American History X Revisited

By David Michael Newstead.

American history tends to get whitewashed and Disneyfied overtime until the past seems like something it never really was. Of course, there are lots of good moments in American history and I don’t mean to diminish that. Then again, anything tends to look good when you leave out all the bad parts.

I say all that to say that race and racism are central to American history and any attempt to paper over that fact is at best a well-intentioned fantasy. In bookstores, for instance, I used to have this habit of opening up American history books and seeing if they made any real mention of Native Americans. More than a few do not. Similarly, African Americans and others tend to fall by the wayside in this grandiose national narrative we’ve constructed overtime. It’s not incorrect per se, it’s just an incomplete picture of what happened. And to quote founding father Benjamin Franklin, half a truth is often a great lie.

Lately, I keep thinking about the movie American History X. I like movies a lot, I’ll just say that now. But this isn’t one you enjoy exactly. It’s thought provoking more than anything else and sad as you watch one tragic event or bad decision leading to more of the same and you’re left to wonder if that cycle ever really ends. The film is almost twenty years old now and it follows a misguided young man as he moves into and later out of the white supremacist movement.

It had been awhile since I’d actually sat down to watch it. American History X is from the late 1990s after all. The film stars the normally affable Edward Norton who is transformed into a muscle bound Neo-Nazi skinhead covered in tattoos and swastikas. But we also get to see Norton’s character before he shaved his head and became a Nazi and the unfortunate path that took him there. Given the subject matter, it can be difficult to watch. There’s graphic violence and racism. But everything people are grappling with in 2017 is right there: xenophobia and immigration, anti-semitism and arguments about police violence, angry white people and hate proliferating the internet.

As an audience though, we’re not just bombarded with hate for the sake of it. You watch how the main character and his brother are pulled in. And you get to see them realize everything that’s wrong with it, how their anger and grief were manipulated. How that hate solved nothing. Is that some kind of redemption? I don’t know. The movie ends with a quote from Abraham Lincoln and so that’s what I’ll leave you with: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.