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American History X Essay (Movie Review)


There has never been a comprehensive study that clearly captures the nature of human beings. Different studies and depictions have however come up in a bid to explain who human beings are, their behavior and why they do what they do. In a dynamic world laced with numerous social constructs, American History X is an example of a classic portrayal of the social trends that have perennially affected the society.

The movie is especially appropriate because it gives an insight into race relations and extremism in both urban and rural areas. Additionally, American History X explicitly portrays from a sociological point, the delicate relationship between nurture and nature and power of the mind in getting tasks accomplished. More importantly, the movie portrays popular culture prominently which is one of the relevant study points of this course.

American History X

Told in a non linear structure with extensive use of flashbacks, the film is a story about two brothers, starring Edward Norton as Derek and Edward Furlong as Danny. Derek the older of the two is an active white supremacist member of the of a Neo-Nazi street gang, the D.O.C where his father’s death in the hands of a black drug dealer inspires him to engage in acts of violence motivated by racial hatred.

The neo-Nazi street gang mostly commits acts of intimidation to members of other races except white people; Derek takes it a step further when he kills two young black men when they attempt to steal his father’s truck.

In prison, Derek finds refuge in Aryan Brotherhood gang a white supremacist group who nevertheless engage in criminal acts like drug dealing to members of a Mexican drug gang. The fact that these dealings are friendly between the two groups disillusions Derek who feels his gang’s dealings is an act of betrayal to their supremacist agenda. His protest to the Aryan Brotherhood and an apparent friendship with a black inmate infuriates the gang who beat and rapes him in the prison shower.

During his recovery, an encounter with Dr. Sweeney his former Black English teacher helps proves the turning point as it helps Derek secure his release from prison to try save his younger brother who is keen on following his racist tendencies.

After Danny’s unfriendly encounter with Murray, the history teacher, Dr. Sweeney the principle takes over and decides he will be teaching Danny history which he refers to as “American History X” and tells him to write about all events leading to Derek’s arrest and detention. After, Derek’s release, he tries unsuccessfully to convince his brother to leave the white supremacist movement.

At a neo-Nazi party later that night, Derek gets into argument with Cameron, the gang’s leader leading to a scuffle in which Cameron is physically assaulted by Derek. Danny gets shot at school the following day by a black student he had argued with the previous day. In his paper to Dr. Sweeney, Danny reveals his desire to change his ways and promote unity among all people.

Throughout the movie, the director tries to enforce the notion that racism is still real in American society and that there is no clear victim as everybody seems fiercely loyal and fanatical about their race. Besides, the film tries to highlight the power of thinking and self-determination even in the face of thorny issue such as racism. Through both Derek and Danny’s transformation and Dr. Sweeney’s diplomacy efforts, the film shows that people determine what they become and harmony between different races is a choice.

The scene where Danny gets shot is one that is gut-wrenching and easily sucks in the emotions of the audience. The revelation that Danny had decided to change for the better to correct the very evil that takes him forms a powerful learning point in the film.

Though critically acclaimed as correctly highlighting the racial problems affecting the contemporary American society, American History X has received criticism for its apparent glorification of gang culture, racism, and violence. This is one of the unintended outcomes of an otherwise great and educating film.


Gangster affiliation is the most dominant popular culture theme in the film (LaSalle, 1998, p. 1). However, it is important to note how racism creeps into gangster motivated popular culture ways of life and how its glorification through ideology and organization underlies the film’s story line. Through music and other forms of media, gangster membership represents the very essence of popular culture with the main tag being “cool”.

Derek and later Danny join neo-Nazi gangs whose main intention is to promote their race’s agenda. There are also other gangs in the film like the “Crips” which is dominantly a racially motivated black group. Though Derek is subtly motivated to join the gang by his father, the fact that his peers, regardless of race join race-affiliated groups en mass is a clear indication of the gangster theme in popular culture of the time.

Sociological concepts

There are many angles through which analysis of the sociological concepts in American History X can take place. Throughout, sociological concepts of social class and stratification, socialization, culture and racial relations come out in the movie (Hewitt & Regoli, 2009, p. 22).

Racism and racial relations is the most prominent sociological concept in the film. The storyline develops on the basis of racially motivated acts most of which are malicious. People like Derek’s father and the two black gang members loose lives because of their race while others’ good deeds like the black inmate and Dr. Sweeney help in healing wounds and transforming people.

In fronting for respective races, the people represented in this film are in effect promoting their particular cultures. Though subtle, the theme of culture mainly comes out in an overall way through all the actions that people take to remain relevant in a hostile environment.

The sociological concept of social class and stratification mainly takes place alongside the theme of racism. There is little if any of classification based on economic status, rather, people’s classes seem to rank according to their skin color.

The concept of socialization subtly comes out in the film especially through Derek and Danny’s characters. Specifically nature vs nurture notion takes center stage. Derek is a creature of both nature and nurture.

He joins the neo-Nazi gang partly because of the silent endorsement from his father to follow that path. Danny’s idea of joining the racist gang is partly due to motivation from his brother. In terms of nature, the environment where the brothers grow up conditions them to associate with racism through observation and later, through participation.

The main theme in the American History X closely resembles the theme of another movie, “This is England”. In the movie, a young boy joins a skinheads group and finds accommodation and mentorship from the leading figures in the group. They as well engage in racially motivated violent acts notably an attack on a shop owned by a Pakistan national. However, unlike in American History X, the skin heads in “This is England” have serious internal feuds and their ideology is a bit different since they have a black member in their ranks.


American History X is a movie whose general theme mirrors most of the trends in cosmopolitan societies. Through the movie, the perspective of what happens in the above mentioned situations becomes contextualized.


Hewitt, J.D. & Regoli, M. R. (2009). Exploring Criminal Justice: The Essentials. New York: Penguin Books.

LaSalle, M. (1998). Neo Nazi with a Conscience – Norton Shines, But History Disappoints. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from:

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"American History X." IvyPanda, 14 Dec. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/american-history-x-movie-review/.

1. IvyPanda. "American History X." December 14, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/american-history-x-movie-review/.


IvyPanda. "American History X." December 14, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/american-history-x-movie-review/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "American History X." December 14, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/american-history-x-movie-review/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'American History X'. 14 December.

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