Political Film Review #593


Some White Supremacists are skinheads with tattoos all over their body, even their heads. Directed by Israeli-born Guy Nattiv, Skin seeks to explain why White Nationalism thrives, what government and civil society have been doing to cope with America’s top source of domestic terrorism, and why some skinheads “turn” from their lives to reach normality, albeit at their peril.

The focus in Skin is on Bryon “Pitbull” Widner (played by Jamie Bell). Lacking a father, his mother dies when he is young. He then rejects his alcoholic grandmother, becomes homeless, and eventually joins the Vinlanders Social Club to be with an authoritarian father, a comforting mother, and fellow gang members who serve as his siblings. They congregate somewhere in rural Indiana to enjoy family life and plot “pro-American” acts of violence against Blacks, Jews, Latinos, and Muslims. When the film begins, one gang member tries to break up a mini-concert of Norwegian musicians, whereupon Widner stops the disruption and meets Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a single mother with three children, a family that he admires. After a bout with alcohol, as he tries to resolve conflicting thoughts about his role in life, he falls in love with Julie, realizing that he could become her husband and their father to lead a normal life. He marries, leaves a thriving tattoo business to move to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and tries to lead a new life.

But the imperatives of the gang require that at one point he must participate in burning down a “mosque” to eradicate “jihadists.” (In 2010, the group torched a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.) When he realizes that residents will die in the process, he allows them to escape because he cannot let himself be so inhumane.

Meanwhile, the FBI has been tracking White Nationalists, with the goal of enabling some to lead a normal life while arresting the militants. Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter) has been assigned the role of asking those arrested to play the role of moles to expose the members, their activities, and their hangout locations. When Widner is picked up for an incident, he agrees. One reward is to have the tattoos removed, a process that takes about two years, with funding from the Southern Poverty Law Center arranged by Jenkins. The Vinlanders are eventually arrested due to Widner’s cooperation.

Titles at the end give credit to Jenkins and the One People’s Project for success in “turning” about a dozen White Nationalists and to Widner for addressing vulnerable youth across the country to discredit his former life. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Skin as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2019.

However, the film is based on events before the election of Donald Trump. Filmviewers will be tempted to conduct a mental “what if” experiment as the film unfolds: What if some encourages White Supremacists to engage in such attacks while president? And what if the FBI cuts funding to purge White Nationalists? A glance at recent news indicates that the “what ifs” are very much reality in the United States today.  MH