“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”1
Dr. Bob Sweeney in American History X
Are we free or psychologically determined? Can we act according to our own thoughts or will we act according to a causal pathway or narrative that we have accepted as true?
Each of us, if we are honest, probably tell ourselves stories as to why we believe the things we do and act the way we do. We develop linear thoughts that take us from our experiences, as we see them, through to assertions about life and how we should live. Nothing wrong in that most would say. There is, arguably, however a falsity here because, effectively, we are moving from a statement to a judgement, from a fact to a theory, from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. There is no real causal link in this chain, as those steeped in the analytic philosophical tradition would argue. One simply can’t move from ontology to moral theory.
But maybe I’m wrong because the experience is subjective and not actually objective or of an ontological nature at all. And here is the crux. For those who do assert their judgements based on their experiences there is, for them, a powerful sense that they are in possession of a truth, whether ontologically sound or factual correct it doesn’t really matter. It is just the truth as far as they are concerned. The problem is, though, that ‘as far as they are concerned’ is not very far at all. In fact it’s only really as far as they could see last week. And this is Sartre’s point. If we only recite and repeat the same stories to ourselves, then we are pretty much self-determining or self-narrowing and consequently chucking away our freedom. Breaking free from the stories we tell ourselves is immensely difficult of course if we have grown up in a dogmatic and claustrophobic environment.
One such environment is played out within American History X, the directorial debut from Tony Kaye, with screenplay by David McKenna, and starring Edward Norton alongside Beverly D’Angelo, Stacey Keach and Elliott Gould amongst many others.
Following the death of his racist father at the hands of black drug dealers, whilst on call as a fire-fighter, Derek Vinyard, played by Norton, appears to give in to repressed racist views in an emotional tirade when filmed by the local media after receiving news of his father’s death. The hard-working scholar evaporates at that instance and Vinyard allows his repressed side to come fully to the surface.
Egged on by Cameron Alexander, the neighbourhood White Supremacist leader of lost and angry young men, Vinyard becomes every inch the stereotypical shaven-headed, swastika-tattooed, neo-Nazi thug of nightmares. The only difference between him and his ‘Disciples of Christ’ cohort being that he is equipped with intelligence and becomes the leader or figure-head of the ‘D.O.C.’, with Alexander yanking the puppet strings.
With the murder of his father by a group of drug dealers, of whom the defining characteristic we are given is that they were black, Vinyard, one could argue, starts spiralling into racism foregoing the scholarly avenues that he was embarking on and hearing the echoes of his fathers words in Alexander’s grooming speeches of manipulation. The premise of psychological determinism and the pathway chosen by Vinyard are clearly set out for the viewer. The ingredients of Vinyard’s life result in an all too familiar, if extreme, final product. The story that Vinyard can tell himself is actually narrated by his younger brother, Danny, in the guise of an assignment, called American History X, given as an ultimatum by his black head teacher, Dr Bob Sweeney, who wants Danny to avoid following in his brother’s footsteps.
Told in a series of flashbacks, the story, as told by Danny unfolds in a series of tense and heightened scenes. Tony Kaye’s direction uses black and white film stock to show when Vinyard Snr. is consumed by White Supremacist conviction and juxtaposes this with colour when showing contemporary events and the family as it was before their father’s murder. The TV ‘interview’ where Vinyard unleashes is in colour because he has not become the skinhead fascist bully-boy at that point.
One of the flashbacks shows, in absolute graphic detail, the ‘heights’ that Vinyard reaches as he shoots one member of a black gang attempting to steal his father’s truck and executes another whom he has already injured. Without dwelling on the pure gruesomeness of the execution, we see Vinyard at his horrific neo-Nazi summit. However, just as the raw and self-righteous evil courses through his veins, as Danny watches in despair, the police arrive in a squad car to arrest him. The film’s iconographic imagery comes from this scene as an incensed Vinyard strides from brutality to sheer horror with eyes shining, as if in religious-like ecstasy. The conviction within him is palpable and screams through the stark night as we watch witness-like his unstoppable reeking of carnage.
Having reached the summit, the only way is down, right? Danny’s story continues as Derek begins a three-year prison sentence. Why only three years is not really made clear. We are only informed that Danny didn’t testified against him and left to surmise that the Los Angeles judicial system must have decided not to throw the book at him. In any case, the plot moves to the beginning of his incarceration and we soon find him grouping like-with-like. The ‘whites’ appear to accept him as one of theirs whilst they adopt the stereotypical posturing, snarling and sneering towards the ‘brothers’ and the ‘Hispanics’.
After a year, though, Danny relates that “things got complicated”2 for Derek. The ardent zeal of imprisoned Vinyard, still filled to the brim with White Supremacist ideology, can’t fathom why Mitch, one of his group of ‘whites’ (a term I have ascribed for convenience and not given in the film), seems to fraternize and “do favours”3 for the other groups concerning prison drugs. When Vinyard tries to discuss this apparent unconscionable attitude from Mitch he gets told “chill out on the preaching… we getting tired of it.”4 The final straw for Vinyard was the realisation that Mitch “was taking it from the Mexicans and dealing it out to his own people.”5 The symptom belied the cause for Vinyard because it dawned on him that Mitch didn’t believe in anything and neither did the rest of the ‘whites’.
Finding his peers lack of belief and conviction in ideology repugnant, Vinyard makes a point of separating himself off from them by deliberately ignoring them and sitting by himself in the canteen at lunch and playing basketball with Lamont, his laundry-duty co-worker, a ‘brother’. In prison gang culture, we are led to believe these are unpardonable sins. Vinyard consequently receives his punishment from the ‘whites’. He is raped in the showers and hospitalised afterwards.
At this juncture, Dr Bob Sweeney, Vinyard’s ex head teacher and Danny’s current one, arrives at the prison ostensibly to talk about Danny and give Derek some books. On his arrival Vinyard, lying on a hospital gurney with six stitches in him, breaks down and weeps in front of Sweeney. The mighty has fallen.
Sweeney confronts Vinyard on his anger and beliefs, and then proceeds to tell him about his own anger when he was younger:
“I know about this place. I know about the place you are in. There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happening to my people. Blame everybody. Blame white people. Blame Society. Blame God. I didn’t get no answers, ‘cos I was asking the wrong question. You have to ask the right questions.”6
Vinyard, giving complete attention asks “Like what?”7 and Sweeney delivers the film’s pay-off: “Has anything you’ve done made you life better?”8 Vinyard shakes his head in moment of honesty and asks Sweeney to help him.
This is the crucial moment in the film because Sweeney says he’ll agree to help, but only on the condition that Vinyard doesn’t run away and leave his family once he is released from prison, in four months time. Instead Sweeney wants Vinyard to make sure that Danny doesn’t fall into the same trap as he Vinyard fell into.
Wrapped up in this tight jail scene, is the precise focus of Sartre’s thoughts on freedom. Sweeney, by intervening, in the manner that he did, demonstrates to Vinyard that he personally identifies with the root of Vinyard’s anger, but more than this that he, too, had to ask himself the question ‘Has anything I’ve done made my life better?’ By identifying in this way Sweeney shows Vinyard that he has reached rock bottom and, obviously, Vinyard has the visceral reality of being not only in prison to confirm that but also that he has been raped as well. Things really couldn’t get much worse for Vinyard. Sweeney’s message, then, acts to present an objectivity to Vinyard who, consumed by anger since his father’s murder, has only processed life through a warped subjective lens that he thought was the ‘true’ path of his life. By confronting Vinyard, Sweeney manages to push down Vinyard’s subjective defences, courtesy of mirroring them with his own past version, in order to present a brutal but needed home truth to Vinyard.
Accepting the truth of Sweeney’s question and the obvious answer that nothing he has done has made his life better, Vinyard’s immediate intention is to flee from his family in order to prevent them further pain by his presence. Now, the risk at stake here is whether Vinyard would just run away to continue taking all his subjective anger and beliefs with him in order to act them out in a new environment. Possibly, conscious of this risk but also more aware that running away from the problem never solves anything, Sweeney places his condition on Vinyard based on the hold he has on him regarding Vinyard’s request of help. Sweeney’s condition, ostensibly, is for Vinyard to stay and help his brother. However, by requesting this, Sweeney knows that Vinyard would have to face his family, his friends, his past and his future and heal the wounds he has caused rather than running away.
It’s a big gamble on Sweeney’s part because staying with the problem and not running away is hard. It would be far easier for Vinyard to pay lip service to Sweeney rather than actually acceding to his condition and seeing it through.
The Sartrean moment, though, comes when Vinyard realises the choice he faces and that Sweeney is right. He also realises that it is an extra hard choice because he has to get through the last four months of prison alive and then go back home to face the people whose lives he has so effectively poisoned. There is a huge challenge on both fronts.
Surviving prison becomes a practical matter when the ‘whites’ hate you and won’t protect you if the other groups want to enact their boredom or rage upon you bodily. Fortunately, for Vinyard it appears that Lamont has put in a word or two to the ‘brothers’ to leave him alone. Sweeney also helps by sending books for Vinyard to read, which enable Vinyard to become to all intents and purposes a “ghost”9 for those last four months. He even grows his hair and covers up his tattoos by wearing the prison uniform as it is intended rather than stripped to the waist in machismo bravado.
Practical survival out of the way, the test of whether Vinyard can accept that he alone is the author of his life and that he has the freedom to reject his past self and establish a new one, comes once he is released. The real choice of taking the first train out of Los Angeles must still be there, however, Vinyard stays true to Sweeney’s condition and returns to the bosom of his family.
Breaking Sweeney’s condition would be relatively simple and non-consequential to Vinyard, however leaving Danny to become infected with White Supremacist values at the hands of Alexander and others is possibly more of a dilemma. Equally, though, one does get the sense from the film that Vinyard genuinely wants to change and reject his former life. To do this, of course, means that he has to absolutely believe that he is free to do this. The test of this freedom of choice comes via confrontation with the key players in his life, those with whom in his past he colluded as he lived and breathed racist ideology.
Seth Ryan, Vinyard’s close and extremely obnoxious family friend is the first to greet him outside the family. Cameron Alexander and Stacey, Vinyard’s girlfriend, are quickly re-introduced on the night of Vinyard’s release as he attempts to inform them both that he no longer wants anything to do with neo-Nazism. The news is not received at all well. Vinyard ends up punching Alexander, then having Seth pull a gun on him, with Stacey urging Seth to kill Vinyard, after they find Alexander in bloody heap.
Vinyard manages to grab the gun from Seth and make his retreat out of the clutches of around fifty Disciples of Christ members having a ‘welcome back’ party in his honour at Alexander’s club.
The choice of slotting back into his shaven headed life is one that must have been alluring to Vinyard, rather than finding himself in the predictable position of alienation from those he once ran with. The freedom attained in prison, from Sweeney’s intervention, stays with Vinyard and he continues to try and get on with his new life and ‘saving’ Danny.
Right at the end of the film, Danny, in an all so typical nihilistic moment of gangland brutality, gets shot and killed in the school’s restroom by another sixteen year-old, a black youth with unfinished business on his mind from when Danny intervened on his bullying of a nerdy white kid. The film ends with Derek running past Sweeney to go into the restroom to hold his dead brother’s body in waves of understandable emotion.
Now, the film ends here.
However, the film might well have ended differently. Another scene was shot, but never made it to the final edit. The extra scene was of Vinyard in front of a mirror, in the family bathroom, shaving his head. The imagery being that he would once again turn to neo-Nazism. Personally, I’m glad that this scene never got included because it would have dramatically changed the driving force of the narrative, from one that showed how someone can escape from deterministic forces by embracing freedom, to one where they can’t actually escape. So, in the final cut Sartre wins out. However, embracing one’s freedom is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
- American History X, directed by Tony Kaye, 1998.