Keeping in mind the controversy around the recent white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville VA, you might want to watch American History X again. Some probably remember it well, even though it premiered back in 1998 – nearly 20 years ago.
However, the events in Charlottesville make the film more contextually relevant than ever. That’s because it depicts the inner dynamics of white racist gangs, and the psychology of its leaders and members. Even more importantly, it expresses exquisitely the fascist mind-set of current “leaders” in Washington including most prominently the president of the United States. Concurrently, it calls us all to a mystical conversion as our only salvation from encroaching Nazism.
Recall the narrative. Like the Charlottesville backstory, the plot of American History X centers around white supremacists afraid that they’re losing control of their neighborhood and what they consider their country.
Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) is the main character. Derek’s a Nazi white supremacist whose father, a Los Angeles firefighter, is killed in the line of duty. Crucially for Derek, his father’s killers were members of an African-American drug gang.
That personal tragedy leads Derek even further into the depths of white supremacy. As the leader of a skinhead gang, he uses his extraordinary leadership charisma and street eloquence to become its legendary head and inspiration.
Here’s a speech that Derek gives to gang members before they trash a grocery store owned by an Asian immigrant. See if it sounds familiar:
Again, does any of that sound familiar? I think we’ve heard highly similar (though slightly less crude) remarks from our current president. As if we needed it, they remind us of the simplistic world-vision such sentiments presume. It’s the immigrants, not the capitalist economy itself, who are responsible for the job=loss and for Americans’ falling standard of living. Like President Trump, Derek apparently doesn’t understand how globalist trade policies and endless U.S. wars and bombings have destroyed the livelihoods and homes of the immigrants in question. And, of course, there’s no trace of comprehending the shared spiritual identity that precedes nations and borders that are by comparison quite artificial.
The one chiefly influenced by Derek’s example is his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes his brother and so becomes roped into the white gang’s culture.
After Derek shoots one and brutally stomps to death another of two black men attempting to steal his truck, he’s sent to prison for three years. There interactions with other white supremacists whose actions reveal their hypocrisy, along with an unlikely friendship with an African-American inmate open Derek’s eyes. He emerges transformed from his prison experience. He rejects his skinhead ideology, formally leaves his gang, and makes it his mission in life to open the eyes of his younger brother who is already well along the path Derek’s own footsteps have marked out.
In other words, the former skinhead moves from a stage of nationalism to something like world (or at least multi-racial) awareness that makes him more understanding and accepting of those he previously despised.
Importantly, the film’s conclusion even hints at the dawning of a salvific mystical consciousness on the part of Danny who narrates the film. Just before the credits roll he quotes an unnamed author saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Those words show a realization on Danny’s part that only a mystical recollection of a Higher Self (“the better angels of our nature”) will, despite contrary passions, prevent the severance of kinship’s bonds that precede the historical events that divide us one from another. To me, that echoes the dawning of a kind of cosmic-consciousness.
That consciousness alone can save us now (that and perhaps jailing those “leaders” I mentioned, so that they might share Derek Vineyard’s conversion experience). Put otherwise, we neglect our deep bonds of human spirituality at our own peril.
As the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, said about our future so many years ago, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”
Unfortunately, Rahner’s nothingness now constitutes humanity’s very horizon.
So watch American History X again. And see if it makes you think about where we are heading.