The film tells the story of two brothers from Venice, Los Angeles who become involved in the neo-Nazi movement. The older brother serves three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, changes his beliefs and tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path. The film is told in the style of nonlinear narrative. Made on a budget of $20 million, the film grossed $24 million at the worldwide box office.
Critics mostly praised the film and Norton's performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In September 2008, Empire magazine named it the 311th Greatest Movie of All Time.
High school student Danny Vinyard receives an assignment from his history teacher Mr. Murray to write a paper on "any book which relates to the struggle for human rights." Knowing Murray is Jewish, Danny writes his paper on Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Murray attempts to get Danny expelled for doing this, but Principal Dr. Bob Sweeney refuses, instead informing Danny that he will study history and current events under Sweeney, and that the class will be called "American History X." Danny's first assignment is to prepare a paper on his brother Derek, a former neo-Nazi leader.
A few years earlier, Danny and Derek's father Dennis Vinyard was murdered by black drug dealers after being sent on a call to fight a fire in a drug den. In a television interview conducted after Dennis's death, Derek erupts in a long racist tirade. Shortly thereafter, Cameron Alexander and Derek form a white supremacist gang called the Disciples of Christ. As a skilled basketball player, Derek is reluctantly dragged into a 3-on-3 game against several members of the Crips in which the prize is control of the recreation center basketball courts. After winning with his friends, Derek leads a large gang of skinheads to attack a supermarket owned by a Korean that included African-American and Latino workers. Derek's mother Doris invites Murray, whom she is dating, home for dinner, which turns into a full-blown argument between Derek and Murray, causing them to leave. That night, as Danny hears people attempting to steal Dennis' truck, Derek shoots and kills one of the thieves and curb stomps another, before being arrested. He is sentenced to three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
Derek is given a job in the prison laundry and assigned to be the partner of Lamont, a black man who is serving six years for assaulting a police officer. The pair later develop a rapport over their shared love of basketball. Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood, but after about a year, he becomes disillusioned because some members have ties to other prison gangs who are of different ethnicities. As punishment, he is beaten and sodomized in the shower by the Aryan Brotherhood members; Derek recovers and is visited by Sweeney, whom he asks for help to be paroled. Sweeney informs him of Danny's involvement with neo-Nazis, and warns that he is on the same path as Derek. Derek further distances himself from the Aryan Brotherhood and spends the remainder of his time in prison alone, reading books that Sweeney sends him. Finally realizing the error of his ways, Derek leaves prison a changed man. Upon arriving home, he finds that Danny has a D.O.C. tattoo and tries to persuade him to leave the gang. They subsequently go to a neo-Nazi party, where Derek tells Cameron that he and Danny will no longer associate with the movement; this causes Cameron, Derek's girlfriend, and all the other neo-Nazis to turn on him. After leaving the party, Derek tells Danny about his experience in prison, which seems to prompt a change in Danny.
The next morning, Danny finishes his paper, which reflects on why he had adopted Nazi values and why they were deeply flawed. Derek walks Danny to school, and on their way they stop at a diner. Sweeney and a police officer tell Derek that his friend Seth and Cameron were attacked the previous night. At school, Danny is ambushed and killed in the bathroom by a young black student named Little Henry. Derek arrives at the school and mourns for Danny. In a voice over, Danny reads the final lines of his paper for Dr. Sweeney, stating, "Hate is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it," and then quoting the final stanza of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address.
Shooting took place in Los Angeles, California. With some suggestions from New Line, director Tony Kaye made a second heavily shortened cut, which New Line rejected as it bore little resemblance to the first. Film editor Jerry Greenberg was brought in to cut a third version with Edward Norton.
Kaye disowned the third version as the final cut of the film, as he did not approve of its quality. He tried and failed to have his name removed from the credits, openly telling some interviewers he tried to invoke the Alan Smithee pseudonym which the Directors Guild of America used to reserve for such cases. When his request was denied, Kaye tried "Humpty Dumpty" as an alternative name.
Joaquin Phoenix was offered the role of Derek Vinyard but turned it down.
All music composed by Anne Dudley.
American History X was released on October 30, 1998 and grossed $156,076 in seventeen theaters during its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $6,719,864 from 513 theaters in the United States, and a total of $23,875,127 worldwide.
The film received positive reviews upon release with many critics directing particular praise towards Edward Norton's performance. Based on the reviews of 82 critics collected on Rotten Tomatoes, 83% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7.3/10; the website's consensus reads: "A compelling and provocative story led by an excellent performance by Edward Norton." By comparison, on Metacritic, the film holds a 62/100 average rating based on 32 reviews of top mainstream critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, awarding American History X four stars out of four, described it as "a shockingly powerful screed against racism that also manages to be so well performed and directed that it is entertaining as well" and stated that it was "also effective at demonstrating how hate is taught from one generation to another." Siskel singled out Norton's performance and called him "the immediate front-runner" for an Oscar. Todd McCarthy, writing for Variety, gave the film a positive review stating, "This jolting, superbly acted film will draw serious-minded upscale viewers interested in cutting-edge fare." He gave special praise to Norton's performance, saying "His Derek mesmerizes even as he repels, and the actor fully exposes the human being behind the tough poses and attitudinizing." The New York Times's Janet Maslin wrote, "Though its story elements are all too easily reduced to a simple outline, American History X has enough fiery acting and provocative bombast to make its impact felt. For one thing, its willingness to take on ugly political realities gives it a substantial raison d'être. For another, it has been directed with a mixture of handsome photo-realism and visceral punch." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of four, stating that it was "always interesting and sometimes compelling, and it contains more actual provocative thought than any American film on race since Do the Right Thing." He was critical though of the film's underdeveloped areas, stating that "the movie never convincingly charts Derek's path to race hatred" and noting that "in trying to resolve the events of four years in one day, it leaves its shortcuts showing". Nevertheless, Ebert concluded, "This is a good and powerful film. If I am dissatisfied, it is because it contains the promise of being more than it is."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle expressed disappointment at the film, though he did praise Norton's performance as Derek, commenting that he "is perfect for the role". LaSalle felt that while the film succeeded in portraying Derek's descent into neo-Nazism, it failed to portray his renouncement of his past beliefs: "We had to watch him think his way in. We should see him think his way out." LaSalle also noted other problems: "In some places the dialogue is surprisingly stilted. Far worse, the ending is a misfire." Stephen Hunter, writing for The Washington Post, was highly critical of the film and gave it a negative review. He called it "a mousy little nothing of a picture, an old melodramatic formula hidden under pretentious TV-commercial-slick photography, postmodernist narrative stylings and violations of various laws of probability."
Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Derek Vinyard, but lost to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful.
Norton's performance was ranked by Total Film as the 72nd greatest film performance of all time. Norton's Academy Award loss was also included on Empire list of "22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices".
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film was released on VHS by New Line Home Entertainment on August 24, 1999. The film was later released on DVD in both 2002 and 2008 and on Blu-ray on April 7, 2009.