Never forget, never give up

Main Actors: Sophie Okenedo, Sam Neill, Alice Krige

Director: Anthony Fabian

Skin PosterOnce something horrible is “over” human beings have a tendency to want to forget.  Slavery, the Holocaust, genocide – it’s tempting to want to “move on”.  Unfortunately, we know what happens to those who refuse to learn from history – and you can’t learn from something nobody wants to discuss.   Media has become one of the most powerful forces in the goal to remind everyone of the lives destroyed and lost to human atrocity, keeping memory alive.  Skin is the story of one woman’s experience with South African apartheid at its height.  You will not forget the story of Sandra Laing, and with that the film accomplishes something important.  It also happens to be a pretty good movie.

In the mid-1960s there was a little girl living happily in the South African countryside with her parents and older brother.  They were white landowners who ran a small store and employed a significant number of black workers.  They also begrudgingly sold merchandise to black patrons.  The Laing family firmly supported the apartheid government and its laws and rules.  Unfortunately for father Abraham (Sam Neill) and to a lesser extent mother Sannie (Alice Krige) they just happened to give birth to decidedly black children.  The boys, though dark in coloring, were able to pass as white without much problem.  Sandra, on the other hand, was clearly a black child, no matter what her parents looked like.  In 1960s South Africa this was a more or less insurmountable problem.

Skin tells the story of Sandra Laing and her struggle to fit in first with her family and later into a larger society that did not want to admit she existed at all.  To what lengths will a white family go to deny that their daughter is black?  To what lengths will the government go to assure that this family unit is unsustainable?  How is Sandra supposed to survive, live, grow into an adult?  Those questions and more are asked and answered by Skin.

Your first reaction is probably skepticism.  How can white parents have a black child?  That would seem to undermine the entire premise of the film.  Except, you see, Sandra Laing is a real woman.  Her story is true, her parents were white and her life was a fresh hell of institutionalized racism the likes of which most of the world has already forgotten.  Her father was indeed her father, as far as could be determined at the time.  She continues to live with the memories of being shunned by both the culture in which she was raised and by the very people who raised her.

A film festival darling, Skin largely flew under the mainstream radar, which is unfortunate.  Its cast is formidable, led by a terrific performance by Sophie Okonedo as Sandra as a teenager and adult.  We already knew that Okonedo was a force to be reckoned with after Hotel Rwanda and she seals her acting cred with Skin.   Her Sandra is independent and strong (qualities ironically instilled by her father’s “never give up” advice) during an era in which both are looked at as utterly inappropriate – especially for a black girl.  She has to make her way in a world where she has no place and Okonedo makes her both sympathetic and a magnetic presence.

Supporting Okonedo are Sam Neill and Alice Krige.  You aren’t going to like these people – him less than her.  But they will haunt you in a way only really good actors in well written roles can.  It’s hard to imagine taking some of the actions they choose against your own child, but we believe they think they are doing the right thing.  Neill, especially, makes us understand that while he thinks he’s right, his decisions torture him almost as much as they torture his family.  Young Ella Ramangwane is completely adorable and heartbreaking as young Sandra, who does not understand why her world is turning upside down.

Director Anthony Fabian handles Sandra’s story with respect and empathy for all involved.  Sandra herself appears in one of the DVD bonus featurettes and it’s fascinating and oh, so sad to see the lifelong impact of a government so filled with hatred that it tore apart parent and child.  Skin is the kind of story we need to remember.  Kudos to all involved for giving us the chance to know Sandra Laing and remember what we all seem perilously close to forgetting.  Four stars out of five.


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