Movies Which Explore the Reality of White Supremacy

American History X Edward Norton

The tragic and horrific events which came about during a white supremacy rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia were a sad reminder of how hate can ever so easily take over the weak-minded. But moreover, it has shown how the power of white supremacists has grown over the years. While the current Presidential administration has allowed this movement, whether they admit or not, to gain strength, this network of racism has been growing for far longer than most people realize. While politicians continue to exploit our fears of international terrorists, it should be clear by now that domestic terrorism is an even bigger threat than what we are dealing with overseas. The question is, can we get more Americans to realize this sooner rather than later?

For years, we believed the white supremacy movement was one which was dying a much-needed death, but this is not the case. It got me to thinking of movies released over the years which dealt with this particular form of racism head on. While many saw Neo-Nazis and Anti-Semites as mere fringe groups on their way out, the filmmakers here saw them as still powerful as their leaders were skillful in gaining new recruits and keeping them on board even if they wanted out.

Higher Learning movie poster

Higher Learning

This was John Singleton’s third film following his Oscar-nominated “Boyz n the Hood” and “Poetic Justice,” and it takes place at the fictional college of Columbus University where people from different walks of life and races are forced to deal with one another in different ways. One particular subplot has a freshman named Remy (played by Michael Rappaport) having trouble fitting into his new environment. One night, while sitting alone on campus, he is approached by Scott Moss (Cole Hauser), a white supremacist who invites him to hang out with his friends for a drink. From there, Remy finds a sense of belonging he initially had trouble finding, but the other skinheads begin to wonder if he is all talk and no action, and this leads to a devastating climax which has him committing an act of violence he will never be able to take back.

When “Higher Learning” was released back in 1995, many critics did not take the white supremacy storyline all that seriously, thinking it was dated or dealing with something which no longer seemed like much of a threat. But watching this movie now in 2017, the actions of Scott Moss and Remy feel more real and scarier than ever before. Scott senses Remy is capable of violence from their first meeting, and he exploits this knowledge at every given opportunity. The last time we see Scott in the movie, right after Remy has shot at people with a high-powered rifle, he stares at the camera and smiles in a way which is truly chilling. Looking back, I think Scott saw this as the start of a new wave of white supremacy power, and the realization unnerves me to where I can’t get this movie out of my head.

American History X poster

American History X

Tony Kaye’s powerful 1998 film is impossible to forget about once you have seen it. Edward Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, a young man who becomes a member of the white supremacist gang called the Disciples of Christ following the murder of his firefighter father who was killed by black drug dealers. “American History X” follows Derek as he grows in power as a Neo-Nazi, goes to prison after he kills thieves trying to steal his truck, the abuses he suffers while in prison which make him rethink his racist philosophies, and his efforts to keep his brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following this same misguided path.

“American History X” is a fascinating study in how someone becomes enamored with a racist movement which he later seeks to abandon upon realizing the cost is greater than his soul can bear. Norton has given many great performances, but this is one of his best as he convincingly takes Derek from being a hateful individual to one who is compassionate and eager to escape the racist realm he has ensnared himself and his brother in. Furlong is equally effective as Danny, a young boy eager to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but who is dissuaded by him to follow such a path. Danny’s last lines in the movie, as he recites the final part of a paper he has written for school, ring true: “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”

The Believer movie poster

The Believer

This 2001 film was written and directed by Henry Bean, a Conservative Jew from Philadelphia who was the screenwriter behind “Internal Fears,” “Deep Cover,” and, yes, “Basic Instinct 2.” It stars Ryan Gosling, in what proved to be his breakout performance, as Daniel Balint, a brilliant but troubled Jewish yeshiva student who becomes a fanatically violent Neo-Nazi in New York. The story is based on the true-life story of Dan Burros, a member of the American Nazi Party and the New York branch of the United Klans of America who committed suicide after a New York Times reporter revealed he was Jewish.

What’s particularly fascinating about “The Believer” is how its main character of Daniel is so deeply conflicted over his own identity. He presents himself as a Neo-Nazi skinhead capable of vicious violence, but he cannot escape the fact he is Jewish and is still respectful of this religion’s history. When Daniel and a group of skinheads vandalize a synagogue, they trample on a copy of the Torah which he later takes home and carefully repairs. Like “American History X,” “The Believer” shows how someone can be easily swept up into a realm of hate, but we also come to see how Daniel believes hate is the Jews chief defense against utter annihilation.

Imperium poster

Imperium

One of the more recent movies on this list, it stars Daniel Radcliffe as Nate Foster, an FBI agent who is recruited by Angela Zamparo (the infinitely cool Toni Collette) to infiltrate a white supremacist group. Nate is eager to prove to himself and others he can be an excellent undercover agent, but as he gets deeper into his role as a Neo-Nazi, he becomes unsure if he can escape it in one piece.

In some ways, “Imperium” is a routine undercover cop movie as the protagonist goes through the conflicts of becoming someone he is not outside of work, but it also shows how much of a threat white supremacy has become in America. There’s a montage near the beginning which shows images of racial hatred in America and of Neo-Nazi groups coming together, and it gets to where you cannot dismiss white supremacists as being a part of a mere fringe group. Seeing those images makes this movie worth the price of admission as they show much of a threat they are against the values this country was founded upon.

This is England movie poster

This is England

Of all the movies on this list, it is the only one which doesn’t take place in America. “This is England” was written and directed by Shane Meadows who himself was involved in white supremacy groups as a kid. The movie takes place in 1983 and follows 12-year-old Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose) as he gets picked on by bullies at school, and we learn his father was killed in the Falklands War. One day, he comes across a gang of skinheads led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) who sympathize with his struggles and invite him to join their group. From there, Shaun finds himself a part of a family which gives him a sense of belonging and a rise in his own self-esteem. But then Andrew “Combo” Gascoigne (Stephen Graham) returns to this group after serving a prison sentence, and he proves to be a charismatic personality as well as a sociopath. Andrew’s eagerness to take leadership over the group causes many of its members to jump ship, but Shane stays on as he is too much a part of this family to simply abandon it.

“This is England” takes an incisive look at how this skinhead subculture had its roots in the 1960’s West Indies culture and later became adopted by white supremacists. This movie shows this leading to a division amongst skinheads, and of the ways they could attract new members to their movement. It received tremendous critical praise upon its release in 2006, and it inspired a spin-off television series which took place three years later.

Seeing the disgusting rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its aftermath reminded me of an episode of “Law & Order” entitled “Charm City” in which Detectives Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) investigate the murders of several subway riders who were killed by a poisonous gas bomb set off on a train. Eventually, they find and arrest Brian Egan (Kevin Greer), a white supremacist who is later convicted for the crime. Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) informs Brian, “You’re a racist and a murderer, and you just found out your country won’t tolerate it.” To this, Brian says the following:

“You mean your country won’t. Mine is growing. You think you can stop it? You can’t stop anything.”

This “Law & Order” episode aired back in 1996, but these lines of dialogue now seem more chilling than ever before.

The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator poster

It’s very tempting to call this movie “Breaking Bad” meets “Donnie Brasco” especially with Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston starring in it. “The Infiltrator” is about a U.S. Customs Service special agent, Robert Mazur, who goes, as Eddie Murphy put it in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “deep, deep, deep, deep undercover” to infiltrate one of the world’s largest drug cartels. But more importantly, getting inside this particular drug cartel leads him to the money laundering operation run by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was once called “the king of cocaine.” Yes, this movie is “based on a true story,” but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

“The Infiltrator” takes us back to the year 1985 when the internet didn’t exist, “Miami Vice” was on the air and the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was the subject of every other commercial we watched on television. Mazur has just come off a mission where he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, but he’s invited to participate in one more mission before retiring for good. Of course, we all know that the last mission will always be the most dangerous one that will test him more than ever before, and we do get the obligatory scene of the hero washing his face and staring at himself in the mirror as he silently questions himself. Also complicating issues is the fact that Mazur has his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids waiting for him back at home, and his wife can take only so much more of her husband’s work as every time he walks out the door might be the last time she sees him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Donnie Brasco” as I watched “The Infiltrator” as both films deal with undercover officers with families of their own who get so deep into their work that they cannot help but feel for the criminals they are trying to take down as they get too close to them in the process. This movie never comes across as the kind of undercover movie we haven’t seen a number of times before, but director Brad Furman still manages to keep the intensity strong and tight as Mazur and his colleagues face life or death situations more often than not.

Furman has previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney of many Michael Connelly novels, Mickey Haller. Now that movie managed to be a very entertaining legal thriller while bringing nothing new to genre, and Furman does the same thing here with “The Infiltrator.” There are scenes which remind us of many other movies we have seen before, but Furman manages to tweak those familiar situations to where we are forced to expect the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen everything an undercover movie has to offer, along comes this one which really fries your nerves at certain moments.

It also helps that Furman has quite the cast to work with here. Cranston has been on a roll ever since playing Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and it is fascinating to see him play the kind of character whose mission it is to take down the Walter Whites of the world. It’s a complicated character as Mazur is dedicated to his job and his family, but not always in the same order. Cranston makes us empathize with a man whose priorities get tangled up as he descends deeper into the drug cartel world. Just watch him in the scene where he has to “audition” to meet one of the cartel’s leaders. Cranston makes you feel the frightening predicament of a man who may have gone one step too far, and he imbues the role with an integrity few other actors are capable of doing.

Cranston is also surrounded by a terrific cast of actors like John Leguizamo who brings his uncontainable energy to the role of Emir Abreu, Mazur’s partner. Leguizamo has one of the movie’s most unnerving scenes as he is forced to defend himself against another person who attempts to blow his cover, and watching the actor play it cool under such intense circumstances is thrilling to watch.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt who plays Roberto Alcanio, Mazur’s contact and Escobar’s top lieutenant. Bratt makes Roberto into a man as charming as he is ruthless as well as someone far more interesting than the usual clichéd drug dealer we see in movies like these. You want to hate Roberto, but Bratt keeps you from doing that as you become as deeply involved in his family’s plight as he makes this character seem like a cool, down to earth dude even though he is also a vicious drug dealer.

There’s also Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) who plays Mazur’s chief officer, Bonni Tischler. She’s a real fireball from start to finish as she barks out orders at her colleagues and has no interest in wasting time on frivolous matters. Ryan makes Bonni into a no-nonsense character who you do not want to mess with as she is not about to let those who work for her take advantage of a situation unless it is for a really, really, really good reason.

Also terrific is Diane Kruger who plays Mazur’s partner and undercover fiancée, and she really hold her own opposite Cranston as her character of Kathy plunges headlong into an assignment she initially seems fully unprepared for. Much like the German actress she played in “Inglorious Basterds,” Kruger (no relation to Freddy) shows a fearlessness as she unveils the many talents Kathy has to get close to the criminals, and she also portrays the perils of undercover work as her emotions threaten to get in the way.

“The Infiltrator” is nothing new or groundbreaking in movies, but it does get the job done thanks to terrific performances and some truly intense scenes that really leave you guessing as to what will happen. It also provides us with a main character who is as interested in taking down bankers who launder drug money as he is in going after drug dealers. With the “War on Drugs” continuing to be fought in a futile manner, watching this movie made me think of something George Carlin once said:

“Drug dealers aren’t afraid to die. They’re already killing each other every day on the streets by the hundreds. Drive-bys, gang shootings, they’re not afraid to die. Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… THE BANKERS WHO LAUNDER THE DRUG MONEY!”

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.