How deep does hate go? Is it something with meaning that burns within every cell of your body or a desperate ploy to be included, feel superior, and feign importance? And how much of it is based in fear of the unknown, fear of being exposed, fear of being left behind? Or is it born out of a warped conflation of bigotry with culture and a projection of that which you are onto another in order to trick yourself into believing you aren’t the worthless one? These are the types of questions that allow words that should be synonymous like Nazi, white supremacist, racist, and alt-right to be separated along a fictitious sliding scale. Oh, he’s not racist. He just believes the “best man” should get the job.
This is the messaging at the back of Guy Nattiv‘s short film Skin (no relation to his forthcoming feature film of the same name besides Nazi Vikings and casting Danielle Macdonald). He and co-writer Sharon Maymon have crafted their narrative to be less about skin color than the concept of only going “skin deep.” Because that’s as far as the lessons Jeffrey (Jonathan Tucker) teaches his son Troy (Jackson Robert Scott) go. The boy is too young to understand the historical significance of genocide or America First. All he sees is the vitriol his dad, mom (Macdonald’s Christa), and parents’ friends spew upon African Americans. He’s not taught to hate Black people for a reason (because there’s none to give). He’s conditioned by sight. Doing so is “cool.”
And if Dad is willing to beat a Black man (Ashley Thomas‘ Jaydee) to an inch of his life in public, that Black man must have been willing to do the same even though he did nothing but give the boy a genuine and reciprocal smile. That’s the knee-jerk reaction in play. That’s what creates a shoot on sight mentality so you never have to allow your enemy the time necessary to become human. So rather than simply beat Jeffrey up as payback, Jaydee’s “gang” decides to unmask the reality of these white supremacist’s so-called power. They seek to use Jeffrey not as a martyr, but an example for how superficial his hate is. This isn’t teaching him about being Black. Their lesson is about dehumanization.
How Nattiv and Maymon pull off that education borders on high concept science fiction in a way that twenty minutes can’t quite pull off without troubles. This is an allegory using real-world issues and thus needs more room to differentiate itself as a heightened parallel. To spring what happens upon us will seem silly to some and thus negate its messaging. For others it will be hard to ignore that Blackness is the method of dehumanization even if it’s Blackness seen through the eyes of a Nazi rather than true Blackness. The differentiation is handled fast and loose so nobody can dismiss that reaction as dishonest. But if you’re able to see past the machinations of the parable, Skin can spark a conversation about our weaponization of fear.