We’re currently living through a polarizing time in our nation’s history. We’re forced to deal with the sobering reality that racism exists at an alarming level in 2019. It’s surprising to anyone who didn’t spend the vast majority of life living in the American South—an increasingly shitty social experiment where bigots and white nationalists have become too comfortable sharing their horrific world views. With these topics being daily headlines since white people decided America needed to be great again, exploring artistic endeavors and tackling the serious issue felt like a chore.
That’s why I had to watch “Skin,” the new feature exploring the true story of Bryon Widner (Jaime Bell), and his experiences as a white supremacist and leaving that life behind. The film is a difficult, challenging examination of those who are conditioned to hate, and Bryon’s struggle to escape the violent, hyperbolic trappings of the family that raised him. Bryon is the face of the Neo-Nazi movement in rural Ohio—a face literally covered in symbols and iconography of the white power movement.
He lives at a compound run by Fred (Bill Camp) and Ma (Vera Farmiga), who “rescue” young runaways and indoctrinate them into white-power ideologies. They create a small cell of protégés who can carry on their milky-white vision of America. The film does a great job of digging into a bleak, muddy landscape, visually and metaphorically.
Bryon meets a single mother at a small rally and is immediately smitten. She has tried to distance herself from the movement after years of involvement. She wants to shield her children from the negative influence and violence.
Bryon begins to question his own allegiances to the wayward cause after a violent confrontation with protesters. After being released from jail, he watches the only father figure he’s ever known recruit a young runaway and sees first-hand the predatory tactics used to find new recruits—taking desperate young men and promising them a “family.” Bryon begins to wonder if there can be a life for him beyond the hate-filled ideology that has become the fundamentalist foundation of his existence. Once he’s recruited to help attack a local mosque, he finally decides it’s time to part ways.
But it’s no easy task. To his adoptive parents, he’s not just a son but an investment that has never paid off. Bryon seeks out the aid of Daryle (Mike Cotton), who runs an organization attempting to help white supremacists sever ties and start over. Together, they’re able to help Bryon atone for past mistakes and shed his white-supremacist skin, quite literally.
“Skin” is an engaging and uncomfortable movie. It works hard to put viewers into Bryon’s suffocating, disconnected existence. Jaime Bell delivers an exceptional performance, which never tries to portray Bryon as a victim. Instead, we see him as a monster trying to come to terms with the concept of mercy, while taking punch after punch as he seeks a new path.
I was reminded a lot of 1998’s exceptional “American History X,” where Edward Norton masterfully charts a similar redemptive path while trying to escape the mob mentality of organized racism and find a life without hate. “Skin” has a lot of similarities to “American History X” in terms of theme and challenges presented to the main character. In a time where so many people struggle to wrap their heads around this swell of hatred in our country, these are two movies that anyone looking for perspective could greatly benefit from watching.