Racism has been portrayed in a variety of movies. Many times unsuccesfully. But who can blame the directors? Racism is such a delicate issue to be battled that writers,actors and directors should approach with caution. However, in the many occasions of unsuccesful and pretentious attempts, some gems have risen to the occasion.
In the author's opinion racism is not something absolute. A good movie about racism should not showcase the racist villains as unreedemable monsters that are bad just for the sake of being bad. Just like in real life, nothing is black and white. It is in a million shades of gray. The hate of race originates from deeper issues, from manipulation, from traumas, from wrong parenting, from politics and more.
One of the best examples of the story telling of racism comes from a film that is not even released in the past two decades. American History X is a film released in 1998 and is directed by Tony Kaye and stars Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard a neonazi white supremacist skinhead that due to his violent response of a home invasion, ends up in jail. The movie follows the journey of Derek after his release and his brother and girlfriend who noticed a changed behaviour in Derek's part. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of what has shifted Derek's perception and his new found nature in life.
American History X does what is mentioned above perfectly. As humans, when we are born, we are a blank canvas with animalistic insticts. Social norms, politics, judgements and more are embedded into us growing up from a number of foundations. American History X showcases exactly that with a perfect narrative style. The plot is told by the perspective of our protagonist's brother, that bases an assignment of his on his brother.
From this point we see that racism can be rooted from our affiliations and our family. Derek is a neonazi that has been affected by many fatherly figures in his life, including his own dad, the principal of his school Dr Sweeny and finally a popular influence for neo-nazis in the movie Cameron Alexander. One of these key points the movie should teach the viewer is that a person should not allow themselves to form biased opinions, influenced by the perspectives of others. Instead, he or she should form their own perceptions of the world in a kind manner. Everything should be taken in consideration and criticality. You are your own person and you should act like it. When you are taught something, question it. Stand in the middle and decide if you believe in it or not.
Furthermore, the movie also portrays the problem of generalization. Generalization is explained as a form where specific instances make us formulate biased opinions about the general claims. Moreover, the concept of generalization can be claimed to be the core of the movie and is the most valuable lesson one can take from the movie. Aside from the brainwashing, Derek faces the temptation to generalize due to the death of his fireman father who died on duty by the same people he was trying to protect. This led to Derek generalizing the whole black community and resolving in a pit of hate for anyone with a different skin tone. This is showcased through the brutality of the film and more specifically in a basketball scene which eventually leads to the home invasion that led to Derek's arrest.
Generalization and the assumptions we make assist in the creation of hate and the generation of a never-ending cycle of violence which will be discussed later.
The topic of generalization comes down to one of the best scenes of the film. In a dinner scene, we see Derek before his imprisonment arguing with his mother's new boyfriend (after his father's death) talking about a riot regarding Rodney King. The conflict is revolved around the roots of the conflict and what generates the said riots. In a mere few minutes, we see pre-judices, rationales, comprehensions and all sorts of convoluting points which show how humans can think so differently. American History X shows perfectly how there is an absence of what a simple-minded person would call as 'evil' or 'bad'. Both points are debated and are discussed from two opposing perspectives.
You can watch the astounding scene below.
The dinner scene could not be more relevant today since it seems like discussions like these occur every few years, with people constantly trying to debate and prove their points right.
A metamorphosis is a situation when an animal typically changes its form onto the next part of their life. Just like a pupa that transforms to a butterfly, Derek goes through an agonizing transformation during his time in jail. Thankfully, the movie was released during a time where movies showcased brutality as a mean to tell a story and not as a shock factor. The scenes in jail are both terrifying and wholesome. The viewer can experience a huge number of the emotional spectrum. It is there where Derek sees that in the down low, at his all time-low, everyone is treated the same. The guards don't care about your color. You are the same criminal scum just like everyone else is. The last part of his mental metamorphosis comes when he tries to get in with - what he perceives as- the right people. Simultaneously, he forms a genuine bond with a black fellow inmate who befriends him. All of the scenes of the two together are simply gold since the acting makes it genuine.
However, nothing changes with no suffering. During Derek's transformation he is beaten by thoe same people he used to share the same ideology with. Consequently, one can see that hate is just hate. Excusing it by rationalizing it with skin color is just a coward's way out. The viewer should understand that at the core we are all pretty much the same, sharing a world that we have divided ever since our creation. Our skin, our language, our entire history means almost nothing if you really think about it. We are hereby a product of men who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago who acted as conquerors.**
**I should state that this does not mean that we should not care about our history and our ethnicity. We should always respect where we came from but we should also respect the entirety of someone else's being.
The never ending circle of violence
It should be understood that racism is just another way to excuse hate. And hate generates violence. Conequently, this results in a circular logic which means that if hate exists, violenence will result. Moreover, violence can create more hate and so and fourth. This never-ending cycle is showcased with the ending of the movie that proves that one cannot live while the other ceases to exist. The end of the movie is taken directly from a Greek Tragedy where no happy endings exist.
American History X has been shown in American schools for educational reasons and if you have seen the movie you know why. This beautiful piece of art represents everything about human behaviour and the assumptions we make as a species. We have a created a society so advanced and convoluted that we now hate our own species just because they differentiate in the way they behave, talk or look. Maybe if this movie was shown in more schools, we could avoid any future unfortunate events.
Have you seen American History X? What did you think about it? Let me know.
I want to personally thank my friend Andreas Papadopoulos for suggesting an article based on this movie and for supporting the early stages of this blog.