Owning American History X, I have watched it numerous times. One particular time I was learning about symbolism in an English Literature class. Applying this lesson it allowed me an insight into Derek's inner most thoughts. While these thoughts and images seemed just to be him reminiscing of Danny and his own innocence, they were a very deliberate part of the cinematography. And although one could go on about how Derek's actions drove the family into poverty, caused his Mother's ailments, and ultimately Danny's death, I believe the story, even though obviously containing other family members, was solely about the relationship between he and his brother. One scene alone details their relationship without speaking a word. It is the scene where Derek is showering after the removal of the neo-Nazi paraphernalia from Danny's room.
As the scene opens we see Derek's hand on the showerhead and the soundtrack is inspiring us to feel his pain and sorrow with slow whimsical strings and a distant piano.
There is the sound of the shower, very low and almost hidden under the score. As the water rushes over Derek's head you get the sense that he is trying to wash something away, perhaps his horrible past and old beliefs.
Next we get a quick cut to a flashback of Derek and Danny as children on a beach with the waves and the sound of Pelicans in the low background as the score goes on with the intense sorrow. We see Danny chasing after his older brother, or better worded, "following in his footsteps." Then Derek turns, and takes his brothers hand, showing him the way, symbolizing Derek's his influence and how he is always looking out for Danny. Next, Danny is in the foreground and Derek is seen in the background, one can only assume this represents how Derek is always willing to put his younger brother before him.
After another fast cut to Derek holding Danny's hand and walking him towards the water, you get the feeling that he is trying to instill in him some faith that the water is nothing to fear. By this we can assume he is trying to say the future is not to be feared neither. Then it cuts to Danny smiling into the sun, his face is bright and warmed as the camera pans in. Derek is running around in the background in a random fashion waving his hands in the air, showing perhaps his start of non-conformity.
Derek must be remembering this past and asking himself, "Could I have done something better or different for him?" As we see Danny looking into the sun the strings in the score tell the tail of wonder, and comfort that they must have felt as children experiencing the ocean for the first time, and tasting life as a child does, only for Derek to remember this innocence lost.
The next cut is to the pelicans flying around carefree, showing the contrast that the birds know no sense of hatred or fear of what lies ahead. They know no discrimination. The scene cuts back to Danny looking at them and smiling at their beauty and grace as they fly together. It is assumed this is how he sees himself and his family at that point in time. Another cut shows two pelicans of the flock flying together and one fly's out of view as one stays in the shot. I attribute this to Derek and Danny and how their paths changed course and there was no real logic to it except that, we are all influenced by different things in our lives and our path is not set. Even when we are together something can make our paths change.
This is followed by another quick cutback to Derek in the shower thinking of this past and how it was full of hope and promise with wonderful future and how it all went wrong somewhere, perhaps his father's death, or something deeper.
The soundtrack opens up here and the shower loudens as we see he really is in pain as he runs his hands through his hair, perhaps trying to baptize himself and cleanse his soul. This shot of him running his hands through his wet hair is a way of showing how the reality that has become his life is nothing of how he pictured it as a young boy.
Then we get an interesting shot of Derek running from the waves again on the beach. This is him now realizing that although he told Danny the future (the ocean) was nothing to fear, he himself is afraid. In the foreground there is a single bird on the beach that flies away showing how he wishes he could fly away from this fear.
With a cut back to the shower scene we see Derek drinking the water. This could be symbolic of him drinking from the cup of life, and ingesting or dealing with his fears, and deciding this is the time to begin over. The shower stops and the music relapses to strings in full and gives us a feeling of goodness.
Derek steps out of the shower in slow motion, and we sense that his journey has begun. Yet as he steps out of the shower and into the "light of truth", he sees his reflection in the mirror. The swastika on his chest displays loudly the hate that he once knew, giving him a look of depression and disbelief at what he has become. Derek looks like he wants to say, "I am sorry for what I have become and I know it is time to right my wrongs." As the music continues he places his hand over the swastika (which happens to be over his heart) and pledges to do what he can to help Danny realize what is wrong with what he has done in his life, and to not allow him to make the same mistakes.
The scene ends with a close-up of Derek looking into his own eyes. And he can see that this is what he wants, a change. It is time to get on with life and forget all that he knew of hate and look at life anew. The music comes to a close and we feel that from the score that he is reborn, a new person, and cleansed of his hatred, fully.