Racial Representation in American History X

The following article was written as an assignment for the The History and Significance of Race in America class.

A movie American History X (1988) deals with white supremacy and racism. We can see a variety of racial representation in this movie. We're now going to see implicit racial associations and racist stereotypes seen in this film first with the framework of John Russell's discussion in his research "Race as Ricorso: Blackface(s), Racial Representation, and the Transnational Apologetics of Historical Amnesia in the United States and Japan," examine the background and arguments on race in the movie, and finally see the editorial point of view of the film maker.

There are so many symbols that representing race in American History X. Two young white brothers are featured in the story. The older brother Derek had been a white supremacist. He killed two black youths and had been in prison for three years for voluntary manslaughter. He has many icons of white supremacy on his look including skinhead and swastika tattoo on his chest. However, after he gets out of the prison, he has his mild hair-style and does not shows his tattoo to other people any more (he only sees it in the mirror after taking a shower, which reminds him of his old regretful past). His younger brother Danny has been inspired greatly by Derek and now becomes a member of a white supremacist group. He also shaves his head and has a collection of Nazi posters in his room. Their looks show a typical young white supremacist today. While in prison, Derek changed his racist ideology. Not only because he was raped brutally by one of his white inmates, but also because he saw the reality of racial conflicts and disillusioned.

There are a variety of racial symbols depicted in the prison. The prison guards say racial words to Derek. Macho black, white, and Hispanic groups are clearly divided in there. The main concern in this part of the movie is whether Derek would be raped by blacks or not. It turned out that they did not, but the notion of "being raped by blacks in prison" is shared not only with Derek but also with the audience of the movie. This notion probably comes from what Russell calls "the sexual body images of black males" (Russell, 2011, p.132). Derek has no communication with any members of these macho black guys. In the movie, they are just depicted as "beasts that may sexually offend others"(Russell). Since the possible victim is a white, it also indicates that the rape would be a kind of interracial pornography (There is almost no description of black females in the movie. The only exception is a black shop-keeper who was insulted by Derek and his racist members). The other symbolic icon of blackness can be found in the characteristic of Lamont, who is a black inmate and becomes a good friend of Derek in the laundry room in the prison. He talks and makes jokes a lot, which also characterizes him as a typical young black male who has a big mouth. Another representation of black character is Dr. Sweeny. He is a high school principal who holds Ph.D. and tries to help both Derek and Danny. He is seen as a well-educated black role-model. He is also seen as the person who has gone through the Civil Right Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. He is a man of dignity and plays a "good guy" in this movie. During these events, some flashbacks of past events are inserted occasionally. One of them is a basketball match with a young black group at a park. Here Derek finally won the match with them against the expectation that blacks play basketball better than whites. One of the black guys, who is killed by Derek later in the movie because of stealing his car, is depicted as a bad guy who physically offended Derek during the game. All of the black characters in this movie are split into good and bad guys. This is what Russell calls "a series of binary extremes" (Russell, 2011, p.128). All of them bear strong black icons. Even Dr. Sweeny, who is relatively more depicted than other black characters, is seen as a typical wise and elderly black-male.

The background of the movie also plays an important role in representing race and racial issues. The racial situation is actually discussed by the characters themselves in the movie. The story unfolds in Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, where different races exist in the same area. The topic that is referred to in the film is the Los Angeles Riot occurred in 1992. This racial-motivated event has huge impacts on Derek and Danny since the Riot is exemplified by Derek to support his claim to justify the beating of Rodney King. A hard dispute over racism is carried out at the dinner table at Derek's house with their mother Doris's Jewish boyfriend Murray (who is a Danny's school teacher) and Derek's girlfriend Stacey. Here Doris and Murray talk about the Rodney King incident from relatively a liberal point of views, whereas Derek criticizes Rodney with harshly racial words. In the end, Derek shows his hostility to Murray by showing his swastika tattoo.

Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it also shows racial discriminatory views of working-class American people. For example, Derek and Danny's father Dennis, who was a firefighter shot and killed while fighting a fire, talks about affirmative action critically to Derek. He probably does not call himself a white supremacist, but criticizes the racially "unfair" system. He uses hateful words such as "affirmative blacksion," "niggers," and "shit," which clearly show his racial discrimination against blacks. It shows that these prejudiced notions may easily be passed down to the next generation in an ordinary working-class family. Another racial episode that is likely to happen in Los Angeles is that attacking a glossary store owned by a Korean. The main reason why Derek attacks the store with his racial-group members is that the owner hires non-white employees. The movie reflects the political and social situations in the 1990s in Los Angeles on their life-style basis. For Derek and Danny, their enemies are real. The enemies are the people whom they see every day in their lives such as their neighbors, co-workers, classmates, and shop owners. The brothers hate them because they are non-white. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler and Nazis ideology seems to play a relatively small in their lives. Swastika and other Nazism icons seem to attract them only as a fashion, not as philosophy. They don't look like Nazism ideologues at all (Both brothers do not use particular racial words such as "Aryans." Derek uses the word "Jewish" only once while disputing with his mother's Jewish boyfriend). There is no description of them praising Hitler or his ideology in the film. That is probably why Danny can change his mind and throw away all the Nazism posters and stickers immediately at the end of the film.

The message of American History X is very clear. White supremacist ideology is not focused much in this film. Instead, hatred and violence seem to be put more emphasized as the reasons and causes of racism. For example, Dr. Sweeny asks Derek in prison, "Has anything you've done made your life better?" Derek actually changes his mind with this question. At the end of the film, Danny writes as a conclusion of his essay assigned by Dr. Sweeny saying that "Hate is baggage. It's not worth it." Both examples point out that the brothers' problems are not on race, but on hatred. What they have to do now is to see themselves objectively and find out whether the hatred has its own legitimate basis. Although rest of the characters are distinctly divided into good and bad guys and described stereotypically with racial symbols, it successfully shows how a circle of hate violence continues.

However, there is criticism that the movie sends the wrong message that hate crimes are committed by people who shave their heads and wear swastikas, and if a viewer knows that he does not do this, he can rest assured that he is not a racist (Finley, 2003, p.82). This is probably because the story relies more on the racial stereotypes, whereas a similar movie such as Crash uses the racial stereotypes in ordinary people more efficiently to show the conflicts between them so that they are more likely to happen in their real life. Overall, the movie shows how racial hatred is reproduced over generations very well.

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