American History X

American History X

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tony Kaye
Produced by John Morrissey
Written by David McKenna
Music by Anne Dudley
Cinematography Tony Kaye
Edited by
Turman-Morrissey Company
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Release dates
  • October 30, 1998 (1998-10-30)
Running time
119 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20 million[1]
Box office $23.9 million[1]

American History X is a 1998 American crime drama film directed by Tony Kaye, written by David McKenna, and stars Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach, Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks, Ethan Suplee and Beverly D'Angelo. The film was released in the United States on October 30, 1998 and was distributed by New Line Cinema.

The film tells the story of two Venice, Los Angeles brothers who become involved in the neo-Nazi movement. The older brother serves three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, changes his beliefs and tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path. The film is told in the style of nonlinear narrative. Made on a budget of $20 million, it grossed $24 million at the worldwide box office.

Critics mostly praised the film and Norton's performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In September 2008, Empire magazine named it the 311th Greatest Movie of All Time.[2]


High school student Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) receives an assignment from his history teacher Mr. Murray (Elliott Gould) to write a paper on "any book which relates to the struggle for civil rights." Knowing Murray is Jewish, Danny writes his paper on Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Murray attempts to get Danny expelled for doing this, but Principal Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) refuses, instead informing Danny that he will study history and current events under Sweeney, and that the class will be called "American History X." Danny's first assignment is to prepare a paper on his brother Derek (Edward Norton), a former neo-Nazi leader.

A few years prior, the father Dennis Vinyard (William Russ) was murdered by black drug dealers after being sent on a call to fight a fire in a drug den. In a television interview conducted after Dennis's death, Derek erupts in a long racist tirade. Shortly thereafter, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) and Derek form a white supremacist gang called the D.O.C. (Disciples of Christ). As a skilled basketball player, Derek is reluctantly dragged into a 3-on-3 game against several members of the Crips in which the prize is control of the recreation center basketball courts. After winning with his friends, Derek leads a large gang of skinheads to attack a supermarket owned by a Korean that included African-American and Latino workers. Derek's mother Doris (Beverly D'Angelo) invites Murray, whom she is dating, home for dinner, which turns into a full-blown argument between Derek and Murray, causing themselves to leave. That night, as Danny hears people attempting to steal Dennis' truck, Derek shoots and kills one of the thieves and curb stomps another, before being arrested by the police and being sentenced to three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

Derek is given a job in the prison laundry and assigned to be the partner of Lamont (Guy Torry), a black man who is serving six years for the putative assault of a police officer. The pair later develop a rapport from their shared love of basketball. Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood, but after about a year, he becomes disillusioned with it when some members have ties to other prison gangs who are of different ethnicities. As punishment, he is restrained, beaten, and sodomised in the shower by the Aryan Brotherhood members; Derek recovers and is visited by Sweeney, whom he asks for help to be paroled. Sweeney informs him of Danny's involvement with neo-Nazis, and warns that he is on the same path as Derek. Derek further distances himself from the Aryan Brotherhood and spends the remainder of his time in prison alone, reading books that Sweeney sends him. Finally realizing the error of his ways, Derek leaves prison a changed man. Upon arriving home, he finds that Danny has a D.O.C. tattoo and tries to persuade him to leave the gang. They subsequently go to a neo-Nazi party, where Derek tells Cameron that he and Danny will no longer associate with the neo-Nazi movement; this causes Cameron, Derek's girlfriend, and all the other neo-Nazis to turn on him. After leaving the party, Derek tells Danny about his experience in prison, which seems to prompt a change in Danny. It emerges that, in the past, their father had reacted to the news that Derek's English teacher, Dr. Sweeney, had assigned Richard Wright's novel Native Son by putting his son on his guard against blacks, and that this had changed the bright student into a racist once the father was murdered.

The next morning, Danny finishes his paper, which reflects on why he had adopted Nazi values and why they were deeply flawed. Derek gets ready for a meeting with his parole officer. Derek walks Danny to school before his meeting, and on their way they stop at a diner. Sweeney and a police officer tell Derek that his friend Seth Ryan (Ethan Suplee) and Cameron were attacked the previous night. At school, Danny, as he readies to present his assignment paper, is confronted by a young black student named Little Henry, who had been assigned the task of killing Danny after a confrontation the previous day, and who shoots him dead in the toilet. Derek arrives at the school and mourns for Danny. In a voice over, Danny reads the final lines of his paper for Dr. Sweeney, stating, "Hate is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it," and then quoting the final stanza of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address.



All music composed by Anne Dudley.

No. Title Length
1. "American History X"   4:46
2. "The Assignment"   2:36
3. "Venice Beach"   1:28
4. "Playing to Win"   3:49
5. "People Look at Me and See My Brother"   1:41
6. "If I Had Testified"   4:05
7. "A Stranger at My Table"   3:31
8. "Putting Up a Flag"   2:06
9. "Raiders"   3:02
10. "Complications"   1:38
11. "Starting to Remind Me of You"   1:43
12. "The Right Questions"   3:24
13. "The Path to Redemption"   2:56
14. "We Are Not Enemies"   2:05
15. "Two Brothers"   2:31
16. "Storm Clouds Gathering"   2:04
17. "Benedictus"   3:35


Shooting took place in Los Angeles, California.[3] With some suggestions from New Line, director Tony Kaye made a second heavily shortened cut, which New Line rejected as it bore little resemblance to the first. Film editor Jerry Greenberg was brought in to cut a third version with Edward Norton.

Kaye disowned the third version as the final cut of the film, as he did not approve of its quality.[4] He tried and failed to have his name removed from the credits,[5][6] openly telling some interviewers he tried to invoke the Alan Smithee pseudonym which the Directors Guild of America used to reserve for such cases. When his request was denied, Kaye tried "Humpty Dumpty" as an alternative name.

Joaquin Phoenix was offered the role of Derek Vinyard but turned it down.[7]


Box office

American History X was released on October 30, 1998 and grossed $156,076 in seventeen theaters during its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $6,719,864 from 513 theaters in the United States, and a total of $23,875,127 worldwide.[1]

Critical reception

Edward Norton's performance was critically lauded and he went on to receive multiple accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor

The film received positive reviews upon release with many critics directing particular praise towards Edward Norton's performance. Based on the reviews of 82 critics collected on Rotten Tomatoes, 83% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7.3/10; the website's consensus reads: "A compelling and provocative story led by an excellent performance by Edward Norton."[8] By comparison, on Metacritic, the film holds a 62/100 average rating based on 32 reviews of top mainstream critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[9]

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, awarding American History X four stars out of four, described it as "a shockingly powerful screed against racism that also manages to be so well performed and directed that it is entertaining as well" and stated that it was "also effective at demonstrating how hate is taught from one generation to another." Siskel singled out Norton's performance and called him "the immediate front-runner" for an Oscar.[10] Todd McCarthy, writing for Variety, gave the film a positive review stating, "This jolting, superbly acted film will draw serious-minded upscale viewers interested in cutting-edge fare." He gave special praise to Norton's performance, saying "His Derek mesmerizes even as he repels, and the actor fully exposes the human being behind the tough poses and attitudinizing."[11] The New York Times's Janet Maslin wrote, "Though its story elements are all too easily reduced to a simple outline, American History X has enough fiery acting and provocative bombast to make its impact felt. For one thing, its willingness to take on ugly political realities gives it a substantial raison d'être. For another, it has been directed with a mixture of handsome photo-realism and visceral punch."[12] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of four, stating that it was "always interesting and sometimes compelling, and it contains more actual provocative thought than any American film on race since Do the Right Thing." He was critical though of the film's underdeveloped areas, stating that "the movie never convincingly charts Derek's path to race hatred" and noting that "in trying to resolve the events of four years in one day, it leaves its shortcuts showing". Nevertheless, Ebert concluded, "This is a good and powerful film. If I am dissatisfied, it is because it contains the promise of being more than it is."[13]

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle expressed disappointment at the film, though he did praise Norton's performance as Derek, commenting that he "is perfect for the role". LaSalle felt that while the film succeeded in portraying Derek's descent into neo-Nazism, it failed to portray his renouncement of his past beliefs: "We had to watch him think his way in. We should see him think his way out." LaSalle also noted other problems: "In some places the dialogue is surprisingly stilted. Far worse, the ending is a misfire."[14] Stephen Hunter, writing for The Washington Post, was highly critical of the film and gave it a negative review. He called it "a mousy little nothing of a picture, an old melodramatic formula hidden under pretentious TV-commercial-slick photography, postmodernist narrative stylings and violations of various laws of probability."[15]


Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Derek Vinyard, but lost to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful.

Norton's performance was ranked by Total Film as the 72nd greatest film performance of all time.[16] Norton's Academy Award loss was also included on Empire list of "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices."[17]

Award Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [18]
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [19]
Golden Reel Awards Best Sound Editing: Music Score in a Feature Film Richard Ford Nominated [20]
Golden Satellite Awards Best Original Screenplay David McKenna Nominated [21]
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Edward Norton Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Drama Beverly D'Angelo Nominated
Online Film Critics Society Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [22]
Political Film Society Awards Peace Nominated [23]
Saturn Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [24]
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Won [25]
Taormina International Film Festival Best Actor Edward Norton Won [26]
Youth in Film Awards Best Supporting Young Actor in a Feature Film Edward Furlong Nominated [27]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


  1. 1 2 3 "American History X (1998)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  2. "Empire's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". Empire Magazine. March 24, 2012. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  3. "American History X Filming Locations". Movie Locations Guide. Retrieved August 28, 2013.
  4. Maurer, Monika (September 1998). "A Quick Chat with Tony Kaye by Monika Maurer".
  5. McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Archived from the original on July 23, 2009. Retrieved July 23, 2009. It is possible that some otherwise well-disposed critics may restrain their praise, even unwittingly, in knee-jerk sympathy with director Kaye, who disowns this cut and lost his bid to take his name off the picture.
  6. Kaye, Tony (October 25, 2002). "Losing it". The Guardian. Retrieved March 20, 2009.
  7. "Great roles actors have turned down". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  8. "American History X". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 23, 2009.
  9. "American History X Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  10. Siskel, Gene (October 30, 1998). "A Shocking Film About Racial Hate". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  11. McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  12. Maslin, Janet (October 28, 1998). "'American History X': The Darkest Chambers of a Nation's Soul". The New York Times. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  13. Ebert, Roger (October 30, 1998). "American History X". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  14. LaSalle, Mick (October 30, 1998). "Neo-Nazi With a Conscience / Norton shines, but `History' disappoints". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  15. Hunter, Stephen (October 30, 1998). "'American History X'". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  16. Total Film (December 11, 2008). "150 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time". Total Film. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  17. De Semlyen, Phil (February 27, 2014). "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices". Empire. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  18. "71st Academy Awards Winners". Academy Awards. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  19. Tribune staff (January 19, 1999). "Chicago Film Critics Name Their Favorites". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  20. J. Olson, Eric (February 22, 1999). "Sound editors shout Golden Reel noms". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  21. "1999 Awards". International Press Academy. Archived from the original on February 11, 2001. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  22. "1998 Awards (2nd Annual)". Online Film Critics Society. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  23. "Previous Award Winners". Political Film Society. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  24. J. Olson, Eric (March 8, 1999). "Out of this world". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  25. "1998 SEFCA Best Films of the Year". Southeastern Film Critics Association. Archived from the original on June 13, 2004. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  26. Rooney, David (August 3, 1999). "U.S. pix help revive Italy's Taormina fest". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  27. "20th Annual Awards". Young Artist Award. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  28. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.

Further reading

External links

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