A small blonde boy faces away from the camera. You see the back of his neck and the rural landscape that's in his view. Then a pair of adult hands—big, pale, rough-looking and holding buzzing hair clippers—come into the shot, swiping the golden locks off his scalp. They fall in clumps to the ground.
Bryon Widner was a child not unlike this one, and the film Skin (out in theaters and on demand July 26) portrays his real life transition from neo-Nazi to anti-racism advocate. Written and directed by Guy Nattiv, Skin is the true story of Widner's escape from the radical American neo-Nazi group he belonged to. This journey was made possible with the aid of Black activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of the anti-fascist organization One People's Project. In the film, Widner (played by Jamie Bell) and his family flee their homes in search of safety and a new life, but are mercilessly tracked, harassed, and threatened. Eventually, Widner is beaten, shot and nearly killed when he refuses to murder a group of kidnapped Muslim men he had previously saved from a fire at a mosque, started by his group. The film doesn't hold back when it comes to its portrayal of the brutal, horrifying violence groups like Widner's inflict on minority communities and upon its own members, nor the physical and mental toll leaving that life entails.
Much like the 1998 film American History X, Skin castigates the racist actions of white supremacists while, perhaps unintentionally, asking audiences to decide whether they deserve a chance at redemption.
In 2019, when Nazism is on the rise and the threat of its normalization is ever-present, it's a fair question as to whether or not we should be telling neo-Nazi redemption stories at all. This was a concern for Bell when he was approached for the role. Tucked into a leather booth in the restaurant of the Bowery Hotel in New York City, the 33-year old British actor, who made his screen debut at 13 playing an amateur ballet dancer in Billy Elliot, questioned his part in telling such a loaded story in today's social and political climate.
"I saw the story as a bit of a moral conundrum, because I was first wondering, why are we telling this story, of all the stories we could be telling?” That concern only heightened when, coincidentally, the first meeting he had with Widner to learn about his past was on the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, where white supremacists shouted racist and anti-semitic rhetoric and marched in an effort to unify their movement and protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The march culminating in the murder of protester Heather Heyer and the ruthless assault of countless others
. "After that conversation, I really felt like we shouldn’t be making this film," said Bell. "Like, what the fuck are we doing? This is insane."
When American History X was released, the film served as a sort of cautionary tale, warning audiences of the existence of extremist fringe groups of disenfranchised, often impoverished white people who resented what they considered to be the loss of their social and political capital in America at the hands of minorities. It portrayed the barbarity of neo-Nazi skinhead culture, shedding light on the pitfalls and consequences of spreading hate, but, couldn't have anticipated how mainstream those beliefs would become. At the time of that film's release, hate groups were generally pushed to the margins of society. In the last four years, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a social justice nonprofit that provides information about and fights against intolerance, has reported a 24 percent increase in hate groups, with 2018 alone seeing a 9 percent jump. The SPLC pointed to Donald Trump's policies and speech, the easy spread of racist ideology via social media platforms, and right wing media for this drastic increase.
"Our film feels almost outdated to a degree," said Bell. "[White supremacists] are not the skinhead types. They're not out with the bomber jackets and jeans and the boots. They’re wearing suits and polo shirts, and they’re also in broad daylight... [Racism] has become radically ordinary." Still, as Bell sees it, if American History X was "a cautionary tale," Skin is "a fucking fire alarm."
Given the rise of hate groups across the country, why make a film that could possibly be seen to paint a neo-Nazi in a sympathetic or forgiving light? For Bell, seeing Nattiv, who is Jewish, born in Israel, and whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, find "some measure of intrigue and commentary" in the story lead Bell to believe he too could find the same. Still, he needed to be reassured, he said, "that this was not going to be a narrative that was letting people off the hook" and was "more about exploring and shining a light" on white supremacy and what leads people to seek refuge or community in these groups. "There were other things in the material that could maybe start a conversation, and lead people to kind of explore how willing they are to forgive people, or [if] people are worthy of that; if people can possibly change," he said. "There are all kinds of interesting lines for conversation."
The film doesn't explicitly decide if Widner deserves absolution, though in depicting the appalling attacks he and his family faced while trying to escape, as well as the sickeningly cruel violence other people were subjected to because of his decision to leave, it's hard not to grapple with whether he might be worthy of some form of sympathy. Yet, the film's central questions—can people change, how far do we extend compassion, and who deserves forgiveness, will likely resonate differently with viewers based on their history, experience and beliefs. But being forced to contemplate them may push the conversation around these topics forward.
"I have a really fucking hard time with forgiveness myself," said Bell. I think people have to be held accountable for the things they’ve done. I do think it is possible, ultimately, for people to go, 'I was wrong.' And the other thing is, I don't think you or I could really ever know the kind of atoning and the kind of reckoning that that person will forever have to do alone...Living a life of torment, that’s an affliction I never want to have, and I think clearly that’s what these people have had to deal with, which is maybe their punishment."
Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.