The skinhead lifestyle and uniform have been displayed intermittently in cinema since at least the early 1990’s, presented and received ambivalently, with open arms, or with disgust. What is confusing about the “boots and braces” look is that those who do not understand the codifying characteristics of the style often cannot tell the difference between neo-Nazi, white supremacist skins, and those who have an anti-racist, left-wing agenda. The two mirror each other. Originating from the working class of mid-1960’s London, Dick Hebdige describes the look as “Aggressively proletarian, puritanical and chauvinist, the skinheads dressed down in sharp contrast to their mod antecedents in a uniform which Phil Cohen (1972a) has described as ‘kind of a caricature of the model worker’: cropped hair, braces, short, wide levi-jeans or functional sta-prest trousers, plain or striped button down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished Doctor Marten boots.”
With fascism in the air since before the most recent presidential election season, it has inevitably become a fetishized and critiqued subject for many media makers. Some fascist representations come in ordinary forms, inside a business suit, albeit with an orange face and noticeable toupee. Most recently we have been inundated with images of young man in polo shirts and chinos, carrying tiki torches. Others harken back to imagery and narratives of Nazism and World War II, for example the swastika draped, Philip K. Dick inspired, Man in the High Castle, via Amazon. Then we have the neo-Nazi skinhead. Going at least as far back as Russell Crowe in the 1992 Australian picture Romper Stomper, we have also seen Edward Norton as a skin in American History X (1998), Ryan Gosling in The Believer (2001), and most recently the Netflix-acquired mini-series NSY German History X, and Harry Potter himself in Imperium (i.e. Daniel Radcliffe, both 2016). The example primarily at consideration here is Jeremy Saulnier’s punks versus skins picture Green Room, of 2015. The confusion of the movie begs the formidable question—why do some—mostly white—audiences enjoy watching the figure of the skinhead on screen?
The directors of Romper Stomper and American History X (Geoffrey Wright and Tony Kaye, respectively) include übermensch type protagonists that the audience is invited to identify with, allowing them to “play racist” or act out violent racist fantasies via cinematic spectatorship. The films attempt to be justified by their conclusions, making these characters look ultimately ridiculous or regretful. I recall watching American History X as a teenager—during a dramatically shot scene in which a group of skins, lead by Edward Norton in the terrifying role of Derek Vinyard, triumph over a group of black men on a neighborhood basketball court, a friend of mine—himself a person of color—pumped his fist, and shouted “yeah!” only to immediately realize that film, used as a manipulative tool, tricked him into rooting for exactly who he should be against. This is an excellent example of how cinema is dangerous when used as a successful propagandistic tool, which passive audiences don’t notice. This goes all the way back to the German Third Reich, when Leni Riefenstahl, one of the first great documentarians, unfortunately happened to be a Nazi.
Since then I have wondered how many impressionable young people glorified the roles in American History X and Romper Stomper, not bothering to watch the films critically. This is not an unfounded concern when you take stock in just how many Scarface t-shirts were in fad a number of years ago—apparently those men with Al Pacino’s face on their chests didn’t realize that Scarface, aka Tony Montana, is an impotent, insecure man who harbors incestuous desires for his sister. I never understood what was badass about Scarface, nor do I understand the allure of white supremacy in the figure of the skin. That being said, many people, from the 1% to the working class that the look originated from, do find the image alluring.
In Green Room, Saulnier doesn’t bother playing these games, immediately making the skinheads out to be a group of villains, certainly a positive step, but the film is still irredeemably flawed. The film could have alternate horror movie names like Don’t Play Shows at the Skinhead Club, or The Band who Saw too Much. While it is advertised as a thriller, the complete stupidity of the main characters, members of a band called The Ain’t Rights, leads them to playing a show at a venue knowingly ran by fascist white supremacists. Predictably, things don’t go very well for them, and the band members have to fight for their lives in order to live and regain the light of freedom by the film’s conclusion.
By the above description, no one should be surprised to find out that all members of the Ain’t Rights are white. If this was otherwise, the film simply would not work, because any band that includes people of color would presumably have the survival instincts to avoid a club ran by fascist skinheads. This is the problem with Green Room—it sets up an ominous, politically relevant group of antagonists, but doesn’t bother including any of the groups that white power skinheads aim to antagonize: people of color, Jews, foreigners, and other groups not properly “pure.” Instead, the audience is left rooting for… a band of white punk rockers, who in the larger schemes of privilege just seem kind of foolish for deciding to literally deal with skinheads in the first place. The worrying rub of Green Room is the possibility that an audience of privileged, white—mostly male—punk rockers can embody the opposition to a fascist threat and feel good about it, while not having to acknowledge the minoritized groups that the fascists are actually out to hurt. The dangers of this strange heterotopic space, where white punks battle white fascists, is that 1) there is no progress being made against the fascist threat and 2) our protagonists, who have the ability to navigate a fascist space, could join them if in their ultimate best interests.
The movie opens with the Ain’t Rights meeting up with a mohawked punk named Tad (David W. Thompson) in Portland, Oregon. The show he originally booked for them fell through, but he is able to get them a back up show—at a local Mexican restaurant. The joke can be appreciated by many punk fans who may have seen bands disrupt the normal flow of Mexican or Chinese restaurants around the nation. This is just one aspect of the relationship between punk rockers and minority ethnic groups that is not often talked about. Some famous examples are Madame Wong’s, which operated in LA’s Chinatown in the late 70’s, and San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club turned punk haven in the 80’s. It should also be mentioned that from the beginning of punk rock scenes in the US, many band members have been people of color, queer, and/or marginalized in different fashions; think Alice Bag of The Bags, Pat Smear of The Germs (as well as that band’s closeted gay front man Darby Crash), the all-black Bad Brains, queer Latino Martin Sorrondeguy of Los Crudos, and the Puerto Rican-born, temporary Black Flag singer Ron Reyes, who often included the song called “White Minority” in sets. I write out this list to indicate that it would not have been strange if Green Room director, Jeremy Saulnier included band members of color (at least there is one woman (Alia Shawkat), although she stereotypically plays the bass).
From there, Tad is able to hook them up with another show deep in the woods of the state, with the “boots and braces” crowd. Just the mention of a group of white folks in the woods of Oregon, is enough to remind viewers of the snack-craving, right-wing Bundy militia that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year. When the Ain’t Rights ask if the venue’s crowd are racist or anti-racist skins, Tad replies, “right wing… or technically ultra-left.” This line of dialogue brings up two substantial points. First of all, the distorted language of what is left versus right-wing politics is rendered useless by so many convoluted façades people create. “Right or ultra-left” implies the revolutionary possibilities always inherent in political discourse, indicating a circular perspective that renders the dominant on top and defeated on the bottom of a circle that is always turning, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Left and right dots on a straight line are primitive ways of defining political views. More practically, however, this moment when the band understands the show being offered to them is ran by a bunch of neo-fascists in the middle of nowhere, is the crux of the picture. If even one of the Ain’t Rights band members were of color, they would logically move on; the fact that all four of them are white—or I should clarify that they at least pass as white—gives them the privilege to enter a neo-fascist space and think they can walk away unscathed.
Any band that was explicitly against fascism would not accept a show at a fascist venue. The ambivalence that the Ain’t Rights display is in a way deplorable, since they are knowingly participating in a fascist economy, one that is actively against people of color and other ethnic groups, nationalities, etc. When they decide to childishly protest (like punk rockers are known to do) the crowd by playing a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” bottles are thrown at the stage and SS emblazoned crowd members spit at them, but in the end it appears that they will walk away. The band would have walked away if they didn’t happen to stumble on a young woman’s dead body with a knife lodged in her head. The Ain’t Rights don’t become a group to be attacked by the skinheads until they witness the latter group’s lethal violence. Everything that ensues after this isn’t about race or class at all, it is simply an attempt at an elaborate cover up dressed in boots and braces. Our protagonists might as well be running away from zombies or werewolves—there is nothing overtly political about it at all.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the fascist and anti-fascist skinheads are a mirror for each other. This is directly illustrated in Green Room when the last surviving member of the Ain’t Rights, Pat (one of the last roles Anton Yelchin played before his tragic death) shaves his head and dons a dead skinhead’s clothing in order to fake out his aggressors. Although ultimately a strategic move, symbolically it shows that a privileged, white male can transform himself into the image of fascism in order to either beat it or join it. Black and brown-skinned people do not have this ability. While still highly entertaining—at least for the author of this article, who is a white male—the intensity of the film having any valid political content is rendered null. It aims and misses the mark.
Saulnier’s brilliant, previous film Blue Ruin of 2013, deals with a white man in Virginia who ends up having many set backs while attempting to exact revenge on the white trash, redneck family responsible for his parents’ deaths. In both films it becomes apparent that the director has a preoccupation with the violence inherent in white American culture. Interestingly, the only police officer with speaking lines in Blue Ruin happens to be a black woman (Sidné Anderson), who’s appearance intimidates our protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair). Later on at a diner, Dwight tells his sister that he killed one of the Cleland family, this confession jarringly interrupted by a black man asking to borrow the ketchup from their table (Daniel C. Kelly, who is actually credited as “Ketchup Man”). In Blue Ruin, Saulnier acknowledges the existence of other races on the periphery of his Caucasian-centric yarn, which makes the complete absence of any people of color in Green Room that much more disappointing. The writer/director shows the potential to create situations of racialized tension, but doesn’t. What is the point of a film about scary white supremacists if there is literally zero people for them to hate, except for a band who saw too much? Saulnier is fascinated by and fetishizes the boots and braces culture, but for all the wrong reasons. Green Room is ultimately a movie that is all dressed up (in suspenders, levi-jeans, Doc Martens and bomber jackets) with no place to go.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen and Co, Ltd, 1979. p. 55.