The 20 minute short film Skin is the story of working class young white racist Johnny, and his wife and son and circle of friends. Theirs is a world of guns, booze, defiant strutting and sneering, Confederate flags, mob violence, reckless behavior, and tattoos, including swastika tattoos. Not Hillary voters, in other words.
After a run-in at a grocery store—a conflict that has virtually zero substance and is really all about machismo and generating a faux dispute in order to create an opportunity to assert dominance—Johnny and his buddies brutally beat a black man in the parking lot. This causes the black man and his buddies to plot a creative form of revenge.
Skin was the last of the five 2019 Academy Award live action short film nominees that I saw at the theater as a package. I thought all five were solid films. All were engaging, all were hard-hitting in their way. I would rank Skin as my fifth favorite, though.
Not for the first half. Up through the assault and battery in the parking lot, I’d have ranked it right up with the other four. I’m sure many would dismiss its portrait of the white racists as insulting caricatures, but I’ve known people like that. I didn’t think the characters were unrealistic at all. It’s a really, really creepy subset of the population, possibly the worst America has to offer, but not a fictitious one.
Plus it’s balanced out by showing that in their peculiar way, such folks are capable of manifesting genuine positive and caring emotions for their family and friends. Johnny and even more so his wife are in some respects loving and supportive parents of their son; it’s really more the overall social environment in which he is being raised that is frighteningly abusive. That is, this group of people has truly ugly hateful beliefs and attitudes that will unavoidably shape an impressionable child, but it’s not like the parents directly treat their child like shit.
Which also I find realistic. People who are monsters in one way or another are not always monsters in all their personal relationships.
So you kind of see the best and the worst of these folks, albeit with the worst being a lot more attention grabbing.
I just think after that it gets hokey. Not terrible, but somewhat eye roll inducing. It’s all just too pat, too clever. It becomes more of a fable—albeit a scary, violent one—than a realistic story.
Because the revenge and the ensuing (predictable) ending are so over-the-top, it kind of distracts from the deeper issues suggested by the film.
For me the issue of revenge itself is central. These are people who seem intuitively about as unreachable as anyone, which would be less of an issue if they kept to themselves, but their default lifestyle is to cause great harm to others. When they engage in cowardly mob violence, I totally understand the impulsive desire for revenge. This is the rare kind of case where I feel some of that myself at a gut level, and I’m very much an anti-revenge guy. So I get why a few people in the audience at this film—for the most part an older, dignified, artsy, liberal crowd—laughed or applauded when Johnny got his comeuppance. “Serves him right!” is an understandable response.
But as a Gandhian, I regard the challenge of remaining nonviolent and not favoring revenge even in the face of such infuriating behavior to be one of the most important we face in life. It’s comparatively easy to refrain from hatred and violence if all you encounter are nice folks being good to you and each other, just as it’s so much easier to love your friends than to love your enemies. The true test is when you, or someone you care about, gets brutally beaten in a parking lot.
So that’s more where my mind went. Like, yeah, I’d love for somebody to kick the shit out of Johnny and his gun-loving Nazi friends, but that just means I have more work to do on myself to lessen such desires.
It’s worth mentioning too, by the way, that people like these really aren’t completely unreachable. While it’s certainly rare, it does happen that people who are enthusiastic participants in the racist culture we see depicted in this film become perfectly decent, non-racist, human beings later in life.
As I say, even if I rank Skin as the fifth best of the five live action short film nominees, I don’t think it’s a poor film by any means. I just happened to like each of the others at least a little better. But Skin is worth seeing and thinking about.