American History X, Tony Kaye

American History X’s Eerily Prescient Take on Today’s Neo-Nazis

Tony Kaye’s 1998 crime film American History X connect today’s Neo-Nazi hatred back to poisons long carried by Americans, dating back to the country’s original sin of slavery.

American History X
Tony Kaye
New Line Cinema
30 October 1988 (US)

In August 2012, a neo-Nazi approached the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, just south of Milwaukee. Armed with a semi-automatic pistol, he opened fire, killing six worshippers and wounding several more, including a priest who died of his injuries years later. The gunman, Wade Michael Page, was an Army veteran and longstanding white supremacist who had been a member of the leading skinhead gang, the Hammerskin Nation. He was also a musician with bands including Blue Eyed Devils, Definite Hate, and End Apathy.

Wade Michael Page’s assault on the Sikh Temple was arguably the first major white supremacist terrorist attack in the United States in the 21st century, but it was far from the last. Further explosions of racist and anti-Semitic violence would strike Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015; Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018; Poway, California, in April 2019; El Paso, Texas, in August 2019; Buffalo, New York in May 2022; and Jacksonville, Florida in August 2023. The white supremacist underbelly also encouraged and participated in the January 6 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol. Over the past decade, in other words, far-right terrorism has emerged as a leading national security threat to the United States, devastating communities from coast to coast.

That was not necessarily the case in October 1998, which makes it all the more impressive that director Tony Kaye and lead Edward Norton’s American History X managed to so presciently depict the terror and carnage that was to come. The film portrays the relationship between two brothers, Derek (Norton, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor) and Danny Vinyard (played by Edward Furlong), and their experiences in a white supremacist skinhead gang in Venice Beach, California.

Derek serves three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter over the killings of two Black men who had attempted to steal his truck and reforms during his time in jail. Danny, meanwhile, is tasked by the school’s Black principal, Dr. Sweeney, to write an essay about his brother’s journey into hate. American History X ends with Danny accepting his brother’s step away from hate and committing to follow a similar path before his tragic death in a targeted school shooting. Released three years after the anti-government Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 in April 1995, American History X has not only stood the test of time but has presaged many of the themes and trends that would define the modern white supremacist far right.

Firstly, American History X predicts the profile that is seen in today’s far-right terrorists. The fictional Derek is a skinhead white supremacist with several similarities to the real Wade Michael Page. The film portrays the skinhead movement as “a slew of insecure, frustrated, and impressionable kids” and although Page was 40-years-old on the day of his attack on the Sikh Temple, the violent far-right is indeed sustained in no small part by young people, including teenagers as depicted by the fictional character, Danny. The terrorists who murdered ten Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo in May 2022, for instance, began radicalizing at age 15, browsing extremist online chatrooms “after extreme boredom, remember this was during the outbreak of covid.”

In addition to emphasizing the importance of youthful ignorance in radicalization, American History X painfully reveals how role models and father figures can nurture budding hate. In particular, one figure, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), creates a subculture of young skinheads, inviting them to parties at his headquarters and providing ideological guidance. When told by Cameron to “get your head on straight” after declaring his intent to leave the movement, Derek counters, “Yeah, but it doesn’t even really matter if I don’t, does it? Because you’ve got the next crop all lined up and ready to go!”

There are eerie similarities between the grooming the film’s Cameron and a real-life figure called James Mason. Mason is a longstanding neo-Nazi who wrote a newsletter in the 1980s called SIEGE and recently became an ideological figurehead for a number of white supremacist terrorist groups, including the Atomwaffen Division. In an interview with Frontline about a recent rise in violence, Mason declared, “I do not urge anybody to do anything like that, but when it gets done, I won’t disown them.”

Towards the end of American History X, the storyline reveals that Derek and Danny’s father is openly racist in their home. “It’s everywhere I look now. […] This affirmative ‘blacktion.’” Echoing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that often pervade extremist narratives, he adds, “There’s like some hidden agenda, or something going on.” He insists, “It’s [n-word] bullshit.”

The credit here belongs to the screenwriter David McKenna, who based American History X on his experiences in San Diego’s punk-rock scene and admitted, “My premise was that hate starts in the family […]. I had seen documentaries that just didn’t ring true to me, and I wanted to write an accurate portrayal of how good kids from good families can get so terribly lost.”

Secondly, American History X offers a realistic depiction of the ideology of many of today’s violent white supremacists. In fact, part of the film’s indispensable relevance is its unique ability to connect today’s hatred back to poisons long carried by Americans, dating back to the original sin of slavery. Anti-immigration, racist language permeates the film, none more so than when Derek Vinyard offers an impromptu philippic to a gang of skinheads about to storm and sack a supermarket. “We’re losing our freedom so that a bunch of fucking foreigners can come in here and exploit our country.” Moreover, the attack targeted a supermarket that Derek had singled out for hiring illegal immigrants.

The scenes eerily presage the emergence of supermarkets as particularly attractive soft targets for white supremacists—sites often defined by the patronage of shoppers from a certain racial and minority group that are marked for violence, as displayed to devastating, heartbreaking effect at El Paso in August 2019, Buffalo in May 2022, and Jacksonville in August 2023. (Unfortunately, American History X was not successful in predicting the final form of this violence; the Kristallnacht-style assault on the supermarket depicted in the film, serious and terrifying as it is, would be far preferable to the bloody carnage visited on those three cities in the past several years).

The similarities between this 1998 film and today’s America even extend to the language used by the extremists. “This isn’t our fucking neighborhood, it’s a battlefield, we’re on a battlefield tonight,” Derek implores his comrades. In 2019, a manifesto released by a gunman who attacked the Chabad of Poway in the San Diego area similarly declared, “More than anything, I wish I could’ve seen your faces and fought alongside with you on the battlefield.”

Even the film’s editing is designed to accentuate the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, the darkness of extremism, and the light of redemption and forgiveness. Flashbacks to Derek’s radicalization and time in the movement are shown in black-and-white—conveying both the darkness of the hateful world he inhabited but also the black-and-white binaries of the worldview he adopted. His redemption and the younger Danny’s life are projected in color—emphasizing the brighter path offered by life outside hate.

Thirdly, American History X portrays, in-depth, the deradicalization process. Many tales of real-world deradicalization emphasize the importance of patient interaction with radicals and seeking to address the underlying factors causing individuals to seek violent and hateful ideologies and communities. Derek’s deradicalization began when he met a Black inmate, Lamont (Guy Torry), at the prison’s laundromat. The two bond over women and sports.

As he grows closer to Lamont and begins questioning his ideology, Derek is raped by other members of his white supremacist gang. Derek then discovers that Lamont protected him as he worked to step away from his Aryan gang. Throughout his time in the movement and prison, Derek also never loses the trust and patience of Dr. Sweeney, who visits Derek in prison after the rape and gives him books to read, insistent that Derek can chart a better path for himself. “He learned this nonsense,” Dr. Sweeney declares at the film’s start, “and he can unlearn it too. I will not give up on this child yet.” 

The American History X thus displays in heartwarming detail the importance of kindness and compassion for those mired in hatred. In describing his deradicalization, former white supremacist Arno Michaelis reflected on the challenges to his ideology “when people I claimed to hate treated me with kindness.” He would add, “kindness, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness: they’re weapons. They’re weapons against hate. And when somebody wields those weapons with authenticity, it has the power to force people to question these hateful ideologies that they adhere to.”

Former neo-Nazi skinhead and white power rocker Christian Picciolini similarly recalled, “I received compassion from the people I deserved it least from when I least deserved it, and that helped change me.” Exhaustion, too, plays an important role, as recalled by Michaelis in describing what drove him to leave the white supremacist movement: “It’s exhausting to be terrified of all of your fellow humans every waking moment of every day.” This sentiment is echoed by the fictional Derek, who mournfully admits, “I’m tired of feeling pissed off, Danny. I’m just tired of it.” If anything, American History X underestimates the complexities and heartache of the deradicalization process—particularly in suggesting Daniel could reform in just 24 hours.

There are more painful lessons about the challenges of counterterrorism brought forth in this American History X, too. Modern counterterrorism largely relies on the fabled “see something, say something” imperative, which encourages families and friends to report to law enforcement their loved ones who are exhibiting signs of mobilizing toward violence. The film’s audience is awakened to this traumatic part of the counterterrorism process when, as part of an essay he has been tasked to write, Danny briefly admits, “It would have been life if I had testified.” His immediate deletion of the text evidences the deep emotional wounds that witnessing his brothers’ killings incurred—and perhaps also the regret he holds over not testifying against his murderer brother.

If American History X has a shortcoming, it underestimated the power and pervasiveness of the noxious ideas it depicts. Indeed, American History X portrays far-right extremism as an extreme, a fringe, an unwelcome blight in otherwise peaceful and diverse American communities. That would prove to be mistaken. As critic Justin Kirkland wrote at the film’s 20-year anniversary, “Perhaps the reason that American History X still feels so relevant two decades after its release is because we haven’t done enough for it not to be.”

Indeed, one of the film’s horrible ironies is that it predicted perfectly the reason why white supremacist terrorism would reach such a clamor. In the social media era, extremists unite across countries and even oceans, radicalizing newcomers at will and sharing tactical and targeting details. “Wait till you see what we’ve done with the internet,” Cameron gleefully declares in the American History X, trying to entice Derek to return to the movement. Derek turns away regardless, but Cameron’s words would turn out to be prophecy.

Perhaps most tragically, though, American History X – released near the beginning of a school year that would catastrophically end with bloodshed and heartbreak at Columbine High School in Colorado the following April – would predict a particularly devastating form of targeted violence that would go on to emerge as a key theme in the American experience over the quarter-century since its release: school shootings. In the film’s closing scene, Danny Vinyard is murdered by a student member of a rival gang in the school’s bathroom—a horror story that has grown all too familiar for all too many American children in the 25 years since.

And yet, underlying American History X is a fundamentally optimistic motif: an insistence that hatred is senseless and can be defeated with love, compassion, and patience. As Danny Vinyard concludes his essay, which he never gets to submit to Mr. Sweeney, he recalls his lesson learned: “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time.”

Works Cited

American History X: All in the Family”. Festivale.

Documenting Hate: New American Nazis”. FRONTLINE. 20 November 2018.

Profile: Wisconsin Sikh temple shooter Wade Michael Page”. BBC. 7 August 2012.

Eradicate Hate Global Summit. “The Power of Personal Connection -Panel 2”. YouTube. 3 October 2023.

Gossett, Stephen. “A Reformed Neo-Nazi Talks Trump, Mt. Greenwood & White Supremacy.” Chicagoist. 28 November 2016.

Kirkland, Justin. “American History X Remains Tragically Relevant 20 Years Later”. Esquire. 30 October 2018.

Lenz, Ryan. “Neo-Nazi Killer Wade Page was Member of Hammerskin Nation”. Southern Poverty Law Center. 8 August 2012.

Pandith, Farah, and Ware, Jacob. “Teen terrorism inspired by social media is on the rise. Here’s what we need to do.” NBC News THINK. 22 March 2021.

Schuster, Clayton. “‘American History X’ Premiered 20 Years Ago, But It’s More Relevant Than Ever”. VICE. 31 October 2018.

Ware, Jacob. “Siege: The Atomwaffen Division and Rising Far-Right Terrorism in the United States”. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism — The Hague. 9 July 2019.

Ware, Jacob. “The Third Generation of Online Radicalization”. George Washington University Program on Extremism.” 16 June 2023.