American History X: A Sociological Analysis

The movie American History X filmed in 1998 depicts the issue of racial tension, which remained one of the burning concerns in the USA in the 1990s. To be precise, the movie aimed to show how the American society reacted on the implementation of legal rights for black people and coped with the dramatic changes in the social structure.  The movie shows one day of a family focusing most attention on two brothers Danny and Derek. Derek is a former neo-Nazi group member who has been released after been sentenced for violent murder of two black guys. However, after the prison Derek changes dramatically his views. Although the movie shows mostly events that take place during one day, it also has retrospective episodes depicting the events that happened earlier. Such an unusual movie structure helps create an intriguing storyline depicting the inner transformation of the main hero Derek and the circumstances that provoked it. In fact, Derek’s dramatic transformation can be regarded as a reflection of the difficult way of the transformation of the whole society.  

Firstly, from the sociological perspective, the movie’s value constitutes in displaying social reality regarding racial division in the USA in the 1990s. The American society was in a state of transition when black people have already been recognized as the full citizens of the USA and given the same rights as the white people. Along with recognition of their rights, black people also got many social benefits, such as unemployment payments. Besides, at that time the USA experienced great waves of immigrants, many of which were coming from Africa. However, the racial division in the society was still very vivid as many white people were strongly unsatisfied with such situation. According to common prejudices, black people were abusing the American system by deliberately avoiding working and benefiting from social payments, but also contributing to the increase of crime rates. For example, during a dinner with history teacher, Derek is accusing black people being guilty for most of the crimes by appealing to the fact that every third black guy is in prison”. The movie’s characters constantly get involved into fiery debates and hotly contested speculations regarding the following issues, reflecting the common social prejudices of that time. 

In fact, the movie American History X aims not only to reveal the issue of racial tension in the American society in the end of the 20th century, but also to observe the roots of the racial prejudices in the society. Under the close scrutiny, it appears that the roots of such an attitude often stems from the family and close surrounding of a person. Family as a smallest unit of a society plays crucial role in the formation and development of a person’s world outlook and ability to differentiate between the notions of right and wrong. The Derek’s case is a vivid example of how infants reflect their parents. Only when being in the prison, the main character realizes where his aggression towards black people comes from. Derek formed his negative attitude to black people not on the basis of some personal experience, but on the basis of his father’s words. The father, who was an authority in the family, during a family dinner criticized Derek’s favorite school teacher who was black and black people in general. Farther has not only demolished the authority of a teacher, but influenced the system of moral values of his son. Unsurprisingly, after the father’s tragic death, Derek blames black people speaking in his father’s words during his interview with journalists. Therefore, the family or its separate members often are the ones responsible for imposing stereotypes and prejudices on the young generation, which is the most receptive part of society and easily succumbs to an external influence.

It must be said that within a problem of family influence, another relevant issue becomes vivid in the movie. From the storyline it becomes obvious how young people, especially boys, tend to create an idol and follow their role model. For example, for a teenager Derek his father was an undisputable role model; thus, Derek was always trying to please him and reach his expectations. After father’s death, the pro-White Nazi leader replaced father’s place and became a new role model for Derek and involved young boy in his group known for the extreme racial hatred statements. Consequently, Derek became role model for his younger brother, who also followed him in his violent anti-black propaganda. During the movie Danny even once remarks that everyone sees him as a reflection of his brother Derek. Therefore, Danny is trying to imitate his brother and make him proud by making racist statements. For example, just before Derek was released Danny wrote an essay based on the forbidden scandalous book promoting racial inequality ideas. Consequently, only Derek as his role model is able to change Danny’s views and release him from the negative influence of the Nazi group. 


Another major social issue raised in the movie American History X is dealing with the question of ideology and group manipulation. The neo-Nazi party in the movie is a prototype of the real ideological groups following the ideas of fascism and purity of nation. The groups were considered illegal and were forbidden because of their vigorous promotion of the absolute priority of white people and supporting racial tension and hatred. They were also known in the USA for the aggressive outbursts towards black people. The movie reveals the genuine nature of such organizations when a self-proclaimed leader is using people for promoting his ideas and goals. In fact, the bulk of such organizations constitutes mostly of young people. The case of Derek shows that the adolescents are the most vulnerable group of society. Striking for a sense of achievement and independence, they join such groups with great enthusiasm. First of all, it refers to the adolescents from the dysfunctional families, where children are disconnected with the parents and seek for support and understanding outside a family. By different techniques of brainwashing, an older leader easily gets an authority and is manipulating young people in such a way to stay out of trouble himself. Police is aware of his activity, but have no incriminating evidence to arrest him. Derek was one of such young followers who were committing an offence and breaking law under his supervision. The movie demonstrates the threat that such kind of ideological groups carry for the whole society, and how badly they influence young generation.

From the perspective of sociology and its theories, the movie provides a valid volume of evidence to support particular ones. Firstly, the Symbolic Interactionism theory, focused on an individual and its behavior in terms of person-society relations, may be applied to the movie events as a relevant one. The analysis of the movie American History X vividly supports the theory that a person is created by a society; therefore he or she gives a particular meaning to the particular thing though his or her experience in the society. It can be applied to both cases of two main characters Danny and Derek. The main changes happened to Derek under the external pressure of his close surrounding. His outlook and decisions were affected firstly by his father, then by the leader of neo-Nazi party, his girlfriend, and his fellow neo-Nazi friends. Moreover, Derek experiences drastic changes of all his previous beliefs and convictions as a result of certain events that happened to him in prison. At that point, his teacher became another person that had substantial external influence on Derek. Therefore, a person is constantly under the external pressure of the surrounding society, which considerably influences an individual’s thoughts and actions. Depending on a personality, the influence may be more or less significant, but it does affect any person living in society. 

Secondly, according to another social theory often referred as the Conflict theory, society will always have a part of people that is not satisfied with the general policy. Any society would have conflicting viewpoints, which lead to a confrontation of two main forces and provoke a conflict of interests. Eventually, the conflict is aimed to lead to a resolution at some point. The racial discrimination issue is a vivid example of such a conflict that leads to dramatic changes in a society. For a long time, black people were in disadvantageous situation in the USA, which led to the national revolution, and finally resulted into recognition of civil rights of black people in the USA. The movie shows the adaptation period that the American society is experiencing afterwards. According to the theory, no dramatic changes can pass smoothly and get implemented into society without obstacles, as it takes time for a society to adjust. In the movie, the situation appears to be regulated on an official level; however, the society itself is still experiencing difficulties while adjusting to the implementations and dealing with the remnants of racial prejudices and stereotypes. 

To conclude, the movie American History X succeeded in depicting the social reality of the USA in the 1990s. The main idea of the movie is that the issue of racial tension between black and white people is still urgent and calls for some measures. It also reveals the main reasons of such a situation and racial prejudices, which are still valid in the society proclaiming equality for everyone regarding skin color and religion. It shows how difficult it is to demolish the remnants of the prejudices in the society, especially if those stem from the family and are imposed on a person from the very childhood. The movie arouses concerns regarding the young generation that is regarded as a future of any nation, but is easily affected by any negative influence. Overall, the remarkable thing about the movie is that all the storyline is developing in terms of close interrelation of the main characters’ biographies and social realities with clear reference to the actual history. Thus, the inner transformation of the main character Derek is a reflection of a hard way of the whole American society transformation. However, the thing is that it is easier to change the perspective of one individual than the whole nation.

Mar 1, 2019 in Socioligy
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