American History X is one of the most amazing films I have ever seen; however, it is also one of the hardest movies to sit through because it faces real problems in our messed up world under the sun. The movie covers a 24 hour period in the life of a family immersed in white supremacy. This 24 hour period is pivotal in their lives, and there are many flashbacks which show us how this situation has come to pass. The 24 hour period shows the following in a chiastic (A-B-C-B’-A’) structure:
A: The height of Danny’s hatred towards blacks
B: Danny’s escape from white supremacy
C: Danny’s epiphany that racism is pointless
B’: A sense that Danny truly loves all people, including blacks
A’: Danny being murdered by a black boy
This movie is incredibly ironic and disheartening in the fact that Danny is hatefully murdered by a black kid after he has realized that he wants to love people and not hate them. It is situations like this where we must realize as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes does, that both the good and the bad alike meet the same end: death.
With this said, I wish to now describe in more detail, parts of the movie which help us see what has happened and why: Danny is a high school boy who has been given an assignment to write a paper on a civil rights leader: he chooses to write a paper on Hitler. In his own words, “I hate anyone that is not white protestant.” His teacher is outraged and sends him to the African American principle, Dr. Sweeney. Dr. Sweeney gives Danny a choice, be expelled or he becomes his new history teacher and is told to write a new paper, a paper which analyses his brother, Derek, who is being released from prison that very day… After his meeting with the principle Danny has a run-in with some black kids in the bathroom and there is nearly a fight as Danny blows (cigarette) smoke in their faces.
The black boys walk away… (Note the irony: His hatred for them is like smoke…it is like dust in the wind, it vanishes almost instantly….as we will see).
Dr. Sweeney happened to know Danny’s brother very well – Derek was the protégé of Cameron, the networker of the white supremacist on the west coast and Derek was going to be the figure head leader of this movement. After the crime of what Derek did, he literally became a God to the other white supremacist.
Flashback, the crime: Derek played a game of basketball with some black guys, and won: the stakes – the black guys had to leave and never play on those courts again. Later on, these same black guys tried to steal Derek’s truck in the middle of the night. Danny looked out the window and saw it happening – he hesitantly told Derek that they were breaking in… Derek went ballistic and shot one of the men point blank. Then he shot the other and he was wounded. Then he fired a barrage into the back of the escape car, missing the driver as he drove off. He walked back to the wounded man and forced him to “bite the curb” – Danny runs towards his brother to stop him. He is too late – he gruesomely stomps on the back of his head… the cops arrive and Derek is filled with pride as his bare chest reveals his very large tattoo of a swastika. Danny is horror stricken. Derek is arrested and given three years of time in prison. Had Danny testified about his brother’s hatred in this crime, it would have been a life sentence.
Derek did not allow his family to visit him when he was in prison. This allowed Danny to follow in his footsteps: “I’d never seen anyone die before. The sound of that kid’s head splitting open on the curb went right through me. It stayed in my dreams for months, until slowly it changed into something I couldn’t recognize. The scary thing is it doesn’t bother me anymore. For a long time I thought that night was proof that Derek was right.”
And this is when Cameron, the networker, became Danny’s mentor while Derek was in prison. Danny said, “People look at me and see my brother…” Danny was truly beginning to follow the patterns of his brother, Derek.
When Derek was in prison, he befriended other Nazi’s. However, he worked with a black man. He soon realized that, “in the joint, you the nigga, not me.” After a year, he sees his fellow Nazi’s doing deals with Hispanics and he gets very upset about ‘talk and no action.’ Overtime, he becomes friends with the black laundry guy. He makes a bold move and turns his back on the Nazi’s in prison by sitting at a different table. A little while later, the Nazi’s gang rape him and almost kill him in the showers – the prison guards even allowed it too happen. During his recovery in the hospital, Dr. Sweeny (the principle and former teacher of Derek) comes to visit him. Derek cries and Sweeny is there to comfort him. Derek is scared for his life every day in prison, all can see his chest revealing the large swastika and his old Nazi friends no longer accept him. No one is on his side… when he is released from prison, he realizes that it is the black laundry man who kept him alive, he had communicated with the other races in prison that Derek was actually a cool guy and was no longer a white supremacist.
The morning of Derek’s release is amazing: he is embracing his mother and sister with love and coming up with a plan for them to escape from the white supremacy which had plagued their lives… meanwhile, this is when Danny was being given a new history assignment from Dr. Sweeney. Danny comes home and is completely taken aback.
That evening there is a party at Cameron’s place for Derek’s coming home. The party comes to an abrupt halt when Derek announces that he is no longer a white supremacist. He and Danny flee for the lives. Danny is very upset with Derek and he is very confused. This is when Derek sits Danny down and describes what prison was like and all the hypocrisy which he had seen and how race barriers were not the problem.
Derek feels lucky. What he did was wrong. How did he buy into everything? It was because he was pissed off. Nothing he ever did made him feel any better. It just made him feel more lost. Derek does not tell Danny what to do, but he wants Danny to understand. Danny finally understands. After their conversation, Derek and Danny are in their bedroom – the white supremacist Nazi laden room – and they both begin to tear down all the Nazi memorbellia together. They were entering into a new life together. The film then shows two things happen at the same time: Danny working on his paper and Derek taking a cleansing shower. When Derek steps out of the shower, the swastika on his chest is very large, but as he looks in the mirror, you can tell that he is a new man by his face (the acting is superb!). Danny is writing his paper during this time and asking: how did it all start? Derek would say that it all started when his father was murdered when trying to rescue black people from a burning building… Danny says, no, it actually started earlier…. You see, Derek loved Dr. Sweeny, and he was a great student. One evening while at the dinner table, their father began to speak highly against blacks and blamed them for all problems and told Derek to be careful of Dr. Sweeney, and Derek bought into it… the father was racist, however, passive aggressively only…not one to actually raise his fist – Danny begins to weep when he realizes that this was how it started.
Danny has begun a new life; he finishes his paper and gets some coffee with Derek on his way to school. Derek says goodbye to Danny as he trots into the school. As he leaves, minutes later something inside of him becomes fearful and he runs after his brother. He is too late, only to realize that the black kid that Danny encountered 24 hours earlier shoots Danny point blank in the school restroom. The paper which Danny had written was in his hands when he was shot and fell to the floor. Derek begins to scream “Oh Jesus, God, what did I do? Oh God, oh God!” And this is when the conclusion is read from Danny’s paper:
“Hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time. It is not worth it… ‘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, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’”
I say it again: This movie is one of the most amazing films I have ever seen; however, it is also one of the hardest movies to sit through because it faces real problems in our messed up world under the sun. It engages with some of the hardest issues known. Can hatred satisfy? It shows us that both the good and bad go to the same end under the sun and that our time of departure can not be named. It shows us the injustice in the world; the transformation of souls; the fact that sin still contains consequences even after we have admitted the wrong in it. It shows us that those who claim to be Christians are often highly misguided. It shows us that in the reality of life, there is truly a season for everything, and we are not in control of those seasons. And it shows us that hatred will never satisfy. I believe that the author of Ecclesiastes would share this story with others and that through his portrayal of this story he could lead people to begin on a journey of wanting to know more of Christ.
Questions for Reflection:
- Have you had someone in your life that was like Dr. Sweeney (i.e., someone who had faith in you even when you lacked the faith in yourself)?
- Have you ever experienced being the rejected outcast in a social situation? Was it dependent on Race? Wealth? Education? Gender? Religion? Sexuality? Weight?
- Have you ever been the victimizer?
- Have you ever done something because you were pissed off? Did that act of retribution ever bring about true happiness or just make you feel more isolated?
- Do you believe that life is too short to be pissed off all the time? If so, what are you going to do about it?
- Derek screams out, “Oh Jesus, God, what did I do? Oh God, oh God!” as he holds his lifeless brother in his arms – do you think that Derek truly understands why his brother was killed? Would you blame yourself as well? What are the chances of Derek becoming a white supremacist again because of this act of retribution? What are the chances of him reaching out to the black community in love? What would you do?