American History X, Cinematic Manipulation, and Moral Conversion

Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34 (1):52-76 (2010)
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American History X (hereafter AHX) has been accused by numerous critics of a morally dangerous cinematic seduction: using stylish cinematography, editing, and sound, the film manipulates the viewer through glamorizing an immoral and hate-filled neo-nazi protagonist. In addition, there’s the disturbing fact that the film seems to accomplish this manipulation through methods commonly grouped under the category of “fascist aesthetics.” More specifically, AHX promotes its neo-nazi hero through the use of several filmic techniques made famous by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Now most critics admit that, in the end, the film claims to denounce racism and attempts to show us the conversion of the protagonist to the path of righteousness, but they complain that nonetheless the film (perhaps unintentionally) ends up implicitly promoting the immoral worldview it rather superficially professes to reject in its final act. This charge of hypocrisy is connected to another worry: the moral conversion in the film is said to fall flat because the intellectual resources on display to support the character’s racism are not counterbalanced by equally explicit (but superior) arguments for the anti-racist position ultimately embraced by the character. In other words, just as the devil is said to get all the good lines in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in AHX the racists get all the arguments. This has been taken to be a morally problematic flaw of the film. Critics lament that Derek’s conversion seems to result not from relevant logical inferences and valid rational argumentation but from overly simplistic and arguably egoistic insights (e.g., “has anything you've done made your life better?”) combined, perhaps, with a hackneyed cliché (in prison, one of his best friends is a black person!) In this paper I’ll attempt to rebut these charges and defend the film as a powerful, and powerfully moral, work of art. I’ll be suggesting that the seductive techniques employed allow for many viewers a degree of sympathy towards the protagonist that is crucial, both for making that character’s more horrific actions especially unsettling, and also for making his eventual conversion plausible and ultimately compelling. I’ll also argue that the manner in which his conversion is presented is in fact subtler than many critics have allowed: Derek’s transformation is not artificial or implausible but is depicted as resulting from a cumulative series of emotionally powerful life events and personal engagements. It is certainly true that it is not represented in the way some would seemingly have preferred, i.e. as straightforwardly resulting from a process of gradual intellectual improvement in Derek’s reasoning on questions of race and politics. However, I’ll argue that the decidedly emotional basis of his moral evolution is both refreshingly realistic and no hindrance to accepting his conversion as rational. Finally, properly understanding the legitimacy of the emotional foundations of much moral thought will also allow us to appreciate the ways in which our initial worries about this film’s (not insignificant) ability to persuade viewers through the engagement of emotions need not, in itself, be seen as a barrier to endorsing the film as a morally praiseworthy work.

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Christopher Grau
Clemson University


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