There is an argument to be made that white nationalist redemption narratives focus the pain and trauma on the aggressors rather than the communities they terrorise, making them at best valueless and at worst ethically questionable. While Skin fits this descriptor and leaves some depth to be desired, director Guy Nattiv and his cast sidestep the worst pitfalls of this premise. This true-life tale is handled with surprising balance – which means not allowing the racists an ounce of sympathy. While viewers are closely attuned to Bryon Widner’s (Jamie Bell) viewpoint from his first appearance at a hate rally, his perspective is not granted justification until he begins to break from his family-run hate group – experiencing consequences from his present and his past.
Granted, there are only a handful of scenes that show him directly challenging (or refusing to challenge) his ideologies outside of his ‘family’, but this avoids an onslaught of violence that could push Skin towards torture porn and/or humanisation of the alt-right. To Bell’s credit, Widner’s transformation is understated. As Julie, Macdonald is the film’s moral compass but keeps her idealism grounded in her situation’s economic reality. Vera Farmiga’s ‘Ma’ is a standout, hiding chillingly casual racism behind salt-of-the-earth mannerisms and colloquialisms.
The storytelling and performances avoid melodrama but rely heavily on narration. Anti-Fascism 101 is hard at work in scenes introducing Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter) and his dual mission of doxing and rehabilitating ex-skinheads. This is clunky writing but grounds the film in the specific work of American grass root anti-fascism – one almost wishes his One People’s Project had been the film’s focus instead.
While Skin may lack the laser focus that the narrative requires, it’s refusal to offer an ounce of understanding to hate groups makes it a responsible – if not quite essential – film for our times.
CAST: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Vera Farmiga, Daniel Henshall, Bill Camp, Louisa Krause, Mike Colter
DIRECTOR: Guy Nattiv
WRITERS: Guy Nattiv
SYNOPSIS: Based on a true story, a white supremacist finds shedding his connection to his family’s organisation emotionally and physically difficult.