Open main menu

American History X is a 1998 American crime drama film directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna. It stars Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, and features 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.

American History X
American History X poster.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTony Kaye
Produced byJohn Morrissey
Written byDavid McKenna
Music byAnne Dudley
CinematographyTony Kaye
Edited by
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • October 30, 1998 (1998-10-30)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$20 million[1]
Box office$23.9 million[1]

The film tells the story of two brothers from Venice, Los Angeles who become involved in a white supremacist/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, the film 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]


Note: the film is non-linear; this plot summary has slightly reordered some parts of the film for ease.

High-schooler Danny Vinyard antagonizes his Jewish history teacher Mr. Murray with an essay on Mein Kampf. African-American principal and outreach worker Dr. Bob Sweeney tells Danny that he will study history through current events under Sweeney’s direction or be expelled, calling their class American History X. Danny's first assignment is a paper on his older brother Derek, a former neo-Nazi leader released from prison that day. In the bathroom, Danny finds three African-American students bullying a white student and intervenes, openly disrespecting the black students.

Dr. Sweeney meets with police officers being briefed on Derek's release. Years earlier, Danny and Derek's firefighter father was murdered by black drug dealers. In a television interview after his father’s death, Derek erupts in a racist tirade. High-profile racist Cameron Alexander becomes Derek’s mentor and they found their own violent white supremacist gang, the Disciples of Christ (D.O.C.), in Venice Beach. A skilled basketball player, Derek is dragged into a game against several Crips, winning control of the local courts. Derek leads an attack on a supermarket with non-white employees, subjecting them to violence and racial abuse, filmed by Danny on a camcorder.

Derek's mother invites Mr. Murray, her boyfriend at the time, to dinner, which deteriorates into a heated argument about Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, culminating in Derek assaulting his sister Davina, Murray leaving, and Derek's mother kicking him out. That night, a group of Crips Derek insulted earlier attempt to steal his truck. Derek shoots and kills one of them and curb stomps another, and is sentenced to three years in the California Institution for Men for voluntary manslaughter.

In prison, Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood and works in the laundry, partnered with Lamont, a black man. Derek is initially standoffish, but develops a rapport with Lamont over their shared love of basketball. Derek becomes disillusioned by prison gang politics; he believes in the ideology, but disapproves of his gang’s dealings with non-white gangs. Turning his back on them, he is beaten and raped in the shower by the Aryan Brotherhood.

Derek is visited in the hospital wing by Sweeney, with whom he pleads for help to get out of prison. Sweeney warns that Danny, involved with the D.O.C., is on the same path. Derek ignores the Aryan Brotherhood, and Lamont warns that he may be targeted by the black gangs. An attack never comes, and Derek spends the remainder of his sentence alone, reading books from Sweeney. The morning of his release, he bids goodbye to Lamont, deducing he was the reason Derek was not attacked.

Returning home, Derek finds Danny is emulating him, sporting a D.O.C. tattoo and skinhead hairstyle. Derek tries to persuade him to leave the gang, while Danny feels betrayed. Derek's best friend Seth, also a D.O.C. member, frequently disrespects Derek’s female family members, while grooming Danny for the gang; Seth and Danny are closely controlled by Cameron.

At a neo-Nazi party thrown in his honor, Derek tells Cameron that he and Danny will no longer associate with the movement. Cameron, Derek’s former girlfriend Stacy, and the others turn on Derek, who assaults Cameron for insisting Danny will remain under his influence. Seth holds Derek at gunpoint, but Derek disarms him and flees.

Danny attacks Derek in tears, and Derek calms him. Afterwards, Derek tells Danny about his experience in prison, which seems to prompt a change in Danny. The pair return home and remove all racist posters from their shared bedroom.

The next morning, Danny completes his paper, reflecting on his reasons for adopting white supremacist values, and their flaws. He also comments that although Derek's racist views may seem to have arisen from anger over his father's death, Danny believes that the seed for his brother's views was planted years earlier; his father often delivered racist rants and epithets, and his death misdirected Derek’s anger into racism. Derek walks Danny to school, stopping at a diner for breakfast.

Sweeney and a police officer inform Derek that Seth and Cameron are in ICU after an attack. Derek reluctantly agrees to talk with the people he denounced; walking Danny to school, Derek is aware a car may be following him. At school, Danny is shot and killed by a black student from the previous day’s confrontation. Derek runs to the school and cradles Danny's bloodied corpse.

In voiceover, Danny reads the final lines of his paper for Dr. Sweeney, quoting the final stanza of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address.



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 of the film and tried and failed to have his name removed from the credits,[4][5] 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.[6]

Release and receptionEdit

Box officeEdit

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 responseEdit

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 83 critics collected on Rotten Tomatoes, 83% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7.33/10; the website's consensus reads: "A compelling and provocative story led by an excellent performance by Edward Norton."[7] By comparison, on Metacritic, the film holds a 62/100 average rating based on 32 reviews of top mainstream critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[8]

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.[9] 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."[10] 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."[11] 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."[12]

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."[13] Stephen Hunter, writing for The Washington Post, was highly critical of the film and gave it a negative review, calling it "an old melodramatic formula hidden under pretentious TV-commercial-slick photography".[14]

Awards and honorsEdit

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.[15] Norton's Academy Award loss was also included on Empire's list of "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices".[16]

Award Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [17]
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [18]
Golden Reel Awards Best Sound Editing: Music Score in a Feature Film Richard Ford Nominated [19]
Golden Satellite Awards Best Original Screenplay David McKenna Nominated [20]
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 [21]
Political Film Society Awards Peace Nominated [22]
Saturn Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Nominated [23]
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Edward Norton Won [24]
Taormina International Film Festival Best Actor Edward Norton Won [25]
Youth in Film Awards Best Supporting Young Actor in a Feature Film Edward Furlong Nominated [26]

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

Home mediaEdit

The film was released on VHS by New Line Home Entertainment on August 24, 1999.[28] The film was later released on DVD in both 2002[29] and 2008[30] and on Blu-ray on April 7, 2009.[31]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c "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. ^ McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Archived from the original on April 23, 2010. 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.
  5. ^ Kaye, Tony (October 25, 2002). "Losing it". The Guardian. Retrieved March 20, 2009.
  6. ^ "Great roles actors have turned down". Yahoo! Movies. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  7. ^ "American History X". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 5, 2019.
  8. ^ "American History X Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (October 30, 1998). "A Shocking Film About Racial Hate". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  10. ^ McCarthy, Todd (October 22, 1998). "American History X". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  11. ^ Maslin, Janet (October 28, 1998). "'American History X': The Darkest Chambers of a Nation's Soul". The New York Times. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 30, 1998). "American History X". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  13. ^ LaSalle, Mick (October 30, 1998). "Neo-Nazi With a Conscience / Norton shines, but `History' disappoints". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  14. ^ Hunter, Stephen (October 30, 1998). "'American History X'". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  15. ^ Total Film (December 11, 2008). "150 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time". Total Film. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  16. ^ De Semlyen, Phil (February 27, 2014). "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices". Empire. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  17. ^ "71st Academy Awards Winners". Academy Awards. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  18. ^ Tribune staff (January 19, 1999). "Chicago Film Critics Name Their Favorites". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  19. ^ J. Olson, Eric (February 22, 1999). "Sound editors shout Golden Reel noms". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  20. ^ "1999 Awards". International Press Academy. Archived from the original on February 11, 2001. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  21. ^ "1998 Awards (2nd Annual)". Online Film Critics Society. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  22. ^ "Previous Award Winners". Political Film Society. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  23. ^ J. Olson, Eric (March 8, 1999). "Out of this world". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  24. ^ "1998 SEFCA Best Films of the Year". Southeastern Film Critics Association. Archived from the original on June 13, 2004. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  25. ^ Rooney, David (August 3, 1999). "U.S. pix help revive Italy's Taormina fest". Variety. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  26. ^ "20th Annual Awards". Young Artist Award. Archived from the original on November 28, 2016. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  28. ^ "American History X [VHS]". Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  29. ^ Joshua Klein (4 April 2002). "American History X". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  30. ^ "American History X". Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  31. ^ "American History X Blu-ray". Retrieved 10 February 2017.

Further reading

  • Frauley, Jon (2010). "Subculture and American History X". Criminology, Deviance, and the Silver Screen: The Fictional Reality and the Criminological Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-61516-8.

External linksEdit