Spurred by the recent racial controversy in Malta and a few local incidents which were at the tip of everybody’s tongue, my boyfriend asked me if I had ever watched the deeply introspective movie, American History X. Hesitantly, I had to admit that I hadn’t and, as per usual, the reaction I got was of shock and incredulity. This movie is not only an icon of its genre, but also because even though it was produced in 1998, most people still mention it whenever you ask them what their favourite movies are.
So, after years of hearing the same thing, I finally watched it yesterday. And finally, I understood what the fuss had been all about. The plot revolves around two brothers, Derek, a 20-something year old neo-Nazi, and his younger brother Danny, who is a high school student. We see the two brothers mirrored in each other. In a series of black and white flashbacks, we see how Derek has developed into a racist skinhead due to various elements he had come face to face with while growing up, such as his father’s own racist values, and the fact that he was killed by a black guy. Danny is in his turn becoming an exact blue-print of this as well, not only due to his brother’s and his brother’s friends’ influence, but also because of bullying at school, and the experience of living in a place such as Venice Beach in California, where gangs of poverty-induced thugs roam the streets, where being relegated to a certain group because of one’s skin colour or racial background is an accepted way of life.
In the opening scene, a group of non-Caucasian bullies try to smash up Derek’s car in retaliation for a lost basketball game. Danny warns Derek of what is happening, and Derek promptly goes out and kills two people, brutally smashing one of the guy’s heads against the pavement. Derek gets arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. While in jail, he realises that things were not as clear as they had seemed. One cannot simply decide whether an individual is good or bad based on his/her skin colour or ethnic origins. It is our behaviour and the way we treat other human beings which define us. I don’t want to give any spoilers, suffice it to say that it’s not an easy pill to swallow and a hard lesson to learn, especially for Derek, whose life and relationships were all characterised by his idealistic philosophy of neo-Nazism.
What touched me in this movie was that although it was quite clear how and why this young man had spiralled into this vicious cycle of hatred, it was also obvious that society itself had done nothing to convince him as to the contrary. Though there were specific individuals, such as his non-Caucasian high school teacher Mr Sweeney, who genuinely tried to make him understand why his emotions and actions were so negative, the system itself only served to spur racial disparity. A good example of this is how Derek himself was only given three years in prison for killing two black people. While he was there, he made the acquaintance of Lamont, a young African-American man, who had been sentenced to six years merely for having accidentally injured a police officer during a robbery. The unfair disparity of the crimes, not to mention the penalties, are staggering. Another important factor is poverty, as well as a lack of education and social inclusion.
No such situation is easy, just as no one is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Yet some mistakes, as Derek discovers, are simply unacceptable and inescapable. Quoting some lines from the movie itself:
‘Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.’
Basically, even though feelings of superiority and power may make an individual feel good about himself, one must remember that these mostly stem from hatred. A person does not need to diminish and demean another in order to be happy. Is it so hard to treat other people as we want to be treated ourselves? Emotions such as hate, malice, pettiness and bullying, though they may tie people together and create groups which incite feelings of belonging, do nothing in reality but foster negativity, hostility and bitterness. In the end, nothing ever came out of hatred and violence, except for more hatred and violence.