American History X, Cinematic Manipulation, and Moral Conversion Christopher Grau
For Volume XXXIV of Midwest Studies in Philosophy: Film & Emotions
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...