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American History X Analysis and Film Techniques

Updated on January 18, 2012

American History X: Techniques and Structure Make a Movie About More Than Just Racism

American History X, directed by Tony Kaye, follows two brothers, Danny (Edward Furlong) and Derek (Edward Norton) Vinyard who, after their father was murdered by a black man, both become neo-Nazis. Derek ends up going to prison for voluntary manslaughter, where he discovers that all of the racism and hate is all nonsense, while his little brother Danny is on the outside getting deeper into the neo-Nazi movement. Once Derek is released from prison, he then tries to impose the lessons he learned in prison on his little brother, in the hopes that Danny won’t make the same mistakes he did. The theme of the movie is that we are all a product of our environment and the people we associate with and look up to. Director, Tony Kaye, has gone on record as to saying he wants his name stricken from the credits of the film, because the final product was not his vision for the film. In the end, the studio gave the final edit to Edward Norton and editor Jerry Greenbert. For that reason, I have to say that Kaye, Norton, and Greenbert brilliantly use techniques such as, slow motion, flashback, backstory, round characters, and diegetic sounds to thoroughly tell the entire story of these two brothers, help setup the tragic ending of the movie, and to make statements on certain portions of the film.

Kaye, Norton, and Greenbert use slow motion in a number of scenes throughout the film to either emphasize a dramatic scene or to create pictures for the audience and capture important character nuances. Slow motion is when the action on the film’s speed is visually decreased, so the audience is seeing the action happen at a slower pace than how it was actually filmed. This effect is added in during the editing phase. The first time a slow motion scene happens in the film is in the fifth minute, when Derek murders a man standing outside of his house that is on the lookout for another man who is breaking in to his truck. He opens the door and fires five shots into the guy’s chest. The man’s death and Danny’s reaction to viewing the death are both played in slow motion. Slow motion portions are interlaced throughout the scene, always dealing with Derek’s actions (shooting two men, walking up to one of them and allegedly kicking him in the face), and Danny’s reactions to the events (they range from a look of disbelief to near admiration). Later in the movie, they return to this same scene. All of Danny’s reactions are again played in slow motion (he tries to stop Derek from curb-stomping, and thereby killing, the second man he shot), as are the facial cues of Derek to Danny while he’s being arrested (ambivalence of the murders to anger of being arrested). These scenes are all slowed down to enhance the effects that Derek’s actions are having on Danny as an older brother. Danny had to witness his older brother, someone he looks up to, shoot a man to death, then curb stomp a man to death, and then be arrested for his crimes. One of the final scenes of the movie is also played through in slow motion, which is Danny’s death, when he is murdered by a fellow student in the school bathroom. Blood sprays out of Danny and covers the bathroom wall as Danny falls into a urinal in slow motion. The scenes that play out in slow motion are all connected to Derek’s actions and choices having an immediate impact on his little brother’s life.

All of Derek’s previous actions are all shown by the use of flashback. All of the flashbacks in the movie are separated from real time by being shown in black and white. The flashbacks are all given because Danny is actually writing a paper on his older brother Derek. The flashbacks are all portions of that paper, detailing Derek’s life before he went to prison. They also show the kind of person Danny was growing up idolizing. The flashbacks show different racially charged instances Derek led, including a basketball game over a turf war, the time he led a neo-Nazi group into a minority owned store to destroy it and attack the employees, the time he verbally assaults his mother’s new boyfriend at the dinner table because he is Jewish, and the flashbacks show what happened on the night Derek murdered the two black men and was sent to prison. The audience is also given flashbacks from Derek’s account of his time in prison. These flashbacks detail the turning point in Derek’s life, when he befriends a black man he works with, gets raped and attacked by his Arian Brotherhood “friends,” and is informed on the inside that his actions have had an adverse effect on his little brother’s life. The final flashback shows the audience that Derek and Danny’s father was also a racist and would occasionally preach racist viewpoints to them at the dinner table. All of the flashbacks are given to move the story along and show the evolution of Derek’s character, as well as push the idea that we are all products of the people that we look up to and try to emulate.

Kaye, Norton, and Greenbert briefly use backstory to set the tale of how Derek ended up getting involved with the neo-Nazi crowd in the first place. The audience is shown a news interview from Derek’s past, where he is talking about how his father was murdered. We see in a flashback that Derek’s father was racist and was actively instilling racist thoughts in Derek’s head. The backstory news interview details how his father, a firefighter, is then murdered by a black man while putting out a fire in a drug den. Derek then immediately adopts his father’s racist views and repeats everything his father had told him previously about people of different races. The interview also gives us the earliest look at Derek’s new Nazi views.

The performances of both Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, as well as a tightly edited film and excellent script all shape Derek and Danny as very round characters. Both of them grow and develop constantly throughout the film and are both products of their environments. Both are described as being excellent students who made poor decisions and got involved with the wrong group of people. Derek’s evolution goes from being a young man fueled by the hatred caused by his father’s murder, to a neo-Nazi group leader committing hate crimes, to a man who realizes the absurdity of his actions and wants to create a better life for him and his family. Danny follows in his brother’s footsteps, but his great awakening isn’t full realized until after his death, when he reads the last lines of the paper he was writing about his brother. At the beginning, he is a Nazi, at the end, he says his conclusion is that “hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.” With the help of backstory and flashbacks, the audience sees the full evolutions of both characters throughout the film.

The most prevalent instance of diegetic sound being used to make a point in the film is during the flashback where the Nazi group, led by Derek, attacks the grocery store owned by a non-white person. During Derek’s “pump-up” hate speech, where he is inciting his crowd of people to attack the store, Derek is claiming that the area they are standing on is a battlefield for their freedom against the foreigners. He’s claiming the battle is happening right where they stand. In the background, behind Derek’s rant about claiming the area is a battlefield, we can hear a cheerful bird chirping in the background. Throughout the finality of his speech, everything around him is calm and quite, aside from a happy bird chirping in the background. The use of this diegetic sound is a representative of the ridiculousness of Derek’s speech. Where they are is not a battlefield. The calm, serene environment around them is proof that this is a quiet neighborhood. The violent, racist actions are the only cause of turmoil in the area.

American History X is always regarded as one of the best films of our time. It’s a tragic portrayal of two brothers who become a victim of their surroundings and a product of the people they emulate. The choices by Tony Kaye during production and the choices of Edward Norton and Jerry Greenbert during postproduction create a cinematic masterpiece that through all of the violence, hate, rape, and racial remarks, still tell a story about two brothers who love each other and are fighting for each other.


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    • profile image

      Alex. Robinson 

      10 months ago

      just letting you know the dad didnt get killed by a black man, he died trying to put out a house fire in a 'black nabourhood'

    • asifahsankhan profile image


      3 years ago

      Great article for a great film! : )

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Arilctes like this just make me want to visit your website even more.

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 

      8 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      amazing film, and stunning analysis by you here. Very fine on the details and getting them correctly. I personally feel the movie is a cinematic landmark. The acting and directing crew have done a sophisticated job and brought out a great movie.


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