Now, here’s a thing – I realise that we haven’t had a film review for some time and unusually for me it’s a contemporary film that we are going to look at. ‘Skin’ is a 2019 film set mostly in Indiana, America in the early 2000’s. It is not an easy watch and is a 15 certificate. It is the story of Bryon Widner who was picked up when he was 14 and taken in by a white supremacist leader and his wife.
He became enmeshed in that movement and part of an organisation called The Vinlander Social Club that claimed some sort of Viking heritage, was openly neo-Nazi in its views and outlook and guilty of perpetrating serious violence against black people and other minorities for no reason other than not being white. Widner was seen to be amongst the most violent of the gang and known as the ‘pit-bull ‘ of the movement.
Widner met and married Julie Larsen who already had three children (all girls) and had herself been drawn into the white supremacist movement. Together they decided they had had enough and that they wanted to leave that movement and (particularly) his past life behind them.
They had two problems. The first was that such groups do not let you go, seeing any attempt at leaving as a betrayal and also a threat to their existence should someone who leaves them provide the authorities with evidence of their activities. The second was this – his body, neck and particularly his face were covered with tattoos of racist symbols (I’d like to show a picture but uncertainty over copyright prevents me – but just Google him). Despite wanting to leave his past behind him, wherever he went his tattoos brough revulsion. At job sites, shops restaurants, wherever he went Widner was shunned – people just saw the tattoos and in them a dangerous thug. In desperation he even considered burning his face with homemade acid tattoo removal remedies.
Instead, his wife Julie contacted Daryle Lamont Jenkins who runs an anti-hate group called One People’s Project based in Philadelphia. He is black and the scourge of white supremacists, posting their names and addresses on his website, alerting people to their rallies and organising counter protests.
Though him they got in touch with Southern Poverty Law Centre, another well-known civil rights group based in Atlanta. They found a surgeon who could remove his face tattoos and a donor who would pay for it. It was incredibly painful and took over two years to complete it, but eventually the surgery was successful.
Although still in danger from various racist groups, Widner tries to live a normal life and to speak out against hate groups such as the one he was part of.
The film? Jamie Bell (believe it or not the young would-be ballet dancer in ‘Billy Elliott’!) is terrific as Widner and we see and feel his anguish and distress as he tries to uncouple from the movement. In the end it is him and that role that dominate, perhaps making the rest of the film and the relationships in it (except for that between Widner and Julie) seem a little bit cursory. I found it really compelling and stuck with it, even through the gruesome tattoo removal scenes.
You may be expecting me to say that somewhere along the road that Widner was converted and is now a Christian. Well, no, although the Widners do attend a local church.
What really struck me was how his tattooed face and body were a metaphor for sin and the damage it can do to people. We only know about his earthly redemption, his regrets and his attempt to put them all behind him. But his past travelled with him through his face as did his knowledge of the harm he had caused. Sin is like that – we may repent but we may still carry the consequences of it with us. Redemption is a free gift but dealing with past sin can still be painful.