American History X (1998)

Published: Nov 22, 2009 |Updated: Sep 13, 2023


American History X tells the story of Derek Vinyard and his little brother Danny, two brilliant and charismatic brothers based in Venice Beach, California. It is an area that has been overrun with ethnic gangs and when their father is murdered while trying to put out a fire in a black neighborhood, Derek loses himself to hatred and starts a White Supremacy organization with the serpentine Cameron Alexander. This is a movie about the importance of fathers, mentors and brothers as well as the dangers of shadow mentors and gang initiation.

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Genre Drama
Production year 1998
Director Tony Kaye
Male actors Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks

Inside a world of unfathered boys

Let me put this out in the open from the get-go: With American History X, Tony Kaye has directed an amazing, extremely charged and challenging movie. It brings up some issues which we are generally loathe to look at in our day-to-day lives. This is exactly why we will now do just that. Sidestepping the bare realities of life is a game which has gone past its sell by date. To really understand the thematics of the movie, I strongly recommend that you read my introduction to Spiral Dynamics. I will be referencing some SD concepts in this review, but will explain them sufficiently for you to tag along even if you are not familiar with them.

Your assignment, young Danny, is American History X

After serving three years in prison for killing two black gang members who were busy breaking into his car, Derek Vinyard is let back out on the street. On the same day, Danny is called into the headmaster’s office at Venice Beach High. With Derek behind bars, Danny has been lost for direction and has in his brother’s absence become heavily engaged in the White Power movement that Derek helped build. It is, he believes, what his brother – his only living role model – would have wished.

His essay “Mein Kampf” has now landed his ass in Bob Sweeney’s office. Mr Sweeney is a strong man, directed, compassionate, and with a powerful presence. He is also black, worried, and very unimpressed with the direction this young man is taking. “What’ll it be, Danny?,” he bellows. “What is this crap you’re trying to sell us?” Bob is unwilling to give up on the lost Danny; he sees in him not only the same brilliant mind as in his brother, but also the same dangerous inclinations towards hateful racial stereotypes.

Bob sets up a new history class for the lost boy, a class where Danny is the only attending student. This class is really in ritual space and Bob is his mentor. “We will name the class American History X”. The first assignment in the new class is a paper in which Danny must document and analyze his brother’s actions and the effects they have had on himself and his family. This is the context of the movie, a story on the brilliant Derek’s descent into hatred and murder, and Danny is the voice who tells it.

The shadow king and his red knight

Venice Beach is overrun by black and latino gangs who spread fear among the white population. Cameron Alexander is a hateful, old man who has set up base in his home to coordinate an Aryan crusade against all who aren’t white protestants. Together with Derek, he runs the DOC, a White Power group whose aim is to take back Venice Beach from gangs, “border jumpers”, and foreign business owners. He stays in shadows, “has to be careful”, and lets Derek do the dirty work of recruitment and vandalism. Cameron has positioned himself as the elder, the person who confused and insecure young white boys – kids who are afraid of the world they live in – look up to for guidance and the feeling of belonging.

Cameron’s influence reminds us of an important fact; where the harbringers of hate gain power, fathers have strayed from the path of serving with presence, authority, discernment and love. Or they are simply not there.

Derek and Danny’s father disappeared when he was shot by a black drug dealer while fighting a fire in a black neighborhood. The movie shows him as being a loving father in his own way, but we also understand that he was a fearful man who quietly carried a burden of bitterness and anger over the ways he felt white people were suffering at the hands of liberal politics and affirmative black action. His death at the hands of a black man is what cemented Derek’s path into racial hatred and white power ideology. It is also what started his search for another father figure from whom he could receive the essential transmission of knowledge any younger man so desperately wants.

Cameron Alexander, like most shadow kings, feeds on fear and hatred, and Derek is willing prey for his serpentine tongue and toxic mentorship. He is a willing crown prince – a red knight* with kingly qualities and great power, yet his every action takes him further away from the inner freedom which he seeks. That is the nature of shadow initiators: they pretend to have answers, but their initiation only takes people one step closer to hell.

And as their desperate students find themselves left with ever fewer things worth living for, all that remains is the glimmer of hope that their mentor will one day come through with the soul food for which he/she hungers for. But shadow initiators never deliver; they are unable to. For they are themselves unfathered and know not their inner truth and goodness.Nevertheless, Derek feels good that he has found something worth fighting for, and he spreads the gospel of hate with religious enthusiasm and conviction. Cameron is a shadow king who has found his red knight.

The war against white boys

In Spiral Dynamics, we learn that there is a stage (Green) of development that is associated with a watering down of truth as well as structures of power, control and – yes – growth. On this level, we find movements, philosophies and ideologies such as post-modernism, relativism and feminism. This is a stage where feminine values flood society, men are discriminated against in covert ways, and boys suffer terribly.

It is a stage where the victim is celebrated and integrity, responsibility, loyalty and service are discarded in favor of emotionality. This mindset is largely what people are referring to when they speak of liberals. What we see in the SD model is that the political ideology that grows out of this mindset is a significantly more evolved state of mind than the one we know as conservativism, but it comes with huge problems.

One of the biggest shadows of Green (where liberalism has its home base) is the huge shame that comes with it. White people on the Green level of development feel shame that their forefathers are responsible for colonialism, the enslavement of the people of Africa, the destruction of the planet. They basically feel guilty for everything that is wrong in the world. And the main bulk of the blame – if not all of it – goes towards white men (men are perpetrators, women victims). Because of this, it is seen as most pressing to eliminate most masculine values from society. Not in a declared and outspoken way, but in the emotionality of the people.

The conservatives, although at a lower level of moral development, are completely right to be wary of this way of thinking. Take a moment to view this clip from the movie:

In this clip, Derek is really arguing that masculine values (such as responsibility, loyalty and integrity) are important and shouldn’t be ignored. He is saying, just because you have an emotion doesn’t mean you must act on it in the spirit of victimhood. The recognition of being shafted by liberal politicians is exactly what pushes him into neo-nazism and it is seemingly also what got his father to harbor thoughts of racism.

When people at the Green stage of development are in power, the people who would otherwise prosper if the Masculine were viewed more positively, are polarized into bitterness, fear and racism. For in such a society, people DO take advantage of social welfare, people DO claim victimhood instead of standing responsible for their own life and actions. Not only that, but when society is structured along this line of thinking, women and ethnic minorities are privy to some unfair advantages that have nothing to do with equality.

How can we let this happen? Because of the mentioned strong belief that everything that is wrong with the world is because of white men (you can make that “Christian white men”). These initiatives are merely logical extensions of such beliefs. And such beliefs make it a moral imperative to punish white men. Unfortunately, boys are the main victims.

Get this: Liberal politicians are pushing normal people into conservativism, extremism, even neonazism in numbers counting in the millions, because they are not dealing with the problem in a way that is aligned with truth.

They claim that they want everyone to be treated equally, but white men are not part of that equality, and they don’t even consider it a problem. AND – they are pissing all over fathers. This is wrong! And it is creating havoc in the world. For white males are still the dominant force of power in the world, and when you willingly sabotage their ways to maturity and manhood, you are short-circuiting the very system that could create real change. Before we restore some sense of rightness about this picture, boys will keep running countries and corporations (just look at Silvio Berlusconi). They are not meant to.

Understand that the reason gangs are born – be they black, latino or neonazi – is the weakening of the father figures of society. Young men cannot initiate each other. In gangs, they desperately try. They want it badly. But they cannot. It is Law. And when we understand that “liberal politicians” are in the business of shaming men and disempowering fathers, we may – if given space to take this thought to its conclusion – see that the shadow side of Green is one of our modern world’s greatest problems.

Indeed, the popular idea that the ideologies of Green are at the apex of human development may very well kill us all if we don’t wake up in time. Take your time with this message, for it may be uncomfortably strong. We must free ourselves from this delusion if we are to restore men’s dignity and self worth.

Derek’s redemption

To move ahead in our society, to leave Green behind and to enter 2nd tier consciousness (the paradigm shift where individuals come to recognize that all levels of development prior to theirs are important and necessary), we must re-embody our appreciation of masculine values. We must resurrect the initiators from the tombs of our forefathers and give young boys a new chance. In American History X, Bob Sweeney embodies this hope (while the teacher Murray is a Green liberal).

He is the mentor, the man whose wounds of life finally broke through his ramparts and reached the soft, tender flesh of his beating, loving heart. His is wisdom, power and compassion. He seeks Derek out after he has been raped by members of a White Power gang in prison. Derek turns his back on them when they turn out to not live up to his high ideals (“They didn’t believe in shit”) and he is in trouble. Having been profoundly humiliated by those he considered kin, his ramparts are starting to come down too.

“You gotta start asking the right questions,” Bob tells Derek. (We are pretty much in ritual space here). “What questions?,” Derek replies. “Such as, has anything you have ever done made your life better?” Tears roll down Derek’s cheek. The “strong bull” has been wrestled to the ground.  “You gotta help me,” Derek pleads. Sweeney confirms that he will, but that his help is not unconditional. Bob understands that Derek must confront the karma (effects) of his actions to find true freedom in his heart.

Important though Sweeney’s help may be, it is thanks to his black friend from the laundry room that he gets through Chino in one piece. He is a good guy and opens up in Derek the understanding that being black in the US is not easy. For although the people of Green discriminate against white men, there are plenty of other people on lower levels of development who are doing exactly the opposite. Derek’s eyes are opened to a world that he did not know existed. There is now space around his heart.


Danny’s schoolpaper for headmaster Sweeney is finished with a quote by Abraham Lincoln in the wee hours of the morning. And we could here go on and speak about the confrontation Derek has with Cameron Alexander, his break from the neo-nazi community, the destiny of his family and his brother. But you should watch the movie yourself. What matters is to remind ourselves of the lessons about fathers, initiation and the complexities of racial issues that this film describes.

What could the message of this movie mean for you in your life? I suggest it could be to find out where you stand with your father, living or dead. Do you love him? What are his gifts to you? Which burdens of his have you unconsciously adopted? Get to know him. And then find yourself a mentor who can heal you and open in you the final recognition of your true, inherent goodness, so that those adopted beliefs of your father’s can be shed once and for all.

And do remember that boys cannot initiate each other. That means you must be mindful of how you design your social life and network. Look for brotherhood and elders.

*the red knight is a figure from old myths and legends that describe a macho and power driven, yet immature man

Powerful ideas from American History X

  • Without good fathering, boys will look for fathering from other sources. Too often, it will be from boys of their own age or immature men.
  • "Liberal politics", although good-intentioned, midwife people's move into racism, racial stereotypes and anger at all those people who are only too happy to take advantage of the system.
  • Green/Liberal politics are not the end of the road. They are merely the last step on the road of self-centeredness. The sooner we move on, the better. And that movement requires, more than anything our re-embracing of masculine values.
  • "Hatred is baggage. Life's too short to go around being angry all the time." (Danny). Remove fear and hatred from your heart by exposing yourself to the very things that trigger them.
  • People who aren't well off aren't merely a victim of circumstances – they are also frequently individuals who refuse to claim responsibility for their lot in life.
  • Hidden behind every macho exterior is a scared, little boy who is longing for Daddy.
  • Mentors are crucial guides on the path of a man who is to leave the legacy of his childhood behind in pursuit of his true self.
  • You reap what you sow. And when the harvest comes, you should be grateful - for it is your only chance at redemption from past wrongs.

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