Since its ghastly but predictable triumph at the Oscars, Green Book has been called the “worst best picture Oscar winner since Crash,” the latest example of the Academy “pissing on itself on a world stage like Jackson Maine.” Not wrong. Yet Green Book was not the worst movie to win at the Academy Awards last night, nor was its victory the night’s most embarrassing. That is because Skin won.
You might not know what Skin is. The award it won, Best Live Action Short Film, is perennially ignored, one of the “minor” categories that had been scheduled to be awarded during a commercial break before the Academy reversed course. But even in a lineup of nominees in its category that this year included a child slowly sinking to his death in quicksand and another film that reenacted the kidnap and torture of a toddler, Skin was the pièce de résistance, an idiotic parable about racist violence so breathtakingly vulgar that the audience in the theater where I saw it laughed out loud in incredulity when the lights came up. Even when you’ve just watched it, it is honestly hard to believe it’s real. But it is real, and it has an Oscar.
I’m just going to describe the plot now. (Spoilers ahead for a bad movie I hope you never watch.) Skin opens with a portrait of a father, a mother, and their young son, attending backwoods shooting sessions and joyriding a couch tied to the back of a truck. At first, the film reads as an affectionate portrait of a particular flavor of blue-collar whiteness. Then one night at the supermarket, a black man in line smiles at the son, and when the white father sees this, suddenly his Nazi tattoos become clearer. He fires off a racial slur, and the two men exchange words. The father and his Nazi gang then brutally beat the black man nearly to death in the parking lot as his own wife and young son watch, screaming, in a nearby car.
Aside from its cavalier brutality, Skin is, at this point, a familiar but effective story of how racist violence lurks barely below the domestic surfaces of white America. Then this happens: Some time later, the Nazi father falls for a trap in the road and, as his son looks on, is kidnapped and thrown in the back of a van. He’s brought to a garage, where a group of black men—pointedly including a young boy—cut off his clothes and hook him up to an IV. Hmm, we think, not going to end well for the Nazi. Then one of the men fires up a tattoo needle. After a long, creepily lit tattoo session, the group dumps the Nazi in the street, and we realize—as he does—that they have tattooed his entire body so he appears to be dark-skinned. How about that, Nazi guy? The man then goes to his house, where his young son shoots him dead. The camera lingers on the son holding a rifle; he looks scared, but also satisfied with himself, not unlike this film. The end.
Do I need to say more? Do I need to point out the film’s bizarre equation of a Nazi gang with … like, all local black people, bent on tribal racial revenge? Do I need to tease out the actual implications of its big reveal? (Hey, Nazis, did you know you’re a little pigment away from being black??) Do I need to note, again, its lurid obsession with dwelling on the children in the thick of the violence, for a cheap lesson about how racism is learned? Does anyone but Academy members need me to explain how deeply deranged this premise is? Look at the poster for Skin, and you already get a pretty good idea of its crude politics and how unembarrassed and manipulative it is in playing them out. If Green Book’s Best Picture win shows an Academy eager to glad-hand a movie that flatters its “Friendship sees no color!” pretentions, Skin’s win represents the ugly flipside of those sentiments, suggesting the membership is happy to accept that racist hate violence is actually a cycle perpetrated from many directions and passed down to children on “both sides.”
As he took the stage to accept the award, Guy Nattiv, the film’s Israeli director, evoked Holocaust survivors in his family and said “we” see bigotry every day “in America and Europe.” “This film is about education. It’s about teaching your kids a better way,” he said, before his producing partner and wife, Jaime Ray Newman, addressing their young child, added, “We hope you grow up in a world where these things don’t happen, because people learn to love each other.” Ah yes, “these things,” done by “people”! The couple did not thank the Academy, but I would like to, on behalf of everyone who endured Skin because of its endorsement, for the pure dose of clarifying rage its win brought on Sunday night. It was a bracing reminder of how very easy it is to hoodwink this voting body. We hardly needed to wait until Best Picture for that.