Israeli-born filmmaker Guy Nattiv’s 2019 film Skin is based on the true story of Bryon Widner, a white supremacist and neo-Nazi whose journey to renounce his racist past and remove the hate tattoos all over his body was the subject of the 2011 TV documentary Erasing Hate. This is a fierce, relentless watch that feels increasingly relevant, especially with the disturbing rise in nationalism and white supremacy in the U.S. under the Trump presidency. It’s more than just a look into a racist, ignorant, and bigoted culture and way of thinking, however; it also looks into the abuse and instillation of fear and hatred at its very core (the members form a twisted family, where they are constantly berated and emotionally and physically abused for showing weakness or emotionality – yet this abusive relationship also makes them feel valued and part of a community) that fuels these people. And it is this sense of “family” that causes Widner (played by Jamie Bell, the star of Billy Elliot and The Adventures of Tintin, in a career highlight) confusion and an identity crisis, especially when he falls in love with a single mother of three children, and realizes that the violence and insecurities of his previous lifestyle are incompatible with his new lifestyle, and he cannot have both.
The film also juxtaposes his transition between lifestyles with the graphic surgical removal of his tattoos, an agonizing process that we see in close-ups, which is symbolic of not only his superficial removal of hate, but also removal of his racist past and acceptance of new direction and choice to be a better person and a father with an open mind. I also really liked the metaphor of skin in the film – its durability and how it can be used for expression and meaning, but also as a potential canvas to erase hate and evil symbolism. It also really works well as a metaphor for Bryon confronting and trying to overcome his own insecurities and suffering and struggle to get out of the toxicity of his racist community.
Bell nails the main role – there’s so much hurt, anger, and hate within Bryon, but despite his evil ideologies, we do care about Bryon and want a better life for him, and meeting his girlfriend shows him a new life that doesn’t prey on its members and fuel fear and bigotry. Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) also co-stars as one of the leaders of the neo-Nazi faction, and her performance alongside Bill Camp really made me think of the disturbing ways in which white supremacist leaders manipulate and abuse their followers into forcing them into their delusional lifestyle and accepting their way of thinking. The film also isn’t afraid to show the rage and aggression at the heart of these hate groups with its depictions of violence, which I think shows how out of control and angry these people really are. Some of the scenes are frightening similar to real life too, including a sequence which reminded me of the 2017 Charlottesville rally. It’s a very powerful and affecting movie, especially in these confusing times, and like other films that focus on hate groups (journeys of transformation but also often the confusion of contradictions and sense of displacement), such as The Believer and American History X, it makes us question what makes these people who they are and how they are capable of positive change and transition and renouncing their destructive environments and toxic people. I highly recommend it.