When Art Mirrors Reality: American History X and the Events in Charlottesville

At the end of July I went through my monthly ritual of identifying movies I had watched 15 years ago and moving them onto my list of potential Watch List. One of these recycled movies, American History x, immediately moved to the top of my Watch List. Because it wasn’t available on any of the platforms I subscribe to, I added it to the top of my Netflix DVD queue. It was happenstance that I watched this DVD yesterday, a few days after the events in Charlottesville.

At the end of July I went through my monthly ritual of identifying movies I had watched 15 years ago and moving them onto my list of potential movies to watch now. One of these recycled movies, American History X,immediately moved to the top of my Watch List. Because it wasn’t available on any of the platforms I subscribe to, I added it to the top of my Netflix DVD queue. It was happenstance that I watched this DVD yesterday, a few days after the events in Charlottesville.

My experience has been that, when these movies come up for a second viewing fifteen years later, I have a couple of common recollections of the movie. I have a general memory of what the movie is about. I have very little memory of the details of the movie. And, most importantly, I have a distinct memory of whether I “really liked” the movie even if everything else about the movie is indistinct. If it happens that I remember “loving” a movie, I know that I am about to re-experience the highs of being a movie lover even if I can’t remember why.

I have no memory of American History X when it was first released. It was only a few years later that my exploration of IMDB surfaced this movie that was highly rated but was about a topic that repulsed me, the neo-Nazi movement in California. It took a little time but I finally overcame my reluctance and watched it in 2002, four years after it was released. I remember being surprised at how good a movie it was.

The movie is told in two stories. One story is the 24 hour period after Derek Vinyard, played by Edward Norton, is released from prison after serving three years for voluntary manslaughter of two black men who were attempting to steal his car. His prison experience leads him to rethink the path he followed and is determined to dissuade his younger brother, Danny, from following down the same path.

Danny tells the second story. At the beginning of the movie, a teacher, who is trying to get through to Danny, gives Danny an assignment to write a history about his brother, called American History X. This second story is a flashback, filmed in black and white, of Derek’s evolution from inquisitive high-schooler to neo-Nazi leader to his disillusionment with the movement.

I watched it yesterday with a heightened sense of its relevance. I listened to the rhetoric spewed by  Derek and was amazed how closely it mirrored the rhetoric we hear daily. I noted how the two main characters in the movie were well educated, just as many of the neo-Nazi marchers at Charlottesville were young college educated males. The movie portrays the recruitment of young men who have been preyed upon or feel vulnerable with the pitch that their problems are caused by “those people” rather than their own inability to cope with the lemons that life has tossed their way.

One scene in the film is particularly poignant. There is a flashback of high school aged Derek having breakfast with the father he idolized. Derek is expressing his excitement about a class he is having that is exposing him to cultural experiences of other races. His father, a fireman and otherwise decent man, shuts him down and proceeds to indoctrinate him in his racist “reality”. I immediately thought of Barack Obama’s viral tweet of the words of Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate…”

At the end of the movie, the younger brother, Danny, narrates the end of his American History X paper with the following words:

“So I guess this is where I tell you what I learned – my conclusion, right? Well, my conclusion is: Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it. Derek says it’s always good to end a paper with a quote. He says someone else has already said it best. So if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong. So I picked a guy I thought you’d like. ‘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.’ “

Danny is quoting here from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. We can only hope that the hardened shells of our hatred can be penetrated “by the better angels of our nature”.

Author: Mad Movie Man

I love good movies. In my prior life I worked with predictive models. I've combined my love of movies with my prior experience to create a simple Bayesian probability model to help select movies that you will probably "really like".

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