Guy Nattiv’s ‘Skin’ Journeys Into the Darkness of the American Neo-Nazi Underground
In these heated political times it is a sad constant to see images of white supremacist groups in the news, menacing and marching, shouting proto-fascist slogans. “Skin” dares us to look behind such imagery and contemplate the lives, broken and tragic, living in that world. If the title sounds somewhat familiar it is because Israeli director Guy Nattiv used it before for a 2018 short film which won the 2018 Best Live Action Short Oscar. That visceral work centered on the same theme of life within American neo-Nazi communities, but this feature expands the premise to focus on a true story. Bryon Widner was loyal to the cause, his body covered in racist tattoos, and then he met someone, forcing a change in course.
The film opens on a night in the Midwest as skinheads march across a bridge, holding torches and chanting “blood and soil.” At the head is Widner (Jamie Bell) and the event soon descends into violence with anti-racist counter-protesters. Widner belongs to a neo-Nazi clan in the backwoods run by his father Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) and Shareen (Vera Farmiga). While dressed like some odious biker gang, the group obsesses over Nordic imagery and Aryan racial myths. Then at a gathering Widner meets Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a single mother who has formed a small singing troupe with her two daughters. Widner immediately likes Julie, but she knows where he comes from, because she also grew up in the same world before leaving it. It’s a stark choice Widner has to make, either stay loyal to the racist gang or go with Julie. Also focusing on him is activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), who specializes in finding individuals who are willing to turn on their white supremacist past.
Guy Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short, which is available on YouTube, was an unforgettable, small vision about a violent racist who is captured by a group of black tattoo artists after nearly beating a man to death. The title remains the same in this feature, but now based on the true story of Bryon Widner, it takes on an even deeper meaning. Nattiv goes to one of the central angles of racist thought, skin color, and Widner makes the perfect subject because his body is a map of racist tattoos. Gritty, sometimes brutally violent moments are intercut with a painful process the real Widner did endure. His tattoos were eventually removed through a precise, scorching laser surgery. “Skin” is the best film of its kind since 1998’s “American History X,” another drama about life inside the skinhead world. Nattiv is bold enough to set the story from the point of view of the racist, framing him as a product of an economically shattered community where boredom and despair open the door for toxic movements.
Nattiv and actress Danielle Macdonald both sat down with Entertainment Voice to share about how they journeyed into the world of “Skin.”
“I moved to the States and I wanted to tell Bryon Widner’s story,” said Nattiv. “I met him in Albuquerque. No one from Hollywood or America thought these neo-Nazis exist like this. They told me ‘it’s basically just five people in the Midwest, it’s not a real thing and it’s not worth investing our money.’ They thought it was a great script but seemed exaggerated. So I was bummed because I did research and knew the truth. Every feature I’d done had been a short before, so my wife said ‘why not make a short film? It will make the feature happen.’” The rest of the story is typical of so many movie origin stories. Nattiv invested his savings into the short, which became a great success. “Then Trump got elected, Charlottesville happened, the synagogue massacre, the whole world became insane and crazy. Suddenly those producers gave us different feedback.” The opening shots of the movie have a visceral similarity to those infamous images of 2017, as torch-baring supremacists marched and chanted the same fascist mantra as Widner.
“I did a lot of research into the world,” said Macdonald, a native of Australia who has also starred in “Dumplin’” and “Patti Cakes.” “It was something that I didn’t know anything about, I had studied Nazi Germany and World War II, but obviously I didn’t know about skinheads. Guy was amazing, he gave me a whole list of documentaries to watch, so that was very informative. I realized how this does exist in society, how relevant this is.” Macdonald also starred in Navitt’s original short film, playing the mother of the main character’s son. “That was great because it gave me a basis for when I did do the feature, already knowing that universe. Specifically for the feature I did a lot more research into Julie as a character and her story and Bryon.” Her performances becomes even more impressive when she admits she’s never met the real Julie, although she did meet Widner.
The performances in “Skin” achieve a particular force. Jamie Bell, seen earlier this year as Elton John’s key musical collaborator in “Rocketman,” becomes an unsure, nearly tragic figure. His conscience knows this life as a racist goon is wrong, but the clan is an overpowering force. “Jamie Bell is no longer ‘Billy Elliot,’ he’s a man. He’s a father, he’s been divorced, he’s been through a lot in life,” said Nattiv. “I was in New York editing the short and I drove to Virginia to meet with him, he was shooting a TV show there. I met him and saw Bryon Widner, just saw him. He has a lot of humanity and a dark side. When I met Widner I met a human being who reminded me of Jamie. A lot of actors actually passed on the role. Not a lot of actors had the balls or guts to portray something like that. He said, ‘it’s a good thing that I’m scared, because I need to feel something before I get into a role. If I feel nothing it’s boring.’ Danielle was a natural choice of course because she had been in the short, plus I wanted someone who was real and not a fantasy.”
With a documentary authenticity Nattiv provides an overview of secluded skinhead communities, as well as their obsession with weapons. “I don’t know guns at all,” said Macdonald. “I grew up in Australia, we don’t have guns there. You come to America it’s very different. On the short that was one of the first times I ever held a gun. Just holding one was terrifying to me, even though they do a safety check. You feel the emotions when you’re in it because you’re in it together with the other actors. On set it feels scarily real. For the feature I didn’t have to audition. The short was an audition in a way.” So good is Macdonald one would never guess she’s from the land down under. “I grew up watching a lot of American TV and film so with a standard American accent it comes fairly naturally, plus I do it all the time for work.”
A native of Israel, Nattiv himself comes from a film culture renowned for its daring social commentary and subversive spirit. “After I won the Oscar, the Israeli secretary of education, she wrote on her twitter, ‘Guy Nattiv, congratulations, come back to your homeland and make Israeli films, not American.’ And it’s like come on, are you kidding me? My friends are actually afraid now of making films that are too political or too left-wing or being the troublemaker because they won’t get any funds.” While “Skin” has a contemporary energy, Nattiv is a student of 70s political and socially conscious cinema. “I’m a big fan of 70s film. I grew up on ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ these are the films that made change. They were the social and political filmmakers. They didn’t just want to make escapism. After Vietnam the whole Reagan era was about to come, but there was that moment in the 70s that’s so important.”
Like the directors he mentioned, Nattiv’s film balances drama and commentary well. It is Widner’s story that becomes a voice against the blind hatred that ruins lives and festers in empty pockets of any society. “The thing that I realized while doing this is that these people exist in every country,” said Macdonald. “So while this is focused on America, it’s a global issue. In America this community is just being very loud about it. I’ve lived in America for nine years now, so I think I know America and Americans very well, but the way I learn is by listening to other people, meeting people and traveling.”
“When I moved to America my good friend gave me a frame and in the frame was a sentence, ‘you were once wild here, don’t let them tame you.’ It’s on my desk, in my office,” said Nattiv. “I want to tell stories about America and what’s going on in the world.”
“Skin” opens July 26 in select theaters and On Demand.