The Love of Life in American History X

Despite its scenes of violence,  American History X sustains delicateness, emphasizing innocence after the cataclysms. I walk away from the movie inspired, relating to the power of my life. In the first and the final shots, the sea breaks at the shore. Unrest washes over the earth; the mystery comes in wave after wave, but the power to be true is always here. In the film, two brothers abuse their powers of intellect and belief, and Derek pushes to physical extremes. The power to love is thrown to the storm, and all rolls back home. Power and reaction drives the plot, but the themes of love come through Danny, who evokes a Christian tone of redemption through weakness. Watching American X for its delicateness and beauty favours a view of life more about potential than overwhelm.

Power defines many of the film’s characters. Derek, athletic and charismatic, generates the tragedy through his abuse of power. Cameron represents spineless power, as Derek charges, ‘you prey on people, Cam! I lost three years of my life for your fucking phony cause but I am on to you now, you fucking snake.’ Sweeney represents the power of knowledge. His experience of the streets, his education, and his love for Derek and Danny give him insight into the turmoil. His voice and stature are an invitation, never a force, for goodness. The gangsters wield a power without conviction, representing the common standard, strength in numbers, no character required. And lastly, in the intimate space of the apartment, is the nurturing strength of the sister, the mother, and Danny, who is the lamb. As the movie digs at the meaning of innocence, it explores these varied uses of power. ‘Do you know what you’re asking me to do?’ implores Derek. And Sweeney’s reply is ‘yes, I’m asking you to do whatever is in your power to do.’ With the closing credits, the fact of human madness looming, I turn that question inward and see a glow.

More than bullets and muscle, the intellect is the destructive power in the film. When a young Derek expresses enthusiasm for Dr. Sweeney’s classes, his racist father clouds him with specious arguments. Derek commands a gang with his intellect, ignited by emotion. At dinner, intellect and emotion pull the family into a hateful clash. Derek grips his beliefs so strongly that he abandons the security of his prison gangsters when their neo-Nazism proves half-hearted. He kills for his beliefs, and when they unravel, he feels ‘inside out’ and powerless, spending his last months in prison, ‘like a ghost.’ His intellect drives his power, while his sensibility begins with weakness. His whimsy black friend, and his own brokenness lead him to realize there is no power in his ideas, nor love in his power.

In slow-motion and close-ups, the camera views Derek and Danny as if through their mother’s adoring eyes. The black-and-white of past events is reflective and sobre, while the connections  in present time are in colour. Parallel to how we may see the world, the impact of the violent scenes of the film can threaten to overshadow the delicate undertones. The figure of purity is Danny, and in the curb-stomp scene, his reaction underscores the focus on delicateness. The camera lingers on Danny, the sight of murder landing in his face and bringing him to his knees. As the story revolves around the preservation of Danny’s innocence, the weight of the assault falls on his shoulders. With choral music in the background, Danny’s pose evokes the Christian themes that make American History X more about redemption than revenge. The arrest scene shows Danny and Derek both on their knees. Derek kneels upright like a servant of destructive power; Danny collapses in an image of defeat and supplication. Many scenes show Danny’s face absorbing complexity, his innocence and intelligence at the heart of the conflict. The prize of either the hateful or the sensible, Danny represents the value of weakness, delicateness, and innocence, rather than power.

Beyond Derek’s prison transformation, Danny’s death is the redemptive moment. He falls with arms outstretched like a crucifix, the war reduced to the two youngest players, and the hammer falling on the most innocent. Derek’s hatred comes back around, and his transformation is not enough to slow it. It reminds me how apology is no plateau; it calls for change and growth. Don’t just be good – give all. Returning to the Christian framework, ‘righteousness’ doesn’t earn perfection. Perfection requires the blood of the lamb. Prison neutralizes Derek, but Danny’s death takes redemption to the end. Revelation 3:16: ’because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ If  Derek’s awakening achieves neutral, Danny’s death reaches deep and cold. The completion is that Derek and Danny are both new; the bill is paid; the revenge cycle stops with Danny, who achieves clarity in his life. He narrates, ‘in about one minute I’m gonna watch the sun come up. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that…we’re all together again and I feel good.’ This image of resurrection brings a glow of majesty to the impending tragedy.

We hear Danny’s voice in the final scene of rolling waves, in which the power play is over and innocence has the final note. The sea and the sound of his voice recall the intimacy of the film. Walking home afterwards, I thought of my own life: I still have intelligence and strength, the facility of love inside me. The film shows a character who lives his choices to the end, and even in a harsh world, I get to make my own.



American History X screened March 17, 2015 at The College of Integrated Philosophy.

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