When the first frame of a film says “based on a true story”, you can usually be sure of 3 things:
1. “based on” are weasel words. The relationship between what is in the film, and what happened in real life will be largely tenuous
2. The film will be celebrated for its “brutal honesty”
3. It won’t just play fast and loose with the truth. If you start to think about it for more than a couple of seconds, you’ll start to realise just how implausible the plot is
Welcome to “Skin”
Bryon (Babs) has a skinhead and a body full of racist tattoos. An early scene shows a Charlotteville-like White Power demo, after which he carves a swastika into the face of a young black boy. Bryon lost his alcoholic parents and was taken in by Shareen and Fred (Ma and Pa) who run the local Neo-Nazi community home.
Babs meets Julie at a racist Viking festival, where she brings her Aryan daughters to sing songs for Odin. She says she’s only doing it for the money, and that she’s now ashamed of her swastika tattoo. But in case you weren’t paying enough attention the first time SHE BRINGS HER YOUNG DAUGHTERS TO SING AT A FESTIVAL OF NAZIS (the shouty caps are for the reviewers who seem to have Julie down as some sort of consistent anti-racist).
Julie gets the hots for the skinhead with Nazi graffiti on his face, but starts to worry that some of his friends may be a little racist, This – and the fire bombing of a mosque – is enough to convince Babs of the error of his ways, and he wants out. No need to deliberate, no thoughts about whether racism is a Good or a Bad Thing. All you need to stop people having Nazi ideas is the love of a good woman (who lets her kids sing at Nazi events for money).
Babs contacts Daryle, an anti-racist activist at the local Law Centre. We know that Daryle isn’t one of those militant activists as in an early scene he warns someone off taking photos of Nazis and sending them to their bosses. Not because it is ridiculous to think that bosses who were perfectly happy to employ skinheads with racist face tattoos would change their minds because of some photos. But because every Nazi has a bit of good in them and if we appeal to their hearts maybe they won’t be so mean.
On top of this, Daryle has a tattoo himself, which says something like “National Uprising 1992”, Now this is not organisation which I know, but I presume would be a Black Nationalist group which grew up around the LA Riots. Daryle is ashamed of the tattoo, and when his family found out about it, he had to kidnap his son to escape. Cos the Antifas are just as bad as the Fascists, innit. This whole scene is understated, but it can surely only be there to say that, hey, Nazis are bad, but they’re not the only ones.
So, sure enough, Daryle is soon putting Babs in touch with the FBI, who are famous for their friendly cooperation with anti-racist law centres. And Babs is naming names and starting the two year process of having the tattoos removed from his face. For anyone who has been naive enough to buy the plot so far, maybe I should point out that there is some serious imagery going on here.
The scenes of Babs on the operation table, apparently without anaesthetic appear early on, and are repeated at regular intervals. Which, among other things, robs us of any dramatic tension worrying whether Babs will survive the threats issued by his old “family”.
Babs is largely saved by a plot that makes little sense at all. There follows a slight plot spoiler, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, please ignore the rest of this paragraph. But this is so annoying that I’ve got to mention it. Babs is severely beaten up by the Nazis and Ma and Pa come to visit him in hospital. Pa plays with his life support machine, sending it into a series of high pitch beeps, indicating imminent death. While he is doing this, Pa worries aloud that he doesn’t know how much Babs has told the Feds. At no time do any nursing staff enter the room on account of all the beeping. And in the next scene, Ma and Pa have left the hospital and Julie is at the bedside. A little later, Babs is shot at by the Nazi gang, presumably because attacking him in his hospital bed would break the notorious Neo-Nazi sense of fair play.
It is perhaps worth saying that the film is well filmed and acted, not least by him out of Billy Elliot. But at a time of Charlotteville and real mass demonstrations of Nazis in Chemnitz, its message that we need to understand a little more and condemn a little less is irresponsible. And I think there is a direct correlation between this political feebleness and the incoherence of the plot.
Which is all a great shame.