Guy Nattiv’s Skin, a feature-length adaptation of the filmmaker’s Oscar-winning short film of the same name, is a series of blasé dramatic repartees that amount to little more than crocodile tears. The dramatic conceit involves a man’s redemption arc as he reverts from a violent white power advocate to… not that. It’s a strange feeling watching a film about white men and women who carve a swastika into the face of a black teen only for its filmmaker to humanize the carvers rather than the carved. That, my friends, requires a special kind of privilege.
Nattiv centers the film on Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell). His face is tattooed with a variety of “coded” white power insignias. If Bryon’s association with Nazi-sympathizing tribalists doesn’t clue you in, then a detective’s interrogation more or less provides you with all the redundant, clumsy exposition needed. See, Bryon’s at the point in his life where his series of personal mistakes have begun to endure like a stain, and washing it out is reaching Lady Macbeth levels of guilt. So, when Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), the founder of One People’s Project (an organization designed to monitor and rehabilitate dangerous white nationalists), offers Bryon a way out, the opportunity pings with a measure of cosmic significance. But it’s easier to see the beginnings of things than it is to see their ends, and as you’d imagine leaving a white nationalist hate group proves to be easier said than done. With a new wife in tow (Danielle MacDonald) and her triad of children, Bryon attempts to obfuscate his trail, trying to leave behind a past that’s as permanent a fixture as the tattoos on his face. Blotting out the past, as it were, requires something a little more than just running away.
I get the sentiment. Lonely people, especially those who don’t identify as such, seek out all sorts of other people to curb that internal hemorrhaging of despair and solitude. But with Skin, Nattiv practically makes that loneliness seem like justification for all of Bryon’s past sins. He’s lonely and sad and remorseful and he doesn’t revel in all these other white nationalist activities like he (probably) used to, so he’s not really a bad guy per se. I call bullshit. Most of it has to do with Nattiv’s inept, frankly irresponsible, filmmaking. Here’s a film that amplifies an audience’s sympathies for the death of a dog (cue a swelling score, spiraling camera movement, and dramatic acting) yet casually slays a couple of migrant workers, neglecting to suggest anything about their death, and simply fixes our sympathies on the (former) racist, white savior. Look, I get the appeal of a movie like this, especially in our current climate. I certainly know that I responded enthusiastically to Tony Kaye’s American History X when I first saw it as a teenager. But the rhetoric in these films are all so backwards, emphasizing the moral impediments of the perpetrators of violence without ever examining their broader implications on those suffering from said violence. Like American History X, Skin ends up paying lip service, skimming past the messy mechanics and symptoms of hate.