Peter Farrelly’s Green Book may have been a big winner throughout the award season, but criticism of its dated approach to racial inequality saw it savagely taken down online (although its huge box office returns again highlight the difference between real world and online perceptions). At the same time, director Guy Nattiv collected an Oscar for his short film Skin in a ‘minor’ category that is rarely afforded much attention. It was an uneven attempt at putting modern day racism under the spotlight, focussing on a white supremacist and his family before and after the violent beating of innocent black man in front of his wife and child.
Nattiv’s full-length debut retains the name and themes of the short, although the cast have been upgraded, with only Danielle Macdonald making the transition from one to the other. Jamie Bell is given the task of humanising a violent white supremacist at a time when the neo-right no longer exist in the margins as depicted 21 years ago in Tony Kaye's American History X. Skin is based on the true story of former white power skinhead Bryon Widner, chronicling his struggle to leave behind a lifetime spent practising and enforcing hate-filled beliefs.
The current political landscape and influence of online opinion already make a film like Skin a tough sell. What will make it even harder to accept is an over reliance on clichéd beats and an absence of any kind of subtlety within the storytelling. Nattiv’s script badly lets down its cast, whose performances are compromised by its inability to look beyond the actions of the one-note characters. Some may argue that there should be no nuance in the way white nationalists are portrayed on any grounds, but the absence of it here appears to be more of a stylistic choice, rather than one based on moral beliefs.
The introduction of Widner (Jamie Bell) sees him marching across the Ohio Bridge in 2005 with his neo-Nazi gang coming head-to-head with a group of black protesters. Nattiv wastes no time demonstrating how he’ll approach the rest of the film, with the confrontation quickly erupting into violence after an unlikely exchange between Widner and activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter). As chaos breaks out, Widner and another thug chase down a 14-year-old boy, brutally mutilating him in an alleyway. A similar scene appears in Nattiv’s short film and it feels just as unjustified here; we are already aware of their propensity for violence, and seeing another person of colour assaulted smacks of sensationalism without any consideration given towards how modern day audiences may respond to it.
It’s a tone that remains in place throughout, and even with a runtime just short of two hours, it wastes the opportunity to establish the personality of anyone we meet. Only a few short minutes later another scene of violence occurs closer to home around other members of his ‘Viking’ group, led by Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) and wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga). Again it feels overly manufactured to reinforce Widner’s physical superiority over his comrades. It’s a moment that also introduces us to Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a resilient mother of three girls who wants to keep her children away from violent nationalists (if so, why is she performing at one of their meetings?) and her involvement with Widner will eventually offer him an escape and a road towards salvation.
Family life convinces Widner that the bigotry and violence is no longer for him, although there is never a sense of atonement for his past actions. He suffers through threats made against him by his former Viking gang but there is no expression of regret for the countless disgusting crimes he has committed, and it leaves Bell in an awkward position performance wise. The film relies on him to carry the emotional turmoil but he is limited by the material. He has to find the human inside a real-life monster and reaches the point allowed to him by the script through good use of his physicality, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to portray a character of this nature and he hasn’t been handed all the tools his commitment to the role deserves.
More interesting is the role Daryle plays in helping Widner to escape his former life. Both in the film and real-world Daryle’s One People's Project dox individuals who have been identified as right-wing group members. His work is based on an old saying by his father, in that he “takes human garbage and turns them into human beings”. He is pivotal in helping Widner to reform, and is responsible for organising the laser treatment that removed the many tribal tattoos from his face. And while this isn’t his story, highlighting Daryle’s tireless work and the way he changed Widner’s life would offer more dimension and perspective to the narrow one we are given.
There’s little doubt that Nattiv’s attempt to place us inside the head of white supremacist is a bold move. He has handpicked a solid supporting cast around Bell, with Macdonald continuing to show her growth as an actress and under-appreciated character actor Bill Camp delivering real menace. But Skin is in need of a writer able to take us into the uncomfortable corners of Widner’s soul. It shows how, when and where his journey of redemption took place, but totally neglects the all-important why. At the same time, it says nothing new about the current rise of white nationalism despite being rooted in the heart of its community. Every film has to get by on its own merits, but this one may find ways to justify itself are increasingly hard to come by the more it is examined.
Skin opens in US cinemas on July 26.