Movie Review: <i>Skin</i> Is Deep

To get a sense of just how deep the lingering effects of institutionalized racism in South Africa must run, take yourself to, a powerful and compelling drama based on a true story.
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The corrosive legacy of South Africa's apartheid system is still being felt, 15 years after that country's first free elections and its move to majority rule.

To get a sense of just how deep the lingering effects of institutionalized racism must run, take yourself to Anthony Fabian's Skin, a powerful and compelling drama based on a true story that still resonates. It opens Friday (10.30.09) in limited release.

The film looks at the life of Sandra Laing (played by Sophie Okonedo as a teen and adult, Ella Ramangwane as a child), a black-looking child born to white parents in South Africa in the mid-1950s. Though her parents, Abraham and Sannie (Sam Neill, Alice Krige), are in denial as the film begins, it's apparent to anyone who sees Sandra that she is, to use the terms of apartheid, colored, meaning of mixed race - if not wholly black.

Still, as the film begins, the Laings are enrolling the young Sandra in the private school where their older son, Leon, is also a student. Sannie pointedly ignores the hard looks and whispers of the other parents, who seem startled and upset that a colored child would be mingling with their lily-white offspring.

When it becomes an issue - when complaints lead school officials to first mistreat, then expel Sandra - Abraham makes it his mission to have Sandra declared white by the government. At one hearing, a genetics expert testifies (to chuckles and murmurs of disapproval from the courtroom audience) that, in fact, most Afrikaaners have at least a few black genes. Sandra, he says, could easily be a product of what is known as polygenic inheritance - or, more colloquially, she is a throwback.

It's enough to sway South Africa's legislative body to declare that race will legally be determined by descent, rather than appearance: "She's white again," Abraham crows when the ruling is finally made - as though saying, instead of seeing, is believing. A member of the National Party and a believer in apartheid, he has been vindicated (though he has suspected Sannie of infidelity practically since Sandra's birth).

But being legally declared white and living in white society with her caramel-colored skin and kinky hair are two different things for Sandra. As Okonedo takes over the role, playing Sandra as a teen, her adjustment is still difficult. Her father tries to fix her up on dates in their isolated village - but she winds up with young swain who say things like, "I don't mind if you look colored," and, "Does all your hair look like the hair on your head?"

Instead, she finds herself attracted to Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), a black vegetable peddler who sells produce to Abraham's trading-post store. When the racist Abraham discovers the relationship and threatens to kill Petrus, Sandra runs away with him. Eventually, Abraham forces her to choose: Petrus or her family. She chooses Petrus - and Abraham declares her dead to him.

Which is where Skin really gets interesting, in terms of the questions it raises about racial identity and the dilemmas that Sandra must confront.


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