Aesthetics, Propaganda, and the Skinheads of Venice Beach:
The Use of Cinematic Manipulation in American History X
My paper is an intensive analysis and interpretation of the film American History X directed by Tony Kaye and starring Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, the main character. The film is about a skinhead leader in Venice Beach who is jailed for killing two black men. He has a change of heart while in jail and drops the skinhead gang, but unfortunately, his younger brother Danny is following in his footsteps. I use three different forms of the psychological identification theory (primary, narcissistic, partial) to dissect the reasons behind why Derek chooses the skinhead lifestyle and what events throughout his adolescence add to his motivation. I also use three of the ten divisions of propaganda analysis (ideology and purpose of the propaganda campaign, techniques to maximize effect of the propaganda, effects and evaluation of the propaganda) to help get a better understanding as to how and why the youths of the film decide to lead the dangerous lives of hatred against those who are different. The film is told in a non-linear fashion, with many flashbacks in black and white, and present scenes shot in color. I unravel and place the scenes and events of Derek’s life in chronological order. The paper represents Derek’s life in three parts, Early Life, before he was a skinhead, D.O.C., when he turns into a neo-Nazi leader, and Starting Over, after Derek is cleansed of racism and hatred. Overall, filmgoers tend to make connections with the characters in the film, so I am analyzing and interpreting the reasoning behind Derek’s white-supremacy and how anyone can identify with his motives.
X uses great sublime oceanic imagery, evoking the cyclical tidal flow of humanity’s self destructive impulse. The uses of black and white for the flashbacks show the depths of that binary existence that enters the stark present, with muted almost camouflage and khaki aesthetic that makes you feel like you’re in a war zone. Kaye’s use of slow motion in the defining moments of Derek and Danny’s story etch into your consciousness.
For many, the film American History X (AHX) is an outstanding film, ask anyone who have seen it; but if you watch with open eyes, and really listen and comprehend with an open mind, it becomes something completely different, something darker than the tale of an evil skinhead. Grau (2010) argues, “cinematic seduction: using stylish cinematography, editing and sound, the film manipulates the viewer through glamorizing an immoral and hate filled neo-Nazi protagonist.” I can’t help but agree. Most of these techniques were made famous previously by Nazi Propagandist and film director Leni Riefenstahl. While watching, the main character and skinhead leader, Derek, as played by Edward Norton, becomes more and more tempting to the audience, who begin to feel sympathy for him and at times even agree with his far-right neo-Nazi views. This isn’t an accident. The film American History X uses similar filming aesthetics from Nazi propaganda films to manipulate the audience to believe the film’s propagandist views and find the main character, Derek, alluring and even identifiable. The use of these techniques is meant to invoke irony due to the extreme similarities from previous Nazi propaganda films. I will be focusing critically on three specific aesthetic techniques used in the film: flashbacks, black and white scenes, and camera shooting techniques (close-ups, slow motion, etc.) I will discuss how these aesthetics are used in context with the film, and how they assist with the focus of the propaganda. These techniques are relevant to the film Triumph of the Will directed by Leni Riefenstahl, which is perhaps the most well known and infamous Nazi propaganda film in her filmmaking career. The techniques used in this film can also be found in AHX, and it is used purposefully, using aesthetic techniques to brainwash the audience with the propaganda found in the film, just like it is used to initiate the propaganda of the Nazi party in Triumph of the Will. I will be comparing the two films and their purposes of using these specific filming techniques.
Manipulation in Cinematography
“Cinematic Manipulation”; it’s when the audience is manipulated by the cinematography used by Tony Kaye, director of American History X. It is also proven that Riefenstahl used this same technique to manipulate her audience for the purposes of Nazi propaganda. In this analysis, Kaye is our propagandist. The first time you see Derek, he is scantily clad; wearing nothing but boxer shorts and combat boots, revealing a beautiful and muscular physique, a shaved head, and a large swastika tattoo on his chest.
“Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy,” (Grau 2010).
As the film goes on, when the audience hears the first of many passionate and hate-filled monologues given by Derek, they are slowing falling into the trap, but they don’t know it yet. In the beginning of the movie Derek is shown having sex with his girlfriend, and being told by his brother that two black men are trying to steal his car, he goes outside and shoots one, and curb-stomps another. This scene is set as a flashback in black-and-white, and while Derek is walking over to the other man to tell him to “put your mouth on the curb!“ he is walking in slow-motion to an operatic piece of music, appearing as an angelic apparition who has come to protect his family from harm. “There is no doubt that Derek is deliberately presented to us as embodying both great power of will and something close to an ideal of physical perfection,” (Grau 2012).
Derek isn’t just any skinhead, he isn’t an angst-filled empty-minded teenager looking for a place to fit in; he was chosen to be the leader for very specific reasons. It’s mainly because he is intelligent. “A quite striking feature of AHX is that it is a film about the maliciousness of racism that presents us with an uncommonly smart and eloquent racist,” (Grau 2010). When listening to Derek make a speech to his skinhead followers, or argue with his family at the dinner table, the audience shuts-up and listens wide-eyed, afraid to miss a word. One scene in particular is during a speech he makes before him and his skinhead followers raid a local supermarket. He makes a moving speech about how their country of “hard-working American citizens” is being overrun by illegal immigrants and now it’s their time to take back what rightfully belongs to them. “Are we gonna stand here on the sidelines and watch while our country gets raped, or are we going to ante-up and do something about it!” He speaks brilliantly, he comes on strong, and his arguments are completely valid…or are they? Most audience members are lost in the glamorization of the skinhead’s lifestyle already. Edward Norton argues that this is exactly the point of his character,
“We wanted him to be a kind of Uber-neo-Nazi, and we wanted him to be everything a skinhead might dream himself to be. That was the trap we were setting. We wanted the audience to find itself disturbingly compelled by what this guy has to say, to catch themselves thinking, ‘Jeez, there’s a certain sense to that’.”
This is how you find yourself rooting for Derek. The audience find themselves drifting into his side before they are jolted into reality and wake up in time to realize that Derek is an evil and hate-filled racist and murderer, who deems anyone not like him inferior. A true, modern day Hitler. David McKenna (2012) states, “Derek allows the audience to empathize with a character that at his worst is an abhorrent hateful human.”
Beauty and Evil: Film Aesthetics and Propaganda
Derek the skinhead is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cinematic manipulation of the audience. There are certain cinematic techniques in the film that are meant to produce a certain response from the viewer, starting with the use of flashbacks. While Danny, Derek’s little brother who turned to the life of a skinhead, is writing a paper about Derek for a class called American History X, the story is being told through his narration of Derek’s life, which provides the viewer with flashbacks of Derek’s past. The more flashbacks the audience sees, the more of an understanding they have of Derek’s past. These scenes show how he became filled with hate and chose the way to lead his life. Instead of being shown in strict chronological order, the flashbacks are advantageous to the director because it shows the viewers only as much as the director wants so they form an opinion of Derek that has been purposefully planted in the viewers head. The most important flashback is saved for the end of the movie, when the propaganda is really nailed into the viewer. It shows a young high school Derek who is dressed like a bit of a nerd and is at the breakfast table with his family including his father. Derek is excited to start a new curriculum with a new black teacher who adds new books about African American History, and Derek’s father has an outburst about “affirmative black-tion” and how good books are being replaced by “black-books”. Derek looks on bewildered and stunned by his father’s hateful view of blacks, and promises his father “question these things and not to swallow everything he gives him whole.” This scene is possibly the beginning of Derek’s development into being a racist. Soon after, the audience learns that Derek’s father is killed by black meth addicts in the line of duty putting out a fire, and the audience now begins to understand why Derek is the way he is, and they develop a strong sympathy for his character.
Next, there is Kaye’s use of black-and-white in certain scenes as opposed to color. The black-and-white is used specifically for flashbacks; whether from Derek or Danny. These scenes, realistically, represent events occurring in the past, but there is more to the use of this technique. It can be said that during these scenes, Derek, blinded by racism and hatred, only sees the world in black and white. One scene in particular stands out from the rest, during a dinner table scene with one of Derek’s old Jewish teachers from high school. They have a discussion about Rodney King and black on black violence that quickly gets out of hand and ends with Derek ripping his shirt off showing his swastika tattoo to the Jewish teacher screaming “See this? This means not welcome!” as, shocked and hurt, he walks out. This is the most evil and inhuman thing Derek does in the film, not comparing it to the curb-stomp scene. There is a single flashback scene which is not set in black-and-white, Derek and Danny as children at the beach; the scene is in full color, showing the children are innocent and ignorant to racism, and see the world as it should be.
Throughout the film, there are extreme close-ups and wide-angle slow-motion sequences. These little techniques make all of the difference by adding to the dramatics and mood. The close-ups are usually on a character’s face, showing them saying something or making an expression that would have less of an impact if it wasn’t set in extreme close-up. It’s almost like the director wants the audience to make a mental note of that little emotion or quote to further the fascination of the main character. At one point, there is a racist rant done by Derek’s little brother Danny. He is being videotaped by another skinhead and is asked “Tell me what you learned Danny…” and he goes on saying why he hates blacks and how they are “a burden to the development of the white race”. The entire time he is saying all this, his face is in extreme close-up and his eyes are dead center on the camera. This scene is jarring because of how he seems to truly believe what he is saying. He had succumbed to the propaganda of the skinhead group he is now a part of.
This all seems too familiar, as if Tony Kaye borrowed these filming techniques from somewhere. The film, “self-consciously depicts [Derek] in a stylized manner that naturally brings to mind the quite specific examples of Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda films for the Nazi party,” (Grau 55). It seems, that throughout the film, Kaye was influenced by her innovative use of aesthetics in film and wanted to pay her homage; and what better way than in a neo-Nazi skinhead flick. The slow motion scenes of Derek seem to have been recycled from Triumph’s slow pans of the Nazi rallies in the film. The black-and-white flashbacks are deliberately edited in high-contrast to directly parallel the black-and-white in Riefenstahl’s film. Even the opera music in the score that plays during the most brutal of scenes cannot help but resemble the music of Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. Probably the most shocking scene in the film, a scene which the movie is known for, partly shot in slow motion and is a black-and-white flashback. After Derek kills the man by kicking in his skull, he is shown putting his hands on his head and kneeling on the ground in slow motion while the police handcuff him. There are frequent shots of Danny’s face with a look of utter astonishment, while opera music that can’t be described as anything else but very similar to Wagner compositions plays throughout. The use of aesthetics in Triumph is mainly to help the functionality of the propaganda in the film and to help the propagandist further manipulate the audience. The same thing goes for AHX; the aesthetics, along with the alluring main character, create the perfect recipe for the audience to fall into the trap of the propagandist, “…those seductive cinematic techniques were drawn, in part, from the most famous works of Nazi propaganda,” (Grau 2010). In AHX, Derek is portrayed as charismatic, brave, intelligent and attractive. His skinhead followers love him because they feel a sense of belonging with him. Sound familiar? This is how Adolf Hitler is portrayed in Triumph, and he is loved by his followers in the film for all of the same reasons while displaying all of the same characteristics as well. Derek is manipulated by the propaganda in the film from the man who runs the Venice Beach skinhead organization known as the D.O.C (Disciples of Christ) in the film, just like the audience is manipulated by the techniques used by the director in AHX and Triumph. “Those who make such films seek to demonstrate that although Whites on the surface might appear civilized, there is a latent racial barbarism that can be aroused through manipulation,” (Freedom-Site 2001).
Throughout each film, both Derek and Hitler are paralleled and are both found powerful and intelligent with the help of filming aesthetics, and the audience can’t help but find each of these people alluring, “Our horror is not just at what [Derek] does, but at ourselves for having found him appealing…,” (Grau 58). This statement goes for Triumph as well. In the beginning of Triumph, Hitler is shown driving through the city, with people smiling and waving, their faces show a sense of excitement and contentment, and most alarming of all, love. They love this man who is evil, but they are too blinded and brainwashed by his propaganda that they cannot help their feelings for him. It is sickening. One scene in AHX shows Derek return to a skinhead party to tell his former leader that he wants out, and when he arrives, a few skinhead members refer to him as “Father Vinyard” and tell him that he is awesome for what he did to the black men who tried to steal his car. He is a figure that these people look up to, and they love him, not for who he truly is, but for what he stands for. They love the skinhead Derek is, not his true self. The speeches made by Derek in the film, especially before the supermarket raid, sound just like speeches made by Hitler before his followers in Triumph. All in all, AHX encourages viewers to follow Derek and his hate-filled skinhead beliefs, and the perfectly executed aesthetics cause the audience to feel what the filmmaker wants them to feel. Triumph also encourages viewers to follow Hitler and his Nazi beliefs, and the filming aesthetics help to brainwash the audience. An interesting article about the aesthetics of Triumph argue that, “it is both beautiful and evil…this conjunction of beauty and evil that explains why the film is so disturbing,” (Deveraux 2010). AHX can also be described in this way. It is beautiful because of the riveting imagery and groundbreaking cinematography, and evil because of the purpose behind it. Both together create a truly disturbing result: the skinhead gang of Venice Beach and the Nazi Party.
To summarize, the cinematic techniques used by Tony Kaye in American History X alongside the powerful performance by Edward Norton as Derek the skinhead, lead viewers of the film to “adopt false beliefs” (Grau 2010) by finding a skinhead leader alluring and being emotionally moved by his actions and motives, thus being influenced by the overall propaganda techniques of the film. Due to adopting cinematic manipulation from a famous Nazi propagandist director, the audience fell into the trap set for them by the propagandist, or, in this case, the director. The viewers eventually escape the trap set for them when Derek renounces all ties with the skinhead group, realizing that he wasted his life for a “phony cause” and realizes that “hate is baggage”. Only after Derek shows he has truly changed, the audience agrees with his decision, and still is under his spell. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Triumph of the Will, and those who were under the spell of Hitler remained compliant through the murder of thousands of people. The film American History X, like Triumph of the Will, is not just an engaging film; it is an aesthetic work of art that persuades the audience that the views in the film are completely moral and should be acted upon.
American History X. Dir. Tony Kaye. Perf. Edward Furlong Edward Norton. 1998. DVD.
Deveraux, Mary. "Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will." Essays at the Intersection (2010): 227-256. Web.
Grau, Christopher. "American History X, Cinematic Manipulation, and Moral Conversion." Midwest Studies in Philosophy 2010: 52-76. Web.
McKenna, David. "IMDb Top 50 - #36 American History X." 24 May 2012. Internet Movie Database. Web. 28 November 2012.
Promajority. "A Description and Analysis of the Film American History X." Freedom - Site Controversial Columnists (2001). Web.
Svetkey, Benjamin. "X Marks The Spat." Entertainment Weekly (1998): 1-5. Web.
Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Perf. Hermann Goring Adolph Hitler. 1935. Web.