Thoughts on three skinhead films

The word skinhead usually conjures up swastikas and other race hate memorabilia but skinheads were not always sutured to racist politics or ideas, in fact, many of the racists that came into play during the late 1980’s and 1990’s shaved their heads to look more intimidating and had nothing to do with skinheads per se at all.

That said, the damage was done – it is rare to see or hear about skinheads these days without the shadow of racist violence clouding the field. But anyone who ever was or who ever knew a real skinhead, ‘back in the day’, will know that skinheads are about class, not race and if anyone bothered to check out early music and dress, they would see that it was originally imported from rude boy reggae to become ska which has a black/white crossover as its poltics and insignia.

Mis-representation aside, there are a few films about skinheads around – most of which do indeed buy into the racist landscape – but are nevertheless interesting either for their depiction of the (sub)culture and the inherent violence and/or offering some insight or commentary about where such anger and frustration originate. The most famous is probably ‘A Clockwork Orange’, so much so that i’m not going to consider it here, I am going to look at more modern renditions and make a few comments about how these texts stack up to my own personal experience/s – which was more ‘baggy trousers’ than ‘national front’.

Don’t get me wrong, i’m not denying there is a now- permanent link between skinheads and race – what I am saying is that it wasn’t always that way and it wasn’t my personal experience (although I saw plenty of asshole racists that attached themselves because they thought otherwise). I’m also not suggesting that these are the only films available about skinheads – far from it. But these are probably the best-known 3 and they represent the UK, the US and Australia (my stomping ground) respectively so I think it’s a fair overview.

One criticism I have of all three films is how the skingirls are portrayed; in American History X and Romper Stomper in particular they are shown as shallow sheep who are simply following the boys. The girls do have more agency in ‘This is England’ but it’s still primarily a text about masculinity and male relationships with the girls portrayed as sexual objects – and not particularly desirable ones at that. I get that skinhead culture is perceived to be primarily masculine  but many skinhead and punk girls are there for the same reasons as their male counterparts – because they are looking for different ideas, a different way of expressing themselves and they are angry at what the world has come to (ok, getting off my soap box).

The films:

American History X

Edward Norton looking his best ever …(if we get rid of the swastika)

Probably the most well-known due to being a US film and starring Edward Norton. This is definitely a film about race and the perpetuation of violence that accompanies racial hatred.

Pros:

  • Ed Norton as skinhead – damn sexy!
  • The clubhouse – wish we had had one of those, all that sneaking into bars underage was time consuming!
  • The portrayal of brotherhood is somewhat realistic although it is tied to and represented via race here which is a shame

Cons:

  • The too-easy conflation of skinhead culture with race politics – this is simplistic and incorrect
  • The depiction of everyone – other than Norton-  as idiots
  • The idea that ‘some old guy’ is able to brainwash teens who have daddy issues so easily
  • The idea that all skins are just hand-puppets of those with wider agendas (see above)
  • The amount of nazi paraphernalia decorating Norton’s bedroom – uhm .. we got the message when he ‘kerbed’ the black guy .. he’s racist BUT – how/why this ‘automatically’ becomes conflated with Nazi ideology is assumed to be self-evident. It isn’t.
  • The relationship between Derek and the black teacher is no less problematic than the relationship between Derek and his racism guru – it’s just too simplistic.
  • The rape scene – why would a bunch of skinheads rape another skinhead? The homophobic tone and implication/s of power/degradation through sex  aren’t lost on me, but i’m still left a bit confused …..

This is England

Pros:

  • most closely resembles my own experience – maybe as it was set in the same time as I was hanging out with these guys myself (early-mid 80’s)
  • deals with issues of rac/ism in a more moderate way and offers some ideas that explain how innate anger can get twisted into rage against an ‘other’
  • the acting is truly great – I knew guys like this (this is probably due to the semi-biographical nature of the script)
  • depicts the joy of first wearing a pair if Dr Martens (this was a bigger deal circa 1980’s)
  • shows the camaraderie and general ‘laddishness’ that made this such a fun time
  • focuses on class more explicitly than the others
  • depicts how racial divisions were originated and how not all skinheads felt the same way

Cons:

  • once again suggest all-too-easily that those with daddy issues are fodder for ‘the cause’
  • implies that mob mentality reigns supreme (albeit less than American History X)

Romper Stomper:

Russell Crowe as ‘Hando’

Pros:

  • Russell Crowe as Hando with a number 1 and boots- nice!
  • Some really well-filmed fight scenes
  • I knew one of the main skin guys (the actor) – bonus!
  • The day-to-day ultra-violence was pretty much spot on with my memories (smashing up stuff, breaking shop windows, running from a large mob)
  • Loved that Davey had an ethnic background and didn’t wear his skin clothes when staying with his grandmother
  • The prevelance of swastikas again caused problems for me but the politics are (a little) better explored than in American History X
  • Plays outside of a certain (Hollywood) moral certainty and therefore doesn’t demand ‘redemption’ for the protagonist (like American History X)

Cons:

  • Like American History X, proposes the idea that skinheads are only ‘like that’ because they are easily lead. Not only is this simplistic, it is untrue.
  • Hando taking up with the strange, unstable girl just doesn’t ring true – she would have been a one-nighter for any skins I knew (too much like hard work)
  • The Asians are shown as ‘taking over everything’ which plays into Hando’s political discourse
  • Renders politics and violence aesthetically but doesn’t really address specifics in any way
  • Again, like American History X, all – too – easily collapses skinhead and racism without question
One more - just because he looks so fine here . .

One more – just because he looks so fine here . .

In the mood to Moonstomp?

If you are interested in having a look at some great photos of skins, check out the Tumblr list here

For a great site about Oi! and punk with an excellent collection of new and archive footage, see Big Al’s blog –  Loud Proud and Drunk


The Specials “Skinhead Moonstomp” – a great clip that shows it exactly the way I remember it (LOVE Terry Hall throwing his tambourine at a bouncer who is trying to keep the audience off the stage .. lol)

Disagree or think something else should be included?

Drop me a line.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on three skinhead films

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