This is the 2nd time I am calling up this excellent 1998 film about Neo-Nazism. With the events at Charleston and the encouragement rendered by the White House to members of the KKK, Neo-Nazi, and white nationalist movements, the film remains as relevant as ever! Thanks to the flashbacks to the family past of two white brothers we gain a measure of understanding of how blue collar families can become enmeshed in such dark movements.
Since the murder of the 9 black church members in Charleston, many have questioned how the killer could have done such a terrible deed and what his home life must have been like. Thus I am reprinting a review of the 1998 film about two brothers who espouse views similar to Roof’s when they become involved in a Neo-Nazi group.
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.
Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Director Tony Kaye directs David McKenna’s excellent script that explores the world of neo-Nazis and its impact on an American family. The film moves beyond the merely liberal view, in which the characters are often caricatures, to show us human beings caught up in circumstances in which racism seems to make sense. Danny Vineyard (Edward Furlong) has idolized his older brother Derek and longs for the day when he will be released from prison. Before his imprisonment Derek (Edward Norton) had been recruited by the sinister organizer Cameron Alexander (Stacy Ketch) to head up a local group of skinheads. Their mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo) prays for him, and his girl friend Stacey (Fairuza Balk) eagerly waits to resume their romance. Derek is in prison for brutally killing a young black man who had tried to vandalize or steal his car late one night. Danny had witnessed the killing with a mixture of horror and admiration. Derek, enraged and holding a gun on the attacker, had stomped him to death while he was lying helpless on the sidewalk. At his own request none of the family had seen Derek since his imprisonment.
On the day Derek is to be released from prison Danny is called to the office of principal Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) because he has turned in a book report praising Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Sweeney had worked with Danny’s brother and was concerned that Danny was headed toward a similar fate. He insists that Danny write a new report right away, one that explains how his brother came to his racist views that led to his hate crime. It is from this perspective, the new name of the report giving the film its title, that the rest of the film unfolds.
Unknown to Danny and the skinheads Derek has undergone a transformation in prison. With more time to think, Derek rebuffs the attempts of other imprisoned skinheads to include him in their group. They vent their wrath on him by beating and gang raping him in the showers, but he still refuses. His only relationship is with Lamont (Guy Tory), his workmate in the laundry, who shows him the procedures. Ironically, Lamont is black. His friendliness and humor gradually melts Derek’s reserve, eventually undermining his long-held racist stereotypical views. How his family and skinhead friends react to the new Derek makes for fascinating viewing. Derek dedicates himself wholeheartedly to the winning of his brother’s soul, a struggle in which his former mentor Cameron is more than willing to use any means necessary to keep Danny within his fold.
Moment of grace: At his release Derek seeks out Lamont. After his first beating he had expected further attacks, if not from the skinheads then from the blacks who hated all Neo-Nazis. But none came. He finally realized that it must be due to his friend that he had enjoyed years of relative peace. He thanks him, realizing what a great debt he owes the gentle, joking friend.
Insightful moment: The brothers remember a family meal when their father was complaining about matters at the Fire Department where he worked. Blacks were not only being hired, but were being promoted to positions of authority. Their father derides affirmative action, claiming that inferior blacks are crowding out better-qualified whites. Derek comes to realize that Cameron was not the source of his racism, merely the exploiter. The poison of racism begins in one’s own family.
For more material on this fine film see my WJK book PRAYING THE MOVIES: Daily Meditations from Classic Films, which has a meditation with reflection/discussion questions based on a prison scene.