Trump Got ‘Skin,’ A Film About Skinheads, Greenlit

March 4, 2020
Jamie Bell in “Skin”; Photo courtesy of A24

What if we looked at white supremacists as not gangs but as cults?

That was the question posed by Guy Nattiv, the Israeli writer-director of the film “Skin,” which peers through the eyes of real-life skinhead Bryon Widner as he attempts to find his way out of the white power group in Indiana he joined at 14.

Nattiv spoke about his daring 2018 feature-length biopic at a special screening at the Museum of Tolerance on Feb. 21, sponsored by the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles and the African American Film Critics Association.

“This guy was in a cult. He was picked up by those guys when he was 14 and told, ‘This is who you need to hate — and don’t ask questions,’ ” Nattiv said during the post-movie panel. “When he met me, he didn’t even know what Jews or Israelis [were].”

This meeting was pivotal for both the director and his subject. After making his mark in Israel, Nattiv sought to move to Los Angeles, where his fiancée at the time and now wife, Jaime Ray Newman, was based. He saw a Haaretz article about how Widner, whose face was overwhelmingly tattooed with hate symbols, had been reformed and was undergoing the extremely painful process of having the ink lasered off.  The procedure is representative of the agonizing process Widner (who is currently in witness protection) underwent to escape the clutches of the white supremacist cult he grew up in.

Newman, who produced the film, was also in attendance at the event and recalled, “[Nattiv] called me and said, ‘I found my first feature, but they’re in witness protection. So how do we find them?’” 

After months of trying to track him down, they finally received a message from the group Widner previously belonged to: the Vinlanders Social Club — once the fastest-growing skinhead group in the United States.

“They said if you’re serious about this, meet us at this pit stop at the side of the freeway,” Newman said. “They said they circled the coffee shop six times looking at us — they had never met Jews before. We had never met skinheads before. And that weekend changed all of our lives.”

Widner currently flips burgers in Alburquerque, N.M. He’s still on the FBI watch list and is forbidden to leave the United States. His prospects for improving his life, even after the removal of his full face of racist tattoos, are slim.

“They said if you’re serious about this, meet us at this pit stop at the side of the freeway. They had never met Jews before. We had never met skinheads before. And that weekend changed all of our lives.” — Jamie Ray Newman

“Their life story is the only thing these people have,” Newman said. “We spent four days with them. In the end, they signed their life rights to us on a napkin.”

“Skin,” despite its miraculous true story, was challenging to get greenlit. Nattiv moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote the screenplay. His agents sent it to over 60 producers, all of whom rejected it.

“This was the feedback from every single [producer],” Newman said. “The script is very good; we love Guy’s work in Israel, but Hillary Clinton is about to become president and racism kind of isn’t a thing after eight years with a black president.” 

Then, in a last-ditch effort, the couple used their retirement savings to fund a short film that would serve as a proof of concept for “Skin.” After wrapping post-production, Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, and the neo-Nazis Widner once called kin made their way onto the streets of Charlottesville, Va. At the same time, Nattiv not only secured funding for his feature, but the 21-minute short also won the Oscar for Live Action Short Film in 2019.

In making both films, Nattiv was careful not to glamorize white nationalist cults or, as he puts it, “not to make the violence look like we are talking about the Hells Angels. There’s nothing beautiful, perfect or cool about that.”

Widner was heavily involved in the development of the screenplay, as was Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an anti-fascist activist who runs One People’s Project, an organization that helps people trying to escape white power circles. Widner is one of the many whom he’s offered a chance at redemption.

“When we shot the movie, they both came to the hotel room and stayed on set,” Nattiv said. “You had this African American activist with an ex-neo Nazi, sharing a hotel room watching National Geographic. And they’re really best friends. It was surreal but amazing to see that.”

Nattiv also announced at the screening event that his next film will center around Jenkins’ work as a black man who reforms racists. Chadwick Boseman, of “Black Panther” fame, has signed on to produce.

“I didn’t grow up on Spider-Man and Superman. My grandparents are my superheroes,” Nattiv said, explaining that he is descended from four Holocaust survivors.

Asked about critics of Israel who refer to it as a white supremacist state, dubbing its supporters as “Zionazis,” Nattiv said,“It’s hurtful. I’m against that. Obviously, it’s ridiculous. Online, the right-wing are bashing me and calling me the white-hater Israeli director.” 

However, he does have concerns about Israeli policy. “I’m very proud of my country and my family, but I have criticism about a lot of things going on in Israel,” he said. “For example, the treatment of Ethiopians, which is pure racism.” 

Fostering conversations about racism is at the core of Nattiv’s values.

“My question to the audience,” he said, “is, ‘Do you have a place in your heart to accept a monster who wants to become a better person?’ For many, the answer is no. Some people say yeah. It’s a very important question to ask because if we can’t talk, can’t have dialogue with our enemies, nothing will change.”

Ariel Sobel is a TEDx talker, award-winning filmmaker, and the winner of the 2019 Bluecat Screenplay Competition.

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