A Year in Shorts Day 276: "Skin"
Content Warning: Today's short deals with racism, and contains multiple racial slurs and a scene depicting a hate crime. It does all of this in a way that is cheap, hackneyed and borderline exploitative.
Less importantly, today's post contains spoilers for "American History X" and "The Wailing."
Fellow Oscar Baiters, I will not mince words with you. Today’s short is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Not only is it perhaps the worst film we’ve covered so far in our Year in Shorts, it may in fact be the worst Oscar-winning film ever released. Oh sure, The Crunch Bird was terrible, but at least it was over in two minutes. Yes, Suicide Squad is awful, but it’s awful in a way that’s interesting to examine. True, Cimarron is a terrible, overlong, bloated mess, but… well, actually, there’s nothing good to say about Cimarron, that movie is atrocious. But there is also nothing good to be said about Skin, the film so bad it somehow manages to make Green Book’s Best Picture win only the SECOND most baffling moment of the 91st Academy Awards. And, due to a failed attempt two years ago to launch The Great Oscar Baiters podcast, it is a film that I unfortunately own. Granted, the purchase only cost me two dollars. But it was two dollars too many! Buckle up folks, shit’s about to get real.
Released in 2018 and directed by Guy Nattiv, Skin is NOT to be confused with Skin, also released in 2018, also directed by Guy Nattiv, also about neo-Nazis and tattoos and ALSO featuring Danielle Macdonald. Jesus Christ, even the background on this short is confusing. I have not seen Skin (the feature), but by all accounts it is terrible. Still, at least it didn't get nominated for any Oscars, so we don't have to worry about it here. Anyway, Skin (the short) is proving something of a challenge for me in regards to how to review it. I'm afraid that my usual format really won't do justice to just how truly awful this film is. To be honest, the only way to understand how bad it is is to watch it, and thankfully for you, the short is now available to (legally) watch for free online. Still, just posting the video below and saying, "See! I told you it's bad" seems pretty lazy. And unfortunately, you'd still have to watch the damn film, which seems a little cruel. And so for today's short, I thought we'd do something a little different by doing something that everyone else on the Internet does- I'll do a full recap just to explain how bad the film is. Recaps are something I've typically avoided in our Year in Shorts for a number of reasons. For one thing, they're not really reviews that way. They may be fun to read, but they don't always engage with the text critically. (Not to mention a recap stretches the definition of Fair Use, especially for shorts not as readily available as today's.) And honestly, recaps often do a good job of spoiling the fun of discovering the short for yourself. But there's nothing fun about watching Skin, and just because I had to do it doesn't mean you should. I'll still post the video for those who are curious, but for everyone else, keep reading so you know exactly what we're dealing with here.
The short opens normally enough, introducing us to our main characters- there's Jeffrey (played by Jonathan Tucker, best known to me for his memorable guest spot on Hannibal, and an actor who deserves much better), his wife Christine (Dumplin's Danielle Macdonald, also deserving of much better) and his son Troy (It's Jackson Robert Scott; just assume that everyone in this short deserves better unless otherwise stated). They're a typical All-American family enjoying a day at the lake with their one friends, with one major difference- they're all neo-Nazis. These opening scenes aren't exactly good, but they're not terrible either. They establish some fairly important things about our protagonists- they're racists, but they're also capable of having conversations about things besides how racist they are. That's an incredibly low bar to clear, granted, but when you consider the fact that films like Crash can't even manage to do that, you take what you can get. The opening scene also establishes that Troy is incredibly good at shooting guns, which will become very important later.
The film then continues with Jeff and his family going to the grocery store where Jeff picks a fight with a Black customer named Jaydee (Ashley Thomas) who was being friendly towards his son. What starts out as an argument turns into a hate crime as Jeff summons his friends (who were apparently just waiting in the car while their friends did their grocery shopping) to beat the man in front of his family (who were also apparently waiting in the car while Jaydee did the grocery shopping; do the filmmakers not understand how long grocery shopping takes? Who goes shopping like this?). It's an incredibly uncomfortable scene, but that's appropriate for the situation, and in a better film it might even be a powerful moment. But of course, Skin is not a good film, and it's here where the cracks start to show. From the awful writing, flat direction and pretty lousy acting (which is clearly the fault of the aforementioned writing and directing; again, this is a talented cast), Skin manages to take moments that might be effective in another film and make them feel cheap. And we haven't even gotten to the truly bad stuff yet.
We have a few more scenes of Jeff and his family, because for some inexplicable reason this thing has to be twenty minutes long. Making a terrible short is one thing, but padding it with a bunch of filler is just taking things to a whole new level. One aspect of the short that's mildly interesting is that Christine does not seem to be as deep into white supremacy as Jeff is. I say she doesn't seem to be because, like all the characters in this film, she's flat and one-dimensional, but there are moments where she tries to rein Jeff in. Naturally, the film never goes anywhere with this or explores it further, because that might actually lead to something someone might want to watch. Of course, developing these characters would make the short longer, which I certainly don't want. Maybe they could have just edited out all the bad scenes and replace them with good ones. Or better yet, edit out all the bad scenes and then don't make the movie at all.
Anyway, the short takes a turn from the well-meaning, mild incompetence that defines most movies about racism (like Green Book, for instance) to something far more bewildering when Jeffrey comes home from one night and winds up getting kidnapped by a van full of Black men while Troy watches. As the van drives away, it's revealed that Jaydee's son Bronny (Lonnie Chavis) is in there with them. Jaydee, it seems, is friends with some local gangsters. Now obviously the film wants this to be viewed as a fitting, ironic punishment for Jeffrey, but it just winds up coming across as unintentionally offensive. It kind of reminds me of an observation made in Herman Koch's excellent (and frequently adapted) novel The Dinner, in which a character rants about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? as being one of the most racist movies ever made. The argument she makes it that the film goes to great lengths to portray Sidney Poitier's John as a suitable match for the Draytons' daughter that it winds up painting the film's other Black characters in a less flattering light. Dr. John Prentice is shown to be a kind, respectful and successful young man, the exact opposite of the Black teenagers who harass Spencer Tracy later in the film. The point, of course, is to show that Mr. Drayton is being absurd by being prejudiced against John; but shouldn't the point really be that it's silly to be prejudiced against anyone? Instead of sending a message that racism is inherently absurd, it comes off more like the film is saying, "You should be grateful your daughter isn't marrying one of the bad ones." There's something similar going on here. Rather than play like a cautionary tale about prejudice, it sounds more like the filmmakers are saying, "Don't be racist towards nice minorities or else the scary ones will come and punish you." That's hardly a good look for a film. Of course, the key difference between this film and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is that the latter was made over fifty years before Skin, and was directed at an audience who could relate to the film's protagonist and thereby, potentially, learn something from the film.
Somehow, things get more ludicrous from there. The van takes Jeffrey to a garage in which he is drugged and tattooed over the course of a few days. At first it seems like the men are tattooing him in order to cover up his white supremacy symbols, which I imagine won't do much to get rid of someone's racism, but would nevertheless probably feel somewhat cathartic. (The tattoos apparently play a more significant role in the feature length version of Skin; here they're more of an afterthought). Weirdly, however, the film plays this more like a horror movie, complete with spooky music, blue-tinted cinematography and close-ups on Bronny to emphasize the Death of Innocence or whatever as he witnesses all the tattooing going on. And like... yeah, sure, kidnapping people is wrong and all, but it's not like I feel particularly bad for Jeff here. And it's not like this is going to mess up Bronny any worse than seeing his dad get beaten, so it's just a strange choice in a film which seems to be primarily made up of strange choices. Speaking of strange choices, Jeff is eventually released and dumped into his neighborhood. As he struggles home, it's revealed that the tattooing did not stop at covering up all the Nazi shit. No, it turns out the men tattooed Jeff's entire body completely back, in an act of cosmic justice that Rod Serling would reject for being a little on-the-nose.
Rather than go to the police or a neighbor's house or a pay phone or the hospital or really any other option, Jeff decides the best thing to do is go straight home. Which, because he's currently buck ass naked and therefore has no keys, means breaking into his house. I guess I can't really criticize the film for Jeff making dumb decisions (it's clear that he's not exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree), but even so. Miraculously, Jeff is able to reveal his identity to his wife... only to be shot in the back by Troy. (Remember, this is the 91st Academy Awards, so the live action shorts had to require some sort of traumatic event happening to a child.) This is, of course, supposed to play out like some sort of Shakespearean tragedy, with Jeff's fatal flaw resulting in his own demise, but there are some issues with this. One is the fact that, despite their best efforts, Jeff looks absolutely nothing like a Black man and instead looks more like the Japanese guy at the end of The Wailing.
(via Bloody Disgusting)
But furthermore, this film's idea of a tragic twist suffers from what I call "American History X Syndrome." For those who don't remember, the dramatic thrust of American History X is Derek (Edward Norton) explaining to his brother Danny (Edward Furlong) that racism is bad, which is something that miraculously cures Danny of his racism over the course of a single evening. Danny then proceeds to write his essay about how racism is bad, goes to school ready to show everyone how not racist he is now, and the promptly gets shot and killed by a Black student he bullied the day before. Again, I get what they're going for. The message is supposed to be that actions have consequences; but instead it seems more like the movie is saying, "Don't pick on minorities, because one of them might shoot you!" (Or, in the case of Skin, they might orchestrate a complicated revenge scheme which results in you getting shot by your own son.) Call me crazy, but I don't exactly think that fear of retribution is a particularly good way to promote acceptance. (This is why this sort of story always works better in shows like The Twilight Zone, where it felt like the universe was punishing them; still not a great teaching method, but at least it was less problematic.) And while American History X, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and The Wailing are not *great* films (Hot Take, I know), they all at least have something going for them. Great performances, good cinematography or a sheer "What the Fuck" kind of energy all make those films worth watching at least once. Skin, on the other hand, has none of that. It has a great cast, but they're all stuck with some truly abysmal material. The cinematography is flat at best, ugly at worst. And sure, you'll say, "What the Fuck?" a few times, but not in a fun way. It's just plain bad.
So all that remains is to answer a simple question- IS Skin the worst film we've covered in our Year in Shorts? It's hard to say. Unlike Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B' it is, at the very least, not actively racist. Of course, you don't get extra credit for that sort of thing. "Not intentionally promoting hateful ideologies" is something I expect from every film, frankly. As much as I hate The Crunch Bird, at least it was over with quickly. Skin is ten times longer than that film, which is just unforgivable. So really it's only competition is Is It Always Right to Be Right?, which is just as preachy, ugly and obnoxious. It is, admittedly, a tough call. But while Skin displays a level of technical competence not really on display in that short, Is It Always Right to Be Right? was, at the very least, a little bold in its experimentation with form. Said experiment was a resounding failure, yes, but we need failed experiments to show us what doesn't work, after all. Skin doesn't even have THAT going for it.
It's hard to figure out exactly what was going through the Academy's minds at the 91st Academy Awards. Despite what some people will say, Green Book is NOT the worst Best Picture winner of all time. Not even close. But when compared to its competition (or the films which weren't even nominated alongside it), its win stands out as particularly embarrassing. In a year which saw the release of films like Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, the fact that the Academy chose to award its top honor to Green Book stands out as an absurd mistake. And while Skin may lack the distinguished competition Green Book did, its win feels like nothing short of an extension of that mistake. Hopefully that's not a mistake they'll be repeating any time soon. The Neighbors' Window and Two Identical Strangers aren't great films, but they're certainly a hell of a lot better than this!
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