Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony represented a show of conflicting ideas – at moments the increasingly diverse voting Academy seemed to actually be making a change, from Black Panther’s Afrofuturism costume and production design snatching victory from the more typically Oscar-friendly period stylings of The Favourite to the legendary Spike Lee finally receiving his long-overdue recognition. But other decisions were disappointingly retrograde, such as the choice to give the most awards of the evening to the astonishingly generic Bohemian Rhapsody, which took home four trophies including a particularly bewildering editing win as well as best actor for Rami Malek’s flaccid central impersonation. The final honor of the night, best picture, would thankfully bypass Rhapsody but only to go to the similarly ire-attracting Green Book; a tepid, reductive tale of how friendship can solve racism.
But while these two films have rightfully been the subject of much online despair in the hours following the ceremony, there’s one winner that seems to have escaped relatively unscathed: the live-action short winner, Skin. Directed by Guy Nattiv, who’s following up Skin with a feature of the same name to be released by A24 later this year, the twenty-one-minute short follows the family of a white supremacist who brutally beats a black man for smiling at his son in a supermarket. What follows is some of the most misguided, inane storytelling I’ve maybe ever seen.
The inciting incident in Skin doesn’t actually happen until roughly seven minutes in – Nattiv opens with an extended introduction to the white family (yes, this is another film about racism framed entirely around the white people). They’re just about the most shameless redneck stereotypes you could come up with – rattails, skinheads, tank-tops, tatts, guns, trucks. They immediately register as totally ludicrous; a cartoon depiction of a real problem and little characterization is given to break free of the stereotype. It’s a pointless exercise in immersing the viewer in these people’s lives.
After father Jeffrey (Jonathan Tucker) and son Troy (Jackson Robert Scott) are done shooting for the day they head to a supermarket along with their white supremacist crew. This is where they encounter and beat the character apparently called Jaydee, though it’s difficult to pick up that he even has a name from the two scenes his character appears in. When you’re making a film about an act of violent racism, it’d be a good idea to have black characters exist as people beyond just being a victim of a hate crime, but Nattiv is content to have Jaydee be introduced, have slurs thrown at him, be brutally beaten and then have no meaningful presence for the rest of the film.
Instead of any focus on the black characters, we’re treated to an excruciatingly tone-deaf dialogue exchange between Troy and his father where they discuss how different species of snake have different skin colors to indicate whether they’re predator or prey. It’s never a good idea to grind your movie to a halt to have characters explain the central metaphor, especially when it’s as blindingly reductive as this. It all plays like a student film – there’s undeniably some impressive craft, and Nattiv pulls devoted performances from his actors, but the messaging and ideas are so undercooked, none more so than the final turn of the film.
Jeffrey eventually is kidnapped by a group of black men who are friends of Jaydee, and their punishment for him is to tattoo his skin black from head to toe. It’s a plot move with a stunning lack of self-awareness, taking a very real act of racial violence and countering it with a horrific revenge fantasy that does nothing to interrogate the motive or to recognize the problematic allusion to blackface. As a logline, it may sound interesting, but in practise, it’s abundantly apparent how fake-deep the idea is, more interested in provocation than in actually saying anything. And in the closing moments of the film, as Jeffrey stumbles home only to be shot by his son who believes he’s a black intruder, this notion is more apparent than ever. Beyond the ignorance in choosing to end this story of modern racism on the white perpetrators it’s just utterly vapid filmmaking, taking a premise that seems like it has the potential for profundity yet realizing it with nothing but nihilism.
It’s an odd choice to take home the Oscar if only for how brazenly unpleasant a watch it is, though an oddly fitting one considering Green Book would take home the feature-length equivalent award. The two films are totally on opposite ends of the spectrum: Green Book opts for a broad, crowd-pleasing approach while Skin abrasively tries to elicit as visceral a reaction as possible, but the two winners together hint at a faux-progressiveness for the Academy that makes their wins all the more obvious. Both are stories about racial injustice that Academy members can pat themselves on the back for rewarding, yet they’re both from white creative teams that fail to do black voices justice, from Skin’s total erasure of black perspective to Green Book misrepresenting the life of Don Shirley. In hindsight, Moonlight winning best picture two years ago was even more remarkable a feat than we could have imagined because while victories for Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman indicate some change in the Academy, films like Skin and Green Book make it clear they still have a long way to go.