"American History X". Overcoming Racism in Prison

Term Paper, 2015

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. American History X
2.1. Racism and Prison Gangs
2.1.1. Analysis of the Scene “The Truth”
2.2. Overcoming Racism
2.2.1. Analysis of the Scene “You Don’t Get Six Years”
2.2.2. Analysis of the Scene “After The Attack”

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Today more than two million people of the United States of America are incarcerated in prisons; serving a sentence for a crime they have committed (Blazak 636). The experience each inmate makes individually can have an immense impact on their behaviour and mind-set in and outside prison walls. Prisons in general function as public institutions which should, at the very best, try to help the inmates to “find a lawful, economically stable place” in a community and in society after their time spent in prison (Fleisher and Decker 1-2).

Incarcerated people not only have to deal with the limitations of their freedom and privacy, often they also encounter racism and racial segregation by officers and other inmates. According to Philip Goodman, it is the interaction between the inmate and officer in which categorization is born, and that makes racial categorization and segregation possible (762).

The theme of racism outside and inside a prison and how to personally overcome this racism as a victim as well as a perpetrator are major themes of the anti-racist movie American History X. The life of incarcerated people and how it influenced them is often portrayed in TV series or films which are mostly made to entertain the populace rather than to educate or raise awareness about the problems that arise within the displayed topics, and for that stereotypes and juxtapositions are used as well as certain methods and means of film making. This paper looks at exemplary scenes of American History X with emphasis on how some means of film making are used to display the life-changing experiences that main protagonist Derek Vinyard encounters while being incarcerated.

2. American History X

Directed by Tony Kaye and released in U.S. cinemas in 1998, American History X tells the story of former Neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard, played by Edward Norton, and how his past choices influence not just his life, but also the life of his family and especially his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong).

After spending three years in prison for the voluntary manslaughter of two young Afro Americans who tried to steal his car, Derek Vinyard returns to his home and family in Venice, L.A., to find out that his brother Danny has followed his footsteps into the right winged scene of Venice. Danny sees Derek as a role model. He is reflecting their past while writing an essay for his principal Dr Sweeny (Avery Brooks) with the title ‘American History X’, telling the story of his brother. Their sickly mother had to take care of Danny and the two younger sisters on her own after the father got shot by an Afro American while doing his job as a firefighter.

The racist views of their father and his tragic death in combination with the influence of the Neo-Nazi group leader Cameron has lead Derek and Danny downwards a spiral of racism, hatred and mislead concepts of ‘race’. While being incarcerated, Derek finds protection and companions in a prison gang of like-minded white racists, but as he re- evaluates the actions of his gang and his own attitude, they turn on him and leave him physically injured and unprotected. But he finds support and friendship in an Afro American inmate with whom he works in the laundry and his former High School teacher, Dr Sweeney. The painful but eye-opening experiences Derek has made in prison help him to overcome his racist behaviour and thinking; he tries to save his brother Danny and his family from the sorrows of his past, but just as the family finally wants to start over, Danny gets shot by two Afro American boys in a school toilet and dies in Derek’s arms.

As an anti-racist film, naturally themes of racism, stereotype and prejudices, white supremacy in and outside of the prison are displayed by characters and their behaviour, with the overall conflict how to personally overcome racist views and the consequences that come along with the choices of the past.

The story is told in an achronological order; re-telling events of the past, sometimes with an off-voice, to explain the thoughts the main characters Derek and Danny have in the present. Director Tony Kaye also uses the narrative effect of light as the events in present are shown in colour, while the scenes of the past are just black and white. The use of such an effect resembles the mind-set of Derek Vinyard: in the past, he has seen everything and everyone as either black or white, consumed by searching someone to blame and the death of his father. But as he overcomes his past and realizes that the way he has lived his life so far would never lead to a better life, he sees the world in colours and acknowledges the value each human being inherits, no matter the colour of their skin.

The next, come the analysis of the exemplary scenes of American History X with regard to racism and the connection to prison gangs, the display of stereotypes and, finally, the realization of the need to overcome this racist behaviour. For an overview of the appearing shot sizes, characters, sound and music effects and the length of the scenes, a table for each scene was made to provide this information. The categorization of the shot sizes refers to those used by Lothar Mikos (192-9); even though they were used repeatedly, each shot size is just listed once to keep the tables clear. Each of the scenes is filmed in black and white to intensify Derek’s racist position about life. All of those events have happened while he was in prison and are an important part of his past, influencing his present.

2.1. Racism and Prison Gangs

Racism is as present in our today’s society as ever. Worldwide we can still observe discrimination against ethnic minorities caused by prejudices and mislead concepts of ‘race’ (Todoro 64). Tzvetan Todoro describes racism as a matter of behaviour, usually a manifestation of hatred or contempt for individuals who have well-defined physical characteristics different from our own […] it is a matter of ideology, a doctrine concerning human races (64).

Therefore, the behaviour and the way of thinking towards and about human beings and their physical characteristics depend also on the individual experiences one has made in his life and how he reflects his own decisions of action. Elizabeth Brondolo et al. report that most groups of ethnic and racial minorities encounter racism in their lifetime, through inequitable treatment, harassment or social exclusion (64-5).

As violence and crimes can arise from and be connected to racism, it is not surprising to find it behind prison walls. Avery F. Gordon supports this by saying that the incarcerated in the United States are considered to belong to an “interior race” created through officials (651-2). Furthermore, Philip Goodman points out that especially in Californian prisons there is a silent practice of racism and racial segregation going on between inmates, officers and administrators. Inmates are categorized in ‘races’ and to which gang they belong as they enter the prison by officers. Inside the prison the segregation continues because the incarcerated surround their selves with like-minded individuals to find protection and companionship (735-70).

To avoid trouble and find protection and like-minded inmates, it is easiest to join a prison group or gang; though, some inmates keep to themselves throughout all their time spent in prison. There are many gangs behind prison walls which operate strictly organized inside and outside the prison. According to Terri Compton and Mike Meacham, such groups constitute not only of social boundaries but as well of physical and psychological ones which define a prison group more precisely (27). New inmates often import their previous behaviour of their lifestyle into their new prison life which can be used to openly show what position the inmate takes about a certain prison gang (Worrall and Morris 426).

2.1.1. Analysis of the Scene “The Truth About White Supremacy”

As American History X also displays prison gangs, it emphasis is on the racist group which the main character Derek joins shortly after he enters prison. Blazak describes the situation Derek finds himself in quite well. He points out that as a white inmate, he recognizes his status of now belonging to a racial minority; the opposite of his former life. So in his need of protection, he turns to the racist white prison group (Blazak 637). There is no name given to any of the shown prison gangs but there is clearly a racial segregation in the display of these groups. Besides the racist white group, there are two other major groups; one consisting of Afro Americans and one of Hispanics.

Racist white prison gangs started to evolve in the 1960s in American prisons as white inmates faced the situation of becoming a minority and protection essential among the incarcerated (Blazak 636). Fleisher and Decker point out that it is difficult to obtain current data about prison gangs and their members because of the secretive nature of such groups and the difficulties researchers face when wanting to do such a specific research (3).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


"American History X". Overcoming Racism in Prison
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Prisoners and Prisons in the U.S.
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
539 KB
Racism, Cultural Studies, American History X, Prison, U.S., Movie, Film, Edwart Norton, Anglistik, English
Quote paper
Sarah Gahler (Author), 2015, "American History X". Overcoming Racism in Prison, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/337820


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