American History X

American History X: A Portrait of Multicultural Interaction for Counselors

By far, American History X is not the first movie to deal with racism. Through artful cinematography, extraordinary relevance, and poignant acting, however, its characters tell the story of not only the consequences of racism, but also its beginnings. Overall, director Tony Kaye and McKenna blatantly expose racism as the fuel of gang warfare in this socially conscious film that all should watch. And through their strong portrayal of a brotherly bond laced with hatred, Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, in their respective roles of Derek and Danny Vinyard, bring emotion to the center of the screen. Though it has a few technical plot clinches that somewhat mitigate the effect of the ending that mixes hope and tragedy, American History X expresses important, contemporary problems that revolve around race. Indeed, the film helps viewers answer questions about how racism hurts individuals, families, and societies, how one becomes racist, and how racism can be overcome. The following paper will offer an in-depth examination of this film in light of the theories of multicultural counseling. Although none of the characters received formal therapy throughout the film, both Derek and Danny Vinyard, the film's two central characters, formed mentor-like relationships with each other and with a member of the other race. By discussing these relationships, as well as other aspects of the film, one can understand how counseling must take a multicultural approach. The following paragraphs will offer a summary of the film and analysis of its overall themes and cultural setting, a character analysis, and summary of the film's impact on the author's personal views and beliefs.

Summary and analysis of the film as a whole

In their book, Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice Fifth Edition, authors Derald Wing and David Sue (2008) acknowledge that we all "have inherited biases" (26). Some times these biases are subtle. Perhaps we lock our doors when se see a black man walking down the street, but not when we see a white man because this is what we observed our parents doing for most of our lives. Sometimes, the biases are more acknowledged. In American History X, this is the case. Toward the end of the film, the viewer is able to catch a glimpse of what started all of the horror. Main character Derek Vinyard, a then high school student, was talking to his father about an African-American teacher, Mr. Sweeney, noting that he was impressed by the teacher and the book Native Sun, which was about a black person. Derek's father replies that he should not buy into everything he reads and begins to express his frustration with the movement for equality, especially affirmative action, which he says has placed two under qualified African-American men on his squad at the fire department. Little did the family members know that Derek's father would eventually die of a drive-by shooting, Derek would blame African-Americans, and his hatred would turn to murder. Derek's inherited hatred eventually turns him into a militant neo-Nazi. He becomes part of the leadership of Cameron Alexander's white supremacist gang, and engages in hate crime and recruitment efforts with the group. Finally, Derek is sent to prison when he brutally murders two black men who try to steal his truck. In prison, though, Derek forms a bond with black inmate and receives visits from Dr. Sweeney, which help him learn the error of his ways. Upon release, Derek discovers that Danny is involved with the same activities he was once a part of. Danny has written a paper on Mein Kampf for his Jewish history teacher. Dr. Sweeney, principal of the school, enrolls Danny in an independent study called American History X, in which he is to write a paper about his brother's imprisonment and how it affected him. Meanwhile, Derek cuts himself out of the gang activity, at one point facing death for doing so, and tells his brother his story, at which point Danny acknowledges the danger in their beliefs. The two tear down all of the Nazi paraphernalia from their bedroom, and Danny's paper reflects the change. However, the change of heart has come too late, as Danny becomes the victim of another hate crime; a black boy whom he had earlier insulted takes a gun to school and kills Danny in the bathroom.

Taking place in Venice Beach, California, this movie clearly depicts the organization of people into groups based on their race. For instance, black and white members of the town were hardly seen together, except in terms of Derek and Danny's interaction with Mr. Sweeney. Even in prison, different ethnic groups tended to cluster in the cafeteria and exercise yard. While blacks and whites were identified as having a definite rivalry, whites were portrayed as discriminatory to all other non-white groups, as is made especially clear when Derek and his group of skinheads trash a convenience store for hiring non-American workers. Thus, the film portrays a vast amount of discrimination against all different ethnic groups. In addition to discrimination, however, privilege is a major issue in the film's culture. Just as McIntosh (1990) describes her attitude toward racism growing up, Derek was "taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on [his] group" (p. 1). Although Derek's father certainly addresses the issue of racism forthright in his talks with his son, the family's reaction to Derek's turn to violence suggests that they would not condone such acts. Instead, Derek's father simply expresses his frustration that African-Americans are taking the jobs that he feels whites have a right to. Thus, Derek's father sets the tone of privilege for the movie, suggesting that, even though the filmmakers do an excellent job of showing how racism can impact each ethnic group or race, whites were still seen as the privileged group.

Because of the tremendous amounts of racism, discrimination, and privilege that can be viewed in this film, it is easy to see how the issues espoused on camera can affect the world of multicultural counseling. For instance, the film as a whole allows the viewer to see the interplay between different ethnic and racial groups, and the barriers that divide them. This allows counselors to understand that certain barriers may exist between them and their patients. Sue and Sue (2008) state that, "while you were not born wanting to be racist of sexist, your cultural conditioning has imbued certain biases and prejudices in you. Furthermore, the film as a whole allows counselors to see the different challenges that they may be faced with in the field. Although the climate in this part of California may be more racially charged than in some areas, it may look strikingly like other cities. Regardless, the abundance of different racial and ethnic groups living together in this film allows counselors to see how each has a shared set of concerns, as well as an individual identity. This can serve as a warning to counselors who may be prone to using racial and culturally developed models. Counselors should use this film to understand that, while these models may be the best way to approach the situation, they need to refrain from responding "to the culturally diverse client in a very stereotypic manner and [failing] to recognize within-group or individual differences (Sue and Sue 2008, p.235). Thus, as a whole, this movie provides a cosmopolitan view of society in which many races are represented. It accurately portrays the interlocking ideas of prejudice, privilege, and discrimination. In addition, its portrait of this type of society offers many useful hints to counselors of the multiculturally diverse.

Character Analysis

Although it portrayed members from several different ethnic groups in order to allow viewers to recognize that racism affects everyone, American History X primarily focused on the interaction between African-Americans and whites. In the movie, the African-Americans were portrayed as being athletic, bullies, and members of gangs. They were also shown excelling at sports. Some of the African-Americans in the film, however, were not portrayed this way. For instance, Dr. Sweeney was a highly educated, influential African-American upon whom many called for help. He was just as interested in helping black students as white students and was not over or easily offended by racism. Also, Derek's black prison mate, Lamott, has several stereotypical characteristics. He is portrayed as poor, a criminal, and able to influence other blacks. Lamott, however, is also characterized as funny and caring.

Similar to the blacks, whites in the movie were characterized by violence. The skinheads were shown to be almost without emotion other than hate, and were highly devoted to their cause. The non-skinhead whites, however, were described as dealing with many of the same problems as the blacks. Their children were involved in gangs, they were struggling financially, their loved ones had been killed by violence, and they had trouble giving up smoking. Thus, although some stereotypes existed in the movie, and…