American History X has always been about more than the grand surface themes it depicts. While this isn’t to say the film gets the themes of gang warfare, racism, Nazism, and prison survival wrong, the film, to me, is chiefly about boys seeking approval from their fathers.
It’s about family legacy, and how, when mixed with assumption, honor and approval, proves to be toxic. Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) wants nothing more than to please his dad (who, in flashbacks, is revealed to be a pleasant family man, dedicated firefighter, and ardent racist). When his dad dies, Derek honors his memory by heightening his father’s rhetoric, because, in Derek’s eyes, that may have been what daddy secretly wanted. When Derek is sent to prison, his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) attempts to continue the family legacy for Derek (who is a father figure to Danny in many ways). It’s a vicious cycle of young, underdeveloped, angry men attempting to be what they assume others want them to be.
This is all best realized in the brief yet telling scene in which we meet Derek for the first time in the present. After serving three years in Chino for killing two black men, Derek returns home a changed and cautious man. While he was away, Danny, I assume, worked to keep the Vinyard name in tact with the Disciples of Christ (aka DOC, the fictional neo-Nazi gang that Derek soldiered). Danny stood proudly in the shadow of his brother and, once reunited, hopes to gain Derek’s approval.
But prison changed Derek. Through torture, guidance and acceptance, Derek has been reformed. So it breaks his heart (and, intentionally, the audience’s as well) when he takes a good look at Danny and notices a mirror reflection – the shaved head, the white entitlement, the overall elitist attitude. Danny has done everything he can to become his older brother, much to Derek’s dismay.
The scene in question takes place when Danny arrives home from school the day Derek has been released from prison. The two meet in the living room of their tiny home, hug sheepishly, separate, and share a moment of terror and confusion. Watch the way Norton gently pats the top of Furlong’s head, looking at it in disappointment and horror. The way he swallows nervously, shifting that enormous Adam’s apple of his. Danny proudly shows Derek his forearm (which director Tony Kaye ingeniously frames from below, showing only Norton’s stunned face, Furlong’s pale arm, and the claustrophobic ceiling incasing them both), revealing Danny’s DOC tattoo. Derek disapprovingly asks where Danny got the mark, and Furlong’s reaction, in which he silently expresses, “I thought you’d be proud…” fucking kills me.
The way in which Derek asks where Danny got the tattoo is not unlike any older brother criticizing his young sibling for getting a tattoo prematurely. But this is no ordinary tattoo. It’s a stamp of hatred that changes everything. For Derek, it seals the notion that he needs to reverse the cycle of racism that has plagued his family. Now, at any cost. For Derek, his brother’s reaction conveys, for the first time, that this is not what was meant to be.
Though, perhaps, they both realized it too late.