by craig willse
When American History X opened in movie theaters in 1998, magazines and newspapers jumped all over newly anointed stud-muffin Edward Norton for his “riveting” performance in a film the corporate PR buzzmakers dubbed “edgy, “raw,” and “controversial.” The film purports to portray the radical transformation of a white, working class kid in Venice Beach who devolves into a menacing, hate-mongering skinhead and then, in prison, is miraculously saved and becomes an agent of peace, love and racial harmony.
While the movie claims screen space as an anti-racist epic, it actually functions insidiously to reaffirm American systems of white supremacy. Hype aside, American History X presents a very conventional story of white salvation masked by hyper-violence, a cheesy “cinema verite” style, and a “gritty” aesthetic (read: b&w film, hand-held cameras.) It is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Within the narrow range of stereotyped niches for “colored” characters in American films, African-Americans are often portrayed as sort of “guardian angels” who guide and assist the central white characters. The history of colonialism and slave trade on which the U.S. is founded created a mythology that African people were backwards, primitive and uncivilized. The “liberal” version of this myth demands that black people are more spiritual and intuitive, speakers of truth and wisdom, because they are tied to “nature.” In this way, white people see the contemporary services provided by black people as services of guidance and vision. We see these characters in everything from Sister Act (in which Whoopi Goldberg, in the midst of all her zany antics, saves the sisters from themselves by bringing black wisdom to their boring, white-nun lives), The Matrix (in which the prophet-of-tomorrow character is none other than a down-home mammy figure), and Living Out Loud (in which Queen Latifah sadly takes Holly Hunter into the real/true/emotional world of Harlem jazz and out of her sterile white Upper East Side existence.)
The Avery Brooks character in American History X serves precisely this role. He is the wise, African-American principal who takes on as his life work the rehabilitation of wayward white racists. He commits himself both to Norton’s character in prison, and Norton’s younger brother (played by Edward Furlong), who is following in his brother’s bloody footsteps. As if getting one whole character devoted to guiding them wasn’t enough for the white kids in the film, American History X supplies a second African-American speaker of truth in the form of Norton’s prison buddy. It is through his unexpected bond with the witty, street-smart prisoner (in addition to a bit of shower room ass-rape) that Norton comes around from his hatin’ ways. While we might find the friendship somehow compelling, and while in fact political transformation for white/middle-class people does often develop out of personal experiences that make real the social injustice experienced by others, this black character, like Avery Brooks, exists for no reason except to save white souls. While Norton’s family and childhood are carefully explored, Avery Brooks and the prisoner are flattened out-their stories are only relevant insofar as they intersect with the bigger and more important stories of white people. While the filmmakers undoubtedly feel good about themselves for creating what they see as black heroes, we must ask why they choose to create African-American characters whose only interest is white people. Why not depict African-Americans who are organizing in their own neighborhoods against racist real estate practices, who are demonstrating against police brutality and the incarceration of whole generations of black people? How broad an anti-racist agenda does a film have which envisions “good” scenarios of race relations as only those where white people get to have black people in their lives to help them, rather than depicting black characters as central?|
Just as it relegates African-Americans to caretaker roles, the film insists we sympathize with Norton’s character’s family. When Norton brutally murders a black boy by shooting him point-blank in the head, the real tragedy from the film’s perspective is that his younger brother witnesses the murder. As Norton is handcuffed and taken into the police car in oh-so-dramatic slo-mo, the tragedy is Norton’s family being torn apart. Likewise, when Furlong’s character is killed by an African-American schoolmate at the end of the movie-after Norton is out of prison, and has converted Furlong (with Brooks’ help) to a life of anti-racism-his death is depicted as the ultimate tragedy: but we’re not even racist anymore! We’re good white people! And again, as Norton rushes to the dead body of his brother, we are supposed to be overwhelmed by the sadness of a white family being torn apart.
The film extends no such sympathetic gaze to the black bodies it depicts. Where is the family of the murdered black character? Where is his slo-mo funeral? However, the film does contain many scenes of the skinheads in action, and viewers are treated to the visual display of the degradation, violation, and abuse of black bodies by white people. What is new, what is edgy about this? African-Americans being beaten on camera? We have seen this countless times before. In fact, nothing is new or edgy about this film as it decimates and disposes of black body upon black body. The true violence of this film is that it inflicts such painful, grotesque images on audiences for no reason other than to push the envelope past pulp fictional-limits.
The final injustice of this film is how it functions to reassure white, middle-class audiences of their own liberalism and innocence. As white people watch, horrified, at the awful things those terrible, trashy white boys are doing, they can sit smugly confident of their own enlightened views about race. In its depiction of such extreme violence, the film tricks white viewers into believing that racism is only about skinheads and murderers. While the physical violence white people (skinheads, cops, kids) inflict on people of color is an urgent concern, the racism of most white people is more subtle and pervasive than this. It is what we say, how we think, the laws and policies we make, the schools we build, the neighborhoods we gentrify, the films we produce. American History X lets white people off the hook, suggesting that if you’re not a skinhead, you have no reason to think about the racism of your own life. This version of American History turns out to be not so different from the versions that have been handed us by white institutions of power for years: white people are at the center, and African-Americans are present only insofar as they serve the grand white narrative. White audiences leave this film assured of their own firm morals, and ignorant of their compliance with racist systems because they can differentiate themselves from the excessive brutality of the white racist characters.
American History X serves systems of white supremacy by making its central story that of how a white boy got saved, and handing this story to white audiences such that they can believe their own salvation is already secure and they are not implicated in American systems of racism.
craig willse is a co-editor of make.
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