From tattooed to tabula rasa: a review of the doc Erasing Hate

Bryon Widner’s tattoo removal progress. Photo copyright Associated Press.

In the documentary Erasing Hate, MSNBC Films follows Bryon Widner, a man who had hate literally written all over him.

A straight razor dripping blood was etched from the tip of Widner’s temple down to his chin. Swastikas and SS symbols covered his arm. He had the name of the Nazi skinhead movement he founded tattooed in cursive along his cheekbone.

Widner was a marked man – and became a mark when he left his white supremacy group after starting a family. Death threats drove him to move and settle in a new state, but his appearance made it impossible to find work.

The film follows Widner for nearly a year and a half as he underwent 25 laser tattoo removal treatments to remove his angry ink.

The journey to tattoo removal started when Widner’s wife, Julie, did something surprising after they started to withdraw from “the movement” – she reached out to African-American anti-hate activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins for support. Jenkins founded One People’s Project, a group that fights the spread of white supremacy groups by organizing counter-demonstration and more.

Jenkins became a friend, and thanks to him, the couple got in touch with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights law firm that aims to prosecute and eradicate hate groups.

Byron Widner began to provide the SPLC, what was once “the enemy”, with inside information on the neo-Nazi movement. In return, the SPLC helped fund laser tattoo removal treatments for Widner – to erase the hate etched across the reformed white supremacist’s face and body.

At times, the documentary feels like an episode of Intervention. Sometimes the producer interrupts the interview to ask something, and there’s some narration when it comes to explaining Widner’s background. I would have preferred to have a textual explanation like in Intervention because I found the narration off-putting.

In some cases, scenes from Widner’s memories were re-enacted, which I found detracted from the whole experience. It would have been nice to focus more on his interview instead of filling the space with a stylized, 20/20 style flashback.

The film is at its best when they interview Widner and his wife before, during, and after his tattoo removal sessions. The interviews are on-location and add atmosphere and context. Watching the doctor stick Widner with syringes full of anesthetic and zap his tattoos away with the laser is powerful. The footage of Widner’s blistered, scabbed, and swollen face and arms is graphic, and it’s an incredible look into the pains of removing the tattoos and the healing that follows.

The documentary captures Widner’s progression from tattooed to tabula rasa very well. Not surprisingly, it captures the progression in his personality, too. As his tattoos fade, his demeanor becomes noticeably softer and a nurse says she thinks he has become “more personable”.

The moment that stuck with me the most was near the end of the film when the couple are on their way to the last tattoo treatment.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this, we wouldn’t be able to afford this without the SPLC,” Widner’s wife, Julie, says. “Somebody cared enough for another human being, you know, and another family, to do this – I’m so incredibly grateful.”

That moment really illustrates that while Erasing Hate is an interesting look inside the white power movement, it’s also a powerful reminder that love and acceptance from people you didn’t expect it from can make all the difference.

* * * *

“Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.” – Edward Furlong as Danny Vinyard in American History X (1998)

* * * *

Erasing Hate is available on Netflix.

You can read more about the Southern Poverty Law Center here and you can read more about Daryle Lamont Jenkins and One People’s Project here.

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One thought on “From tattooed to tabula rasa: a review of the doc Erasing Hate

  1. I thought the documentary was very well done. I was skeptical at first, but as I got into it, it proved to be a bit of a tear jerker. Anyone who thinks this guy is faking it, is crazy. To endure 1 1/2 years of excruciating laser treatments can’t be faking it. Go stick your face into a bucket of acid over and over and over and see how you feel. Its brutally painful. Yes, he was put to sleep for some of it, but crap, I didn’t know why they didn’t do that from the get go.
    30+ needles on one side of his face to freeze it, for the first bunch of visits and there was still a lot of pain from the lasers. I believe he is repenting all of his sins from past doings, through all the pain he endured through the laser treatments. I truly hope he finds peace and he can help fight against all the hate in the US. Good for you Mr. Widner. The roads are long and never a cushy ride, but in the end its all worth it. Nothing good comes easy!

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