Directed by Anthony Fabian
Written by: Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel
Starring: Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Tony Kgoroge
Run Time: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Truth is always more bizarre than fiction, and also more absurd. Both appalling and touching, Skin would be ferocious satire if it weren’t so sad. San Francisco-born director Anthony Fabian’s real-life account of apartheid in South Africa is set among the golden hill farms and shanties of its rural uplands, and the tale is tragic and ridiculous at once.
A young girl with curly black hair and dark skin is born to a fair-skinned Afrikaner couple running a struggling grocery store in East Transvaal. It transpires they have moved there because of the unexplained pigmentation of their daughter, hoping that she will escape attention and grow lighter as she grows older.
Instead, ten year-old Sandra Laing is caught at the worst moment of South African history, inside a political system that doesn’t admit of any black genes amongst its white settlers, still less the possibility that darker children may be born to white parents due to the genetic quirks of unknown black ancestors from centuries ago.
Bullied by the other children, little Sandra is expelled from school between two policemen when their parents start complaining about her presence. Then, prodded and subjected to batteries of genetic tests – a doctor pokes pencils in her hair – she’s reclassified as black, but not before her mother is accused of adultery under the South African Immorality Act and the family endures even more harassment.
Sandra’s father – played by Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Tudors) – is a typical Afrikaner diehard, pro-apartheid and determined to pursue any number of blood tests to prove his paternity and Sandra’s whiteness. Incensed, he takes her case all the way up to the Supreme Court in Pretoria, and after further blood tests manages to get little Sandra reclassified as white under special new family laws.
But this only complicates her life further when her parents insist on her dating oafish white farmers’ sons, and try to ban her from seeing the young black boy she is meeting in secret, Petrus (Tony Kgoroge). As played by the luminous half-Nigerian British actress Sophie Okonedo, Sandra is every bit as strong as her father and has inherited his stubbornness, but she’s drawn to the black culture all around her.
Sandra’s relations with her parents and in particular with her father soon become strained to breaking. It’s a performance that stresses her courage and endurance. Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda, Dirty Pretty Things) downplays her natural zest, and brings out Sandra’s fierce sensitivity. This is a girl who suffers humiliation after humiliation, and her father’s efforts on her behalf make everything far, far worse.
After he threatens her lover’s life, the two escape to Swaziland, where Sandra is arrested and tried as an illegal minor. This is the experience that alienates her from her family and white Afrikaners for good, confirming her decision to get reclassified as ‘colored’ or mixed-race in order to marry Petrus – only to discover that she’s escaped into a life of poverty and is still a homeless outsider.
Reduced to a hard-scrabble shantytown existence, soon raising her children alone and rejected by her family, Sandra’s life turns into an unending grind. Her father forbids her mother to see her, although Sandra manages to visit her once. As Sandra’s mother, Alice Krige (Chariots of Fire) heartbreakingly shows the torn loyalties of a mother defying the husband she loves to see her lost daughter.
Factual and melodramatic, all this tends towards made-for-TV land; and TV is where this small movie is probably destined. But the changing and aging of three fine central performances is managed with a sure hand, and it’s a horrifying tale.
Many rebuffs and setbacks later, Sandra tracks down her mother to a nursing home and learns about her father’s dying attempt at reconciliation. It’s a bittersweet discovery – her father died without seeing her again, her life has been anything but easy, and her two brothers remain unwilling to see her to this day.
We meet the real-life Sandra in the final credits as she opens a candy store in a new township. What occasionally comes out as Hallmark Card sentimentality is sobered by the presence of this battered and subdued woman, still struggling to make a life yet unwilling to turn against her parents. They were very good people, she says, and they loved her very much. These days she runs the store and continues to defend her parents: “They’re all you have, they’re who you are,” she tells her children.