While you’d think Skin was simply about the transformative power of tattoos, and their removal, Israeli director Guy Nattiv clearly had much more in mind when he turned to the subject of racism in America and the true life tale of former Neo-Nazi Bryon Widner.
It wasn’t a smooth road to getting funding for the film. In 2016 when Nattiv decided to look for Hollywood studios interested in the project, “...the reaction to my script was: ‘We like it but there are no real Neo-Nazis in America.’ ” So, in hopes of proving producers wrong, Nattiv and his wife, Jamie Ray Newman, shot a short film as a precursor to the final piece, during which the Charlottesville car attack occurred, as did the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, an anti-Semitic massacre of eleven people. Clearly Hollywood was wrong, and Nattiv had been a bit of a visionary to see the importance of telling this particular story.
Beyond the beauty of midwest fall and winter landscapes the film is brutal, which shouldn’t be a surprise. But it wasn’t only the hate crimes and physical violence. It was also the deep undercurrents of emotional torment flowing through every single person affected by these racial tensions, these heartbreaking events that continue to spark further reactions, more brutality.
The mother whose son has been disfigured, the kids hiding from stray bullets, the two warped adults preying on children who are lost and hungry, not only for food, but for a deep sense of belonging. The smooth manipulations that the characters, Shareen “Ma” Krager and Fred “Hammer” Krager, wield to ensnare new inductees into their white suprematist Viking crew are subtle but effective, and therefore all the more nauseating.
However, that’s only the beginning considering that Mr. Krager’s group of Neo-Nazi’s nighttime activities include carving SS into the faces of 14 year olds and burning down mosque’s while worshippers lay sleeping upstairs. The film captures cyclical violence and hate in succinct clips, holding the viewers squirming with climactic moments that never really ease off.
But the moments of destruction are punctuated with Bryon Widner’s personal struggle to forego his past not only internally, but externally. We watch Widner, played by Jamie Bell, go through a succession of experiences leading him to embrace the full wish to shed his outer markings. But he’s turned away from doctors offices after they find out he’s on the FBI's watchlist. It’s common for criminals to go to great lengths to hide from authorities by removing identifying marks and although Widner's efforts aren't of a malicious or illegal nature, it seems he's merely shoved deeper into the reputation he had previously built for himself.
In a scene close to the beginning, an intern working for the Southern Poverty Law Center, says of Widner, “There ain’t no hope for motherfuckers like him.” Gesturing to a wall of Neo-Nazi’s who have “turned” against their past beliefs and actions of racism, Daryle Jenkins, an American activist whose work includes the rehabilitation of white supremacists, played by Mike Colter, says, “It's that anger that becomes a part of the emotional toolbox that we use to do this work. I would also argue that we can’t stay angry forever because that brings more blood, and more anger, and more blood, and it just never stops.”
Widner proves himself, not only to Jenkins, but to his partner Julie Price, played by Danielle Macdonald, that his remorse is real. Arrangements are made for them to go undercover after Widner gives the FBI necessary information to bring down key players in large Neo-Nazi factions. Not only are they placed in a witness protection program, but a sponsor was found to fund Widner's tattoo removals.
The true life Bryon Widner is quoted as saying, "I was totally prepared to douse my face in acid.” His transformation was filmed by an MSNBC crew and culminated in the documentary “Erasing Hate” which aired June 26th, 2011. “Widner didn't care that his agony was made public. If anything, he felt that he deserved the pain and public humiliation as a kind of penance for all the hurt he caused over the years.”
As for the tattoo removal, Skin palpably captures, to the score of visceral violins, an insanely intimate and painful process of sessions slowly eradicating the marks that Widner had once held as a sacred symbol of belonging and belief. The man who truly lived through these operations “...was initially supposed to have seven or eight sessions, but they turned into a total of 25 over the course of 16 months.” His sponsor, who requested to stay anonymous, worked with SPLC to make sure that the tattoo removals were paid for, at a cost of approximately $35,000, and only asked in return that “Bryon would get his GED, would go into counseling and would pursue either a college education or a trade.”
For me, this film explicitly shows that tattoos, the imagery we carve onto ourselves, is important. You wear these things for a long time, or you go through more pain to remove them. Tattoos are an integral part of what you say to the outside world, and that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But, again, Skin isn’t only about tattoo removal or transformation, it’s not only about a man trying to escape a past that he himself fully participated in, it’s not just about racism or hate crimes. Skin also expressed that our actions, our beliefs, have the power to mold our futures in deeply serious ways. The film speaks on the sense of responsibility, and accountability, that we should all share, especially as the Neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and extreme right-wing movements continue to exist and gain traction.
As a punk rock teenager, early on I was exposed to films like Romper Stomper and American History X, important pieces of media history because they showed the type of violence that maniacal hate and an unsettling anger could produce. But it’s also as if these movies need to be created purely to remind us that, yes, racism still exists. Because if you’re not reading the news, or up on current affairs, I’m sure you’re still checking out Netflix, or another streaming service, on a regular basis. Perhaps people will click on something that shows them a piece of our political and philosophical reality, especially in the wake of a constant barrage of hate crimes.
And it is constant. On June 26th, Canada decided to ramp up action against Neo-Nazis, and other extremist groups, saying that they were terrorists, and a threat to national security. On July 15th BBC news covered the Italian police who had found a ‘combat-ready’ missile, a slew of weaponry, and Nazi memorabilia leading to the arrests of Neo-Nazi sympathizers. The murder of Walter Lübcke, “a pro-migrant politician in the state of Hesse”, in June by a person with ties to Combat 18, “a violent Neo-Nazi group which originated in Britain but has spread to other European countries and also has chapters in the United States and Canada.” has ignited fears that an extremist uprising is, indeed, imminent.
The problem is also global. Earlier this month, Virginia chapters of the Ku Klux Klan held a recruitment rally sparking peaceful protests outside a courthouse. On July 1st, Dominic Hinde reported that, “Last week it was revealed that “Nordkreuz,” an underground right wing terror group, had sought to obtain hundreds of body bags and quicklime for kidnappings, killings and assassinations as part of a planned uprising.” And, of course, there’s Trump. On July 14th, he tweeted, in so many words, that four nonwhite Democratic House reps should go back where they came from, highlighting a return to the aggressive, racist speech that has a long and vile history in the US. And, unfortunately, it’s this type of talk that Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, suggests is “normalizing hate.” President of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, has also stated, “It is now clear that anti-Semitism is no longer limited to the far-left, far-right and radical Islamist’s triangle — it has become mainstream and often accepted by civil society.”
Guy Nattiv, with his film Skin, has put the pressure on a multitude of points that need regular visibility, support, and conversation: from the power of tattoos, and tattoo removal, to the devious scheming and manipulations of hate groups recruiting young kids, to the long standing effects of hate crimes, to the deeply ingrained ideals of racism across the globe. It may not be my favorite movie ever, nor is it the best film of its kind, but, thanks to the acting skills of the cast, Skin stands with many other works of art that remind us of our own humanity, empathy, and obligation to uphold tolerance, compassion, and the obliteration of hate in any form.
As for the real Bryon Widner? “Only a few trusted friends and family members know where they live. They say they feel safe, with police officers and firefighters nearby, but still can't help but worry - it's one thing to get out of the white power movement and fade into obscurity. It's another to publicly denounce the violent world they once inhabited. But Widner holds out hope that some angry young teenager on the verge of becoming a skinhead might see his suffering and think twice.”