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Sophie Okonedo in SKIN (Photo: The Little Film Company)

Directed by
Anthony Fabian
Produced by
Fabian, Genevieve Hofmeyr & Margaret Matheson
Written by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt & Helena Kriel, based on the book When She Was White by Judith Stone
Released by the Little Film Company
UK/South Africa. 107 min. Rated PG-13
Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Ella Ramangwane, Faniswa Yisa & Tony Kgoroge

If Skin was not based on the life of a real person it would seem an Orwellian dystopia or Kafkaesque allegory. Beautifully filmed on location in South Africa, the story of one woman’s life on the color line provides a sobering lesson about racism and the brutal reality of apartheid.

The joyous exuberance of South Africa’s first post-apartheid democratic election in 1994 opens the film, with the memorable sight of long lines of black voters eager to mark their first ballot. However, middle-aged factory worker Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo) is less enthusiastic. When a TV news crew seeks her out for comment she demurs that it’s all “too late.”

Her skin color was the basis for a controversial court case in the 1960s that led to bureaucratic changes in the country’s notorious and arbitrary race classification laws. Flash back to rural Eastern Transvaal in 1965, and she’s a young girl with dark skin and curly hair (Ella Ramangwane) calling out to her mother in the kitchen. Two women are there, the black maid and the white lady of the house, Sannie (Alice Krige)—it’s the latter who answers her daughter’s call with an embrace.

Sheltered in that embrace and the indulgence of her Afrikaans father, shopkeeper Abraham (Sam Neill), the girl has no sense a larger world will look askance at her, until she joins her light-skinned older brother at boarding school. The name calling, finger pointing, and social rejection build to expulsion, even though her father insists that her birth certificate categorizes her as white. While the way he treats his black customers and tradesmen makes clear his racial biases, Abraham keeps fighting her reclassification to “coloured,” attracting press attention that confuses and humiliates her. Even a supportive geneticist calls her “a throwback” to her distant African ancestors. (Elia Kazan‘s fictional Pinky in 1949 featured the travails of a white “throwback” in an African-American family.)

“She’s white again!” her father excitedly announces when legislation passes declaring the children of white parents white regardless of appearance. So Sandra can by 1973 again attend a white school (from the shy teenager on she is played convincingly by Okonedo). there, the white boys find excuses not to date her and treat her condescendingly, but not the handsome black vegetable seller Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), with whom she falls in love. Her enraged father disowns her as he sees all his efforts to keep her protected as white shatter, and her devoted mother is too anguished to challenge him.

After she runs away from home with Petrus, she is like Alice down the rabbit hole as she (and the audience) are suddenly thrust into the harsh world of being non-white—prison, living in an illegal township, and then like refugees in a shantytown. She tries to get herself reclassified as black again, this time to legitimatize her life with Petrus and their children. Through it all, and into post-apartheid adjustments, she hopes to reunite with her estranged parents.

The on-location authenticity lifts director Anthony Fabian’s poignant debut feature out of pathos and melodrama—from the slang to the intermingling of languages (Alice Krige, though known for her American and British roles, is a native Afrikaans speaker) to South Africa’s overwhelming landscapes and crowded townships.

There are no politicians or political strategizing here (see Endgame, currently being shown on PBS, for a dramatization of how apartheid was ended through difficult negotiations). Instead, the impact of rigid laws of a nation that judged people by the color of their skin instead of the content of their character is starkly personalized. Never again, amen. Nora Lee Mandel
October 30, 2009



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