Running time 107 minutes
Written by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel
Directed by Anthony Fabian
Starring Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Sophie Okonedo
Movies about the violent struggles in apartheid-era South Africa have proved to be audience repellents in recent years, but Skin could be different. This accomplished first feature from documentary filmmaker Anthony Fabian tells the extraordinary true story of Sandra Laing, a girl with obvious black genes who is inexplicably born to white parents, illustrating the social and psychological impact of skin color on a single family’s destiny in a much more personal way. In the age of Oprah, the color of a person’s skin is no longer considered of any biological significance, but in Johannesburg, where the first free elections were not held until 1994, the painful repercussions of forced legal segregation still linger.
The heinous Population Registration Act of 1950 required people to be identified, defined, classified and separated from the rest of the populace by color, which causes special agony for Sandra, a bright, pretty girl who’s growing up with her family in a quiet rural area where country folks are less intolerant. Sandra’s parents (played by Sam Neill and Alice Krige) are respected shopkeepers in the remote Transvaal region of Eastern Africa, and rigid followers of the apartheid system, who raise her as a white girl while concealing a basic distrust of each other as they grapple with the mystery of how they could have conceived a black child. Despite their best efforts to carry on as normal, the stigma is inescapable. When she is thrown out of boarding school, her father goes to court to change the law so Sandra can be classified on the basis of heritage instead of appearance and therefore keep her white privileges, but nothing he can do changes the way she is perceived and treated by her peers. Torn by his love for his black daughter and her white brother but unable to hide his resentment of Sandra’s conflicted identity, Mr. Neill is both sympathetic and exasperating as his own prejudice leads him astray from his own family; Ms. Krige (born in South Africa herself, and visibly meeting the challenges of a juicy part driven by emotion) is driven to the brink of marital discord and madness as the mother who takes the girl’s side to protect her from suffering. She thinks you can avoid problems by pretending to be colorblind, but for the child there are endless humiliations. Juxtaposed with home life are unsettling scenes in school, where Sandra’s own teachers teach her white classmates that black children are inferior to other races. You get a creepy sense of the horror of a fascist society that most of the free world ignored as recently as 25 years ago.
The film really takes off when Sandra leaves home for school at age 17, and the excellent actress Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) takes over. Threatened with arrest under South Africa’s morality legislation, enduring the insult of having her cranium measured to determine her learning capacity, trying ski-lightening lotions, trying vainly for some integrity and pride, Sandra has the misfortune of living in a country where everything in life is judged by pigmentation. “Polygenic inheritance” is the official explanation for Afrikaners who carry black cells that only appear after generations of reproduction, and Sandra’s family becomes a test case that changes parliamentary law, as she finally wins the same privileges as her white schoolmates. What they forget to tell her is she is forbidden to marry a man darker than she is. When she falls in love with a decent, loving black farmer, her father is so ashamed and enraged that he burns her possessions, disowns her and severs all connections, and the couple run away together. Then, when the government denies her marriage vows and even threatens to take her baby away if she doesn’t change her birth certificate to “colored,” Sandra spends the rest of her days shuffling around like a refugee, fitting in nowhere, until settling at last in Tjakastad. Her skin is a curse that causes nothing but unhappiness her entire life. White men don’t want her, and the black man she chooses to share her life with and father her two children has fears and resentment of his own, holding over her head the notion that “you can always go home.” Even the long-delayed reunion with her dying father offers little satisfaction. But at least her dedication to equality and fighting intolerance gives hope to future generations in a newly liberated South Africa. Sandra is now a heroic figure, her harrowing story an inspiration to women with no place in their lives for ambiguity. This movie also shows she was a tragic figure, too. The anguish she endures has a lingering effect long after the film ends.
Director Anthony Fabian unravels Sandra’s saga in layers, unfolding over several years, from puberty to womanhood, and Sophie Okonedo leads a very good cast. With her finely chiseled features and consistent struggle for inner peace, she’s perfect in the central role. Unfortunately, as a biopic, the film is admirably restrained but uneven. Every emotion is underscored with sugary music, every narrative plot progression telegraphed with the mechanical structural stiffness of a made-for-TV movie. Despite Ms. Okonedo’s valiant work, the script substitutes sentiment for real character exploration, and Sandra’s relationships with her children are skimpy at best. Skin is better when the personal story melds into a much larger cautionary tale about what the evils of Apartheid did to destroy the populace of an otherwise beautiful country, and how its eventual demise has shaped a
richer, more humane future for all.