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Does the representation of race hate crimes, in films, namely American History X, actually reflect the reality of the crime issue

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Media representations of issues, particularly those which are crime orientated, affect the way in which we think and act in response to such issues. Before beginning to examine the way in which the media work and also the degree to which their representations of knowledge affect society, it is important to understand what the media is exactly and its function in society today. Knowledge mediated by a medium could be in the form of television, film, print, radio and more. Altheide (1985) describes the media as “any , process, technique or technology that produces something visible from something invisible, providing a means to visualise, identify and locate meaning. Although media rely on symbols for communications, they also do something more: media arrange, define and communicate meaning”(cited in Ericson 1995:287).

The media, whether it be the press, television, radio or films, report a variety of issues in a variety of ways. Young (1996), states that the media is a means through which issues, for example those specifically related to notions of racial difference, are mediated and articulated. In 2000, approximately 6500 press clippings from the CRE’s Cuttings service touched on the subject of race relations. Out of these, 20% related to immigration and asylum stories and 25% covered issues around crime, policing and follow up to the findings of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report. (ENAR Shadow Report website).

For the purpose of this assignment I will be concentrating on the way in which crime issues are presented in the film/cinema area of the media, namely the representation of racially motivated/race hate crimes in the film American History X.

We are currently living in an era, in which racial and cultural differences are perhaps greater and more significant than ever before. Society not only in Britain, but worldwide is becoming ever-more multi cultural in a variety of ways. Yet at the same time, the problems which arise from this change in dynamics are also growing in frequency and seriousness. The events of September 11th show only one aspect of the antagonism between groups of people with different beliefs, ideas, and of course cultures.

In order to evaluate the representation of race hate crimes in my chosen film, and come to a conclusion regarding the reality of this representation, or misrepresentation, it is important to consider the reality of the issue. According to the ENAR Shadow Report ‘Racism in the UK’, the number of racially motivated crimes that police pass on to the Crown Prosecution Service went up by 20% last year. In the London borough of Eltham, where black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered, there have been 16 serious racially motivated attacks in the past nine months.

There have also been serious riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley as mobs of young Asians took to the streets. These riots had been to some extent initiated by extreme right political groups stirring up racial tensions in these towns and by the failure of the police to protect Asian communities from this racist violence.

The report also highlights various violent racist attacks which have occurred in the last couple of years, including the murder of a young asylum seeker in Scotland in 2001, the stabbing of Stephen Lawrence by a gang of white racist youths in 1993 and also numerous attacks on mosques, with racist graffiti daubed on the walls, and threats sent to Muslim schools and mosques in the aftermath of September 11th.

The 2002 Criminal Justice Matters publication on ‘Hate Crimes’ refers to the 1999 Macpherson Report which followed the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, which according to Ray and Smith “brought the concept of hate crime as a way of understanding racist violence into prominence in the media and political debate.” (CJM 2002:6)

Hate crime is also increasingly defined as a ‘stranger’ crime, although many incidents do take place in neighbourhoods and communities, where the victim knows the offenders.

My aim is to examine these facts in relation to the representation of this same issue, but in films. Young (1996) explains that when examining the representation of an issue in the media, it is important to look at the four possible dimensions to which the representation could fit; truthful, positive, distorted or negative. What makes this topic particularly interesting is that the desire for ‘authentic’ representations which depict life ‘as it really is’ is strong and it is a desire encouraged according to Young, by the continued use of realism with the purpose of being a ‘window on the world’.

The Film

New Line Cinema’s ‘American History X’, written by David McKenna and directed by Tony Kaye, was released in New York and Los Angeles in October 1998 before going wider. Edward Norton plays a menacing neo-Nazi skinhead (Derek), his chest covered with a huge swastika tattoo, who rages for retribution over the murder of his father and despairs over the America of his childhood that he sees slipping away due to increased numbers of coloured people. Past events appear in black and white as flashbacks, but this also represents the way in which Derek’s beliefs only allow him see things as matters of either black or white.

The film presents a circular journey that ends with Derek’s redemption. The storyline unfolds through the eyes of Danny Vineyard, played by Edward Furlong, who idolizes his older brother, Derek. They both come under the influence of a middle aged neo-Nazi, who befriends white youths living in Venice Beach. Derek joined the skinhead gang, after the murder of his father by a black man. He became consumed by pain, grief and anger, and later violently murders three blacks trying to steal his car. He is sent to prison, and faces more problems relating to his far right beliefs. However, he becomes friendly with a black inmate and undergoes a transformation, later leaving prison a changed man, forced to rescue his young brother from a similar fate.

The powerful and moving story line creates messages concerning racial harmonisation alongside the problems of racial hatred, however, the representation of certain events in the film are particularly graphic and not necessarily realistic.

In order to analyse the representation of racially motivated crimes in the film it is important to consider all aspects of the depiction. This includes the way in which characters are portrayed; their personalities and physical appearance, images of the victims and perpetrators, the features of the offences which occur, apparent motives and triggers for such incidents and the way in which the writer creates and communicates a message for the viewers.

Representation of Important Characters

Cameron Alexander, played by Stacey Keach is the middle aged mastermind, quite often used in films; he’s behind the far right gang of youths in Venice Beach and represents the leader of the group, who co-ordinates various offences, although he himself is never actually involved in the executing of the crimes.

Derek is Cameron’s protigee at the start of the film; the model neo-Nazi American, idolised by gang members, feared by gang rivals. Played by Edward Norton, he has the customary skinhead, a well built, muscular physique and a body covered with swastika and white power emblems as tattoos. He represents the stereotypical image of the neo-Nazi American male.

Danny is portrayed as an obviously intelligent, caring young boy, to whom his family is important. Yet he is somewhat misguided in his ways; a mixture of trying to impress and follow in the footsteps of his older brother, but also is under the influence of the ringleader Cameron Alexander.

The other neo-Nazi men with whom Derek was friendly with at the start of the film, are made up mostly by skinhead, well built white males, but also Seth, an obese joker type character. The neo-Nazi prison inmates are all played by the stereotypical model; extremely muscular, tattooed skinheads.

Features of the offences and incidents

Within the opening scenes, we see the murder of three black men who have attempted to break into Derek’s car. Derek shows no mercy as he violently shoots all three. This scene is shown in black and white, as a flash back in time, with the sound of choir music as he strides back towards his house in slow motion, swastika emblazoned bare-chest on show. According to Bailey and Hale (1998) classical or religious music accompanies scenes of violence easily and rivets the viewer’s attention to the violence taking place.

“Violence is transformed into the profound. Violence becomes fascinating, not only viscerally, but intellectually.”(1998:52) It is not until later on in the film that we are shown what happened after this point; this scene is also filmed as a flashback, in the memory of Danny, Derek’s younger brother. Derek returns to one of the wounded black men, orders him to bite onto the curb near to which he was lying, screams “You monkeys never get the message!” and then viciously stamps on his head. We are then shown the horrified look of disbelief on Danny’s face as he drops to the ground having seen his brother murder three men. Sirens and police cars come into view as Derek calmly drops his weapon and puts his hands up.

Accompanied once again by choir music, we see the powerful image of Derek with his hands on his head, muscles rippling in the moonlight, grinning and laughing. It is important to point out that the two black men who attempted to steal Derek’s car, had actually earlier been involved in an altercation with some of the skinheads on a basketball court; the victims and offender were not strangers.

We also see racially motivated violence on a less intense scale, between younger boys at school; three black boys kicking and punching a white boy in the school toilets. Danny emerges from a cubicle, cigarette in mouth, and is confronted by the black youths, to which his reply comes in the form of calmly blowing smoke into their faces. This shows the involvement of high school children in the ongoing battle between black and white and is important for later parts of the film.

Derek delivers a powerful speech to the gang of neo-Nazi skinheads who follow him, before a raid on a Korean owned grocery store. His final comment before they all put on balaclavas; “This isn’t our f***ing neighbourhood, it’s a battlefield tonight”. The mob of about 20 well built White-Protestant American men ambush the store, assaulting anyone in their path. They torture one black female employee as they lay her on the checkout, pouring oil and chilli sauce down her throat and pouring milk on her face to cover the true colour of her skin. They sabotage most produce in the store and assault everybody working there; all because the owner is Korean and employs coloured workers.

Having naturally befriended all the other neo-Nazi inmates whilst in prison, Derek becomes unhappy by the way in which certain skinheads trade drugs with black and Mexican inmates. As a result of this, Derek is followed into the showers, and held down by 5 of the skinheads as his is violently raped and assaulted. Although this was quite clearly a white on white attack, the roots were once again along racial lines, and this attack symbolises a real turning point in the film. Danny’s current and Derek’s past headmaster ‘Sweeny’ visits him in prison where he tells Derek that “Anger is shutting down the brain G-d gave you”, Derek admits his confusion concerning his far right beliefs and acknowledges the holes in his arguments. Sweeny asks if anything he’s ever done has changed his life for the better, Derek replies no and begins to cry and ask for help.

Although the last part of the film isn’t the most violent, it is certainly the most heart-breaking and emotive. Derek has cut his losses with his former skinhead gang members. He is a reformed man back to look after his family. Danny has listened to his brother and he too is making a fresh start. Everything is looking up for the Vineyard family. Danny is escorted to school by Derek; he walks into the toilet and as he turns around, faces the black boy who he had blown smoke at. In a split second Danny is shot, blood stained all over the urinal in which he is slumped, and sprayed on the face of the black boy holding the gun. We see the pain on the faces of Sweeny, Danny’s girlfriend and of course Derek, as he cradles his little brother in his arms; certainly a powerful ending to a powerful film.

Victims and Perpetrators

There is no clear cut distinction to be made between the victims and perpetrators in the film; it is rather a constant battle between black and white. It is also important to mention that victims come not only from physical attacks but also verbal abuse, like that suffered by the Jewish teacher with whom Derek’s mother was friendly. He was called a “shylock nosed kite” and much more by Derek.

Derek can be seen as both a victim and perpetrator. He is the main man in the skinhead gang, yet he sees the error of his ways and undergoes a transformation. However he becomes the victim on a physical scale, of assault and rape, but also loses his little brother as a result of racist rivalry. Danny’s murder ultimately presents the message communicated by the film, as after a series of incidents, all with racism as their root, both sides lose out.

Too often, they say, filmmakers fall back on stereotypes to depict perpetrators of hate crimes; stereotypes that audiences often have difficulty identifying with. “I think when we associate hate crimes with neo-Nazis, skinheads and real Nazis, we put our concept of these perpetrators far away and we can say, ‘They’re nobody I know,’ but I think that is a disservice,” said Lester Olmstead-Rose, executive director of Community United Against Violence in SanFransisco (Los Angeles Times, Geocities website). Todd Boyd, a professor at the USC School of Cinema and Television, agreed with this; “I think in the past, when Hollywood has attempted to deal with these sorts of issues, often it sensationalized it to an extreme that made it easily dismissible, it seems so far outside the mainstream of American life that individuals look at these films and say, ‘That hasn’t happened or will not happen where I live.’ ”

Motives and Triggers

The scariest and most convincing scenes are the ones in which we see the skinheads bonding. They’re led by Derek’s brilliant speechmaking and fuelled by drugs, beer, tattoos, heavy metal and the need all insecure people feel to belong to a movement greater than themselves. It is assumed in their world (the beaches and playgrounds of the Venice area of L.A.) that all races stick together and are at undeclared war with all others. Indeed the race hatred of the skinheads is mirrored (with different words and haircuts) by the other local ethnic groups. Hostile tribalism is an epidemic here.

Derek is still consumed by the pain and anger of his father’s death. This is perhaps the main reason for his hostility towards black and Asian people, together with the common white pride stance and other racist views which were passed onto him from his father, who thought that “black people get it too easy, there’s too much affirmative black action, its just nigger bullshit”. It is therefore easy to imagine how two black men breaking into his fathers van could be the tip of the iceberg for Derek. Nevertheless, rivalry between the black and white men continues throughout the film, in Prison as well as around Venice Beach.

The skinheads are living in the America they used to know; the grocery store which they sabotage was previously owned by a local and employed the local white boys. It then became taken over by a Korean man who employed, blacks, Mexicans and Asians; for them, this easily justified the damage of the store, and the cruel assaults on the employees.

The film creates a message for the audience in a very clever way. The constant contention between the black and white men, and the powerful images of the extent of the racist propaganda used by the skinheads, is positively shocking. One message obviously relates to the change which Derek undergoes whilst in prison. It shows that even the most involved and believing man can change and in a way unlearn the propaganda and rhetoric by which he had lived for so many years. Production President Michael De Luca said too often in films, racism is dealt with as a “reactionary thing–violence between the races seems to be discussed in terms of, ‘He did this to me,’ or ‘They did this to me, so I’ll do that to them.’ What I liked about the script is, I don’t think that’s the discussion. The discussion is, ‘My father taught me this, so I’ll teach this to my son.’ “What this film says is what is learned and passed down in your family can get unlearned,” De Luca added. (Los Angeles Times, Geocities website)

But we also see that in the end, perhaps Danny is the main victim. He became involved in neo-Nazi group in order to impress his brother- he was kind hearted and simply misguided in his views, yet he was killed as a result of an ongoing battle between two different cultures.

Having examined the representation of race hate crimes in the film, it is necessary to compare it to the reality of the issue. Far Right groups with particular racist attitudes do still exist in Britain today, although they may not be as blatant as those shown in the film. Having watched an episode of both Panorama and Dispatches which both concentrated on the issue of far right groups and the British National Party (BNP) in Britain today, it is quite frightening to realise the amount of people who not only hold outright racist views, but who also seem to condone the work of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s.

The Dispatches programme which was aired in November 2002 on channel 4, shadowed Mark Collit, the leader of the young BNP. His ideas centred around putting white, British people first, before Asians and black people, who according to one BNP voter are “sly and devious and will bend stuff to suit themselves”.

In 2002, 68 BNP candidates stood throughout England. This was a particularly significant step for the party who also won 3 seats in Burnley, where the candidates were campaigning for an ‘all white Britain.’ The reporter who shadowed Mark Collit described a whole other side which he saw of Mark; He praised Hitler’s Nazi Germany, he would choose the BNP over any relationship, and his dream is to meet Johnny ‘Mad dog’ Addair (Belfast’s leading loyalist paramilitary, convicted for directing terrorism).

Whilst watching this episode of Dispatches, I saw striking resemblances between Mark Collit and the character played by Edward Norton, earlier on in American History X. Their shared inspiration from National Socialism in 1930s Germany, and the clusters of white gangs which would form around them and fight alongside them. However, it should be noted that, the differences are that the way in which these two people went about such work was somewhat dissimilar. In the film there are unnerving scenes of racial violence: of black youths kicking a helpless white student in a high school restroom; of a Korean-owned grocery store terrorized by skinhead thugs; of an African American whose skull is split open by a skinhead who orders him to bite down on a curb, before he stamps on his head.

Mark Collits bears no resemblance to violence like this. It is apparent from these programmes that he harbours extremely far right and quite racist views, however they are in some ways made respectable by his status as a politician, whereas Derek Vineyard, intelligent as he was, was still simply a skinhead thug on the streets of America organising violent crimes against innocent Asian and Black people, on the basis of their skin colour. His actions were unconcealed, barefaced and he was unashamed. This is particularly evident as he rips his shirt off on numerous occasions to reveal the large black swastika tattoo across his chest.

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