In the evening, when Derek returns home, he finds that Danny has a D.O.C. tattoo and then tries to persuade him to leave the gang. Later that night, at a neo-Nazi party which Derek and Danny are both attending, Derek confronts and tells the leader, Cameron Alexander (Keach), that he and Danny will no longer associate with them. Alexander provokes Derek, who beats him up. During an ensuing confrontation, Danny's neo-Nazi friend Seth Ryan (Suplee) runs after Derek and aims a pistol at him, which Derek wrestles from him, and points at the angry crowd before running away from the party. Danny angrily confronts Derek, who tells him about his time and transformation in prison; the confession seems to prompt a change in Danny. Back at their home they remove all the white power posters from their bedroom walls. Derek then takes a shower and reflects somberly on his numerous white power tattoos in the bathroom mirror.

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 Alexander and Seth were attacked the previous night and have been hospitalized. Derek claims no knowledge of the incidents, yet they ask him for help. Derek reluctantly agrees.

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.



With some suggestions from New Line, Tony Kaye, the film's director, manufactured 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. He tried (and failed) to have his name removed from the credits, 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 refused he then tried "Humpty Dumpty" as an alternative name.

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

Original screenplay

McKenna's first screenplay roughly follows the main plot of the finished movie and deals with the father's death, Dereks rise in the Neo-Nazi scene, the two black men's murder, his detention, the reformation of Danny and finally also Danny's death. The film does not concentrate on these points, instead introducing in a drug story.

Cameron, who is one of the leading Neonazis of Los Angeles in the film is still a Neonazi in the first screenplay, though no leader, but primarily a drug dealer, and both Derek and Seth his legmen. In the original version, Cameron hires the men who break in Derek's car to steal two pounds of heroin, which Derek had bought from Cameron to sell. In the original screenplay, the third person in the car is Seth, Derek's best friend. Derek finds out about Cameron's betrayal from one of the thieves, and goes to jail without telling anybody, only confronting Cameron three years later at the party. There, he beats him almost to death and runs away with Danny. In the original screenplay, Seth and Cameron are killed by another gang before being able to take revenge on Derek.

The end of Derek's relationship with Stacey is less sudden in the screenplay, not ending even after a fight, while Danny regularly uses hard drugs together with some friends. Danny's off-screen analysis of events has less screentime and he tries to convince his sister to write the essay for him. Derek's reformation in jail is much shorter in the original screenplay, and character of Lawrence does not feature. The connection to the local Neo-Nazi group is not shown, and in the original version, the rape is depicted without any motivation.

In the screenplay Derek is described as denouncing racism with no explanation. The drug plotline in the original version of American History X is in the foreground, with the Neo-Nazi subplot behind. It is due to Tony Kaye's directorial changes that the movie concentrates only on the racist setting and the resulting conflict.


Box office

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

Critical reception

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. 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".

On the other hand, some critics were not impressed with the film. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle gave the film two out of five stars, saying that "in some places the dialogue is surprisingly stilted. Far worse, the ending is a misfire."

Awards and nominations

Edward 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.

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