We take a look at the poison of white nationalism in our latest good ol’ fun time podcast, as we review American History X and Skin.
American History X
Edward Furlong’s Danny Vinyard is in trouble at school, having chosen Mein Kampf as a suitable subject for a book report relating to human rights. Why would he pick such an inflammatory piece of trash? Well, that’s the point, I suppose of American History X, as we delve into the past of the Vinyard family’s attitude to race relations at a critical point, just as his elder brother, Edward Norton’s Derek is released from prison.
He was a prominent local neo-Nazi before his incarceration on assault charges, but he’s seen the error of his ways, for reasons we’ll get to in flashback – spoilers, it’s because Nazis are total wanks, and alongside his old, and Danny’s current, teacher Avery ‘Sisko’ Brooks’ Dr. Bob Sweeney, they try to turn Danny away from the vortex of neo-Nazis that he’s being indoctrinated into, headed by Stacy Keach’s Cameron Alexander.
For a long time I figured the cultural legacy of American History X would be the introduction to the innocent of the concept of the kerb sandwich, however the entirely baffling resurgence of white nationalism brings this an unfortunate return to relevancy twenty years down the line. You could perhaps argue that this film isn’t saying a lot more than Nazis are bad, but apparently that’s a lesson we need to re-learn here in space year 2019.
As to the film itself, well, on revisiting for the first time in close to two decades, I have learned that 1. Nazi’s are still a bad thing, and 2. Tony Kaye really likes his closeups. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Kaye has done apart from Detachment, which, like American History X, I really like in the way that you like movies that are fundamentally unlikable.
Movies about Neo-Nazis are never going to be fun happy times, but while racism and anti-semitism has never come close to going away, maybe ten years ago I could have fooled myself into believing that we were on an arc bending towards justice. Recent years, perhaps, makes me think that this is instead a pendulum currently swinging in entirely the wrong direction.
In that light, American History X perhaps becomes a more important work now that it did on its initial release. Combining that social commentary with a clutch of extraordinary performances from the aforementioned cast and the likes of Elliott Gould, Beverly D’Angelo and even Ethan Suplee and this is essential, if not easy viewing.
In Ohio, in the United States, there’s a group of individuals claiming to be of Norse descent and rather pathetically calling themselves “Vikings”, though one doubts if they’ve ever bothered opening a book to see how their perception holds up to reality. They meet together in the “Vinlanders Social Club”, where they talk about paying dues and defending their heritage and a bunch of other pathetic crap. Sadly, though, while they’re no doubt pathetic they are also exceptionally dangerous, spending much of their time harassing non-whites, persecuting immigrants, burning mosques and, not infrequently, simply assaulting and murdering those with a less pallid complexion.
It is into this world that Israeli director Guy Navvit’s based on a true story Skin takes us, telling us the tale of Bryon “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), a once high-ranking member of this organised hate group, who left the group and transformed himself in a number of senses, undergoing a year and a half of painful tattoo removal to rid himself of the racist and violent markings he had applied to his face over the years.
We learn that Bryon was the product of an unhappy home, affected by violence and alcoholism, and that he was “adopted” by Vera Farmiga’s Shareen (Farmiga again showing she can do a fine turn in odious characters) and Bill Camp’s Fred Krager, leaders of the Vinlanders, and moulded into a soldier for their cause. As another young, vulnerable teen is recruited by Shareen and Fred in a similar fashion, Bryon seems to question those beliefs and question his commitment to their cause, and to evaluate the psychic toll that perpetual hate is taking on him.
The primary driver for his introspection, though, is meeting and falling in love with Danielle Macdonald’s Julie and her three girls. Julie has a background related in many ways to Bryon’s but has tried to distance herself from it, though one might question the wisdom of attaching herself to the neo-Nazi with the propensity for sudden and extreme violence, even if in the first instance it’s in her service (well, if you squint at it, at least).
The club aren’t happy about Bryon’s departure, and he has to survive death threats and attempted murder before he can escape, with help from the FBI and activist Darlyle Jenkins.
There’s a nice idea in Skin, one that I happen to believe – that no-one is beyond redemption – and a pretty powerful performance from Jamie Bell, but there’s not a lot of substance: it really is only skin-deep. The occasional flash-forward to the agony of Widner’s tattoo removal is hardly subtle, though not inappropriate, but the film utterly fails to get to the heart of why Widner believed what he did, and why he ceased to. Bryon’s redemption is well-acted, but barely explained, and there’s frustratingly little insight into a subculture that is becoming alarming less sub with each passing year.
Nattiv, who wrote as well as directed, squanders his greatest tool: Darlyle Jenkins. A former extremist himself, this black man now devotes himself to “turning” white supremacists, trying to convert hatred into peace. By the film’s conclusion we see that Babs and Darlyle have become close friends, but we see nothing of how they got there, and that journey would have been the perfect opportunity for Babs’ exploration of his beliefs and the unlearning of being a racist.
There are moments of frustration, too, caused by the film’s turn into some rather clichéd melodrama, and particularly that perpetual crutch of trying to engender sympathy and provoke emotion through the death of an animal, something that I really dislike. I don’t want the animal to be harmed, the animal does not deserve to be harmed, but as its death follows in the wake of someone trying to murder a child, I could not give a shit.
Bell in particular is great, but Skin needs depth.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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