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Could you have sympathy for a white supremacist? This feels like one of the main questions the movie Skin, based on the true story of ex-neo Nazi Bryon Widner, asks, and, to be honest, when I started the film I was mad. Israeli-born filmmaker Guy Nattiv desired a documentary feel to the dark deeds Widner performed along with his white surpremacist group, and it made me furious. The film opens in 2009 at a rally in Columbus, OH that brings to mind more recent events like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA. During the rally, Widner and an associate isolate a young black man and carve a Nazi symbol into his face. How can anyone have sympathy, grace, or patience for someone like that? Thankfully, someone did.

“I’m not going to give any neo-Nazi a pass, obviously. But there’s a dynamic that folks need to recognize if we’re going to beat this thing back.” These are the words of Air Force veteran and longtime anti-fascist activist, Daryle Jenkins. “First of all, we’re dealing with people who are damaged, and sometimes you can actually help them. Whenever you can do that, I believe you should. But if they don’t want to be helped, I want everyone to know that our side is going to fight those who seek to cause others harm.”

This is the story Jenkins wanted Nattiv to tell. When we are struggling to see any hope as we watch these acts of hate and violence unfold across cable news and our social media timelines, there are people like Jenkins that can see light in the midst of the darkness. He saw that light in Widner even though his exterior was nearly impossible to see passed. Widner was covered with “patches,” tattooed white supremacist symbols branded across his body. They were rewards for violence, vandalism, and any variety of hate fueled actions.

In an attempt to help the audience understand what goes into becoming someone like Widner, Skin puts on display a comprehensive toolbox these groups employ to create monsters from the ground up. First, they need young people, preferably those who are neglected, abused, and vulnerable. Next, a masterful manipulation is performed by providing basic human needs like food, shelter, or employment, but then they cement their hold with easy access to drugs, alcohol, and sex. That’s what gets the hook in, but what keeps a person in that lifestyle? Sometimes it is belief, they truly believe in the rhetoric of hate. However, often, it is fear and a lack of hope.

New hope entered Widner’s life when he found his wife, Julie. Seeing what a true family offers helped breakthrough the barriers of manipulation that brought him into his white supremacist community, and his whole life changed. As hope increased, so did his fear. It didn’t take long until he was receiving death threats from his former family. He needed help so he turned to Jenkins and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Early in the film, Widner, who is played with such fierceness and vulnerability by Jamie Bell, defiantly goes out of his way to show police one of his “patches” that reads, “Snitches get stitches.” Snitching, it turns out, is exactly what he had to do. He was able to provide helpful information to law enforcement to assist in their quest for justice. In return his family was protected, but he still had another fire to walk through. Truly getting out required pain. It required sacrifice. Then again, redemption often does.

In fact, redemption requires change. In scripture this is described as being cut to the heart. In Deuteronomy 30:6 Moses tells his people, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” And cut he was. Widner’s story gained national attention after MSNBC aired a piece called Erasing Hate that documented the some 25 surgeries over the course of a year and half that removed Widner’s extensive tattoos. Stitches, indeed.

The story of Daryle Jenkins and Bryon Widner is not an easy one to digest. It’s messy. It’s frustrating. It’s scary, but it is so incredibly important. Hope is hard to see in our world today, but everyday people like Daryle Jenkins and the SPLC fight for it in the darkest places. Change often seems impossible, yet they see it taking place bit by bit in courtrooms and in the hearts of men. Widner’s tattoos told a story of violence, hate, and a young man who fell prey to real evil, but a new story of hope and light is written across his blank skin.

Skin is rated R for disturbing violent content, pervasive language, sexuality, and brief drug use. It is set for release July 26th.

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