“You have three choices: die young, life in prison, or start talking.”– Daryle Lamont Jenkins
Watching Guy Nattiv’s Skin is like watching brutally violent, incredibly profane lyrical poetry on screen. As white supremacist Bryon Widner, Jaime Bell delivers the performance of the year, re-enacting the racist, sexist, profane twenties of a real-life bigot. While a One People’s Project activist, Mike Colter’s Daryle Lamont Jenkins, watches with interest, Widner swears, beats, chokes out, and burns his way through minorities and sects. Others, including Widner, believes there is no hope for him, Jenkins believes there’s more to the young man than his face tattoos and his anger. And then Widner meets Danielle Macdonald’s Julie Price, and discovers a real family for the first time.
Widner isn’t really the son of Fred and Shareen Krager (Bill Camp and Vera Famiga), but they’ve given him a place to live, used his skills as a tattoo artist to raise money for their white power group Vinlanders Social Club, and kept him subservient with a constant barrage of verbal and physical abuse. The audience sees just how creepy the Kragers are as they recruit newer members, as they casually dispense their form of justice on those they deem unworthy, whether they’re white or minorities. The dread the film conveys builds, pouring on the depths of despair, the bottomless feeling that no matter what Widner does, he can’t change his ways or escape the web.
“If we could turn even one of these fascist assholes, then I’ll leave a crack in the door.”–Jenkins
Realizing that Widner received his first facial tattoo at fourteen, that his mother and father were drunk and abusive, that the Kragers “saved” him from one desperation and replaced it with another – none of that relieves Widner of responsibility. But while it shows the repulsive layers of the brainwashing that Widner had received, it explains the layers of socialization and de-socialization that Jenkins will have to help Widner overcome, if the white power adherent would ever listen.
We know that the bottom of the evil abyss is deep – and at times Nattiv’s film leads us to believe we’ll never see the bottom for Widner – the inclusion of Price into Widner’s life changes everything, slowly. It’s not just Price but her three daughters (Zoe Colletti as Desiree; Kylie Rogers as Sierra; Colbi Gannett as Iggy) who capture Widner’s attention and give him inklings of the way his life could be different. These three girls to varying degrees help Widner see his humanity, replacing the negative physical touching in corrupt affection and sex of the VSC with natural positive interactions between a husband and wife and their children. It’s the replacement of the real for the fake that serves as the course-changing purpose in his life to push him out of the arc of destruction that he was on.
“Is it true what Desi said, are you an evil man?”–Iggy
The Kragers make offers for community, for responsibility, and for opportunities that lure young people in, before replacing them with condemnation, epithets, and emotional abuse. (A psychologist could have a field day with this, but this is a film review, right?) While Widner has believed in the hope that one day he would surpass the trials and abuse, he’s come to see that the pattern doesn’t change, and he’s watching it happen to younger people as he meets Price’s family. While the littlest daughter challenges him to consider the good in himself, Widner isn’t sure that he’s actually capable of good, that he can change, even asking Jenkins, “What if I take all of this stuff off [my face] and I’m still a piece of s—?”
In its own way, Skin is a parable of the prodigal son being reminded of his worth, of his ability to be forgiven. Of course, in this parable, we meet the prodigal when he’s so deep in the grime of his new life that he’s almost forgotten what it was like to ever be whole – and then we watch his powerful, gritty bursting forth from his “lostness,” unsure what remains for him on the other side. Of course, in 2019 America, Skin is also a challenge to see how the prodigal finds his way home thanks to the one he considered his enemy, the one he deemed unworthy of his respect.
Skin may prove to be one of my favorite films of the year, but it’s also the hardest “watch” I’ve had in years, and a reminder that the road to redemption isn’t smooth, graceful, or perfect. Let’s be clear: Skin is a brutal, ugly film that dares us to blink, to look away, to give up before it gets… good. Skin is a reminder that redemption takes many paths, that help arrives in many forms, that salvation is always the path where love conquers hate with truth, persistence, and grace.
Skin is in theaters and On Demand on July 26.