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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for American History X can be found here.
American History X is based on a screenplay written by the movie's producer David McKenna.
American History X refers to a high school class in American History, but with a twist. When Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) hands in a theme paper titled My Mein Kampf that spouts racist rhetoric, his history teacher (Elliott Gould) sends him and his paper down to see the school principal, Dr Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks). Sweeney is so outraged by Danny's paper that he throws it in the garbage. From hereon, Sweeney intends to be Danny's one-on-one history teacher in a class that he's going to call "American History X." Danny's first assignment is to rewrite his paper, describing how the activities of his white supremist, skin-headed, older brother Derek (Edward Norton), who was just released from prison, have shaped his outlook on American society. Danny also titles his rewrite American History X.
Derek shot and killed two black gang members who were trying to steal his car from the driveway in the middle of the night. At first it was simply self-defense (the gang member guarding the front door had a gun.) But after wounding the second man, the driver had escaped. Thus, Derek had no need to defend himself anymore as he had diffused the situation. Because the gang members were black, however, Derek took the wounded man to the curb and stomped his head against it. Derek probably would have gotten off or gotten a minor sentence for the weapons charge (assuming it was illegally obtained), etc., but he committed an act of cold-blooded murder compounded by a "hate crime" and was given a more severe sentence. When writing his paper, Danny almost inserts a line suggesting that, if he'd had to testify against his brother in court, Derek would have been charged with murder.
Mein Kampf [ English: My Struggle or literally My fight ] (1925, 1926) is a two-volume autobiographical work by Adolf Hitler that details his National Socialist political ideology.
After it seems that Derek and Danny have successfully distanced themselves from the skinheads, Derek learns that Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), his one time role model and leader of the skinheads, was seriously wounded in a hit. When Dr. Sweeney asks Derek to go back into the group to stop an out-and-out war, Derek first refuses but eventually gives in when Sweeney convinces him that it is his duty to see through something that he was instrumental in starting. After dropping Danny off at school, Derek begins to walk away but gets a feeling. Meanwhile, Danny has gone into the boys' lavatory to use the urinal. He suddenly finds himself confronted by the same black student in whose face he blew smoke at the beginning of the movie. The student pulls out a gun and fires several shots into Danny, killing him. Derek returns to the school because of a gut feeling, finds Sweeney and the police barring his way, breaks through, and runs to the lavatory where he sees Danny lying dead on the floor. In the final scenes, Derek hugs Danny and cries out, "What have I done?"
In the trivia, it is stated that there was an extra scene at the end of the movie where Derek is seen shaving his head again, but the scene was cut because it was deemed 'pro-Nazi'. It is left ambiguous in the film as to whether or not Derek intends to revert to his old ways. While in prison, Derek learned that hate is a waste of time and that he only was acting out because he was pissed off at his father being murdered. He came to realize that not every black person was like the one who killed his father. He tells his story to Danny who, by the end of the film, obviously sees the light, but in a tragic twist of irony, Danny is gunned down by Henry, a black person he had earlier insulted. It isn't unthinkable that this would distort Derek's perception and make him believe he was previously right. However, once someone has an epiphany and their mind is opened up to such matters, it is rarely closed back up. Yes, Danny was killed by a black man, as was their father. However, Derek would still understand that not everyone was like that. Dr. Sweeney is a perfect example as he wanted to do nothing but good and help troubled youths. The last line Derek says in the film is "What have I done?". In this it could be implied he does not revert to his old ways but blames himself for what has happened. This would mean he would not revert to his old ways as his brother's death would be in vain. Henry killed Danny as his vengeance for Derek killing and curb stomping his brother. Derek would probably realize this not long after the situation and see it was his doing that led to his brother's death and he doesn't blame Henry as much as he blames himself and therefore would remain on his new path of righteousness.
Several people have noted that the middle-American racial conflicts depicted in American History X is similar to Romper Stomper (1992), in which skinheads in Melbourne, Australia confront the local Vietnamese. In direct opposition to American History X, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) deals with the issue by showing the KKK as heroes and black people as ruthless savages. Another movie cited as somewhat like American History X is The Believer (2001), in which a New York Jewish student struggles to understand his beliefs and heritage. In Higher Learning (1995), college freshmen from different countries, races, and social backgrounds confront personal, political, and racial dilemmas. In Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), an Italian pizzeria owner in Brooklyn is forced to deal with the fact that the majority of his neighborhood is now inhabited by African Americans. Another Spike Lee movie that deals with social prejudice is Summer of Sam (1999). Across the great pond, This Is England (2006) shows the struggle of a young boy facing racism and xenophobia in the early 1980s. Also of mention is just about every movie starring Sidney Poitier.
Yes, there are several major differences between the workprint and the theatrical version. That's because of the incidents between Tony Kaye and New Line during the post production phase. Just in case you want to know more, don't hesitate to follow this link, because there's not only a detailed comparison between the workprint and the theatrical version but also a profound explanation of what has happened after general shooting was completed. But be aware that you should watch the movie (theatrical or uncut, it doesn't matter) first before seeing the comparisons because the link will contain major spoilers that could ruin the film for you.
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