Skin (Anthony Fabian, 2009): UK/South Africa

Reviewed by Linda Schad. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Skin, is also, without a doubt, my favorite feature film pick for this year. This selection maybe due to the excellent acting, the fine cinematography, the wonderful music, or the fact that this emotionally riveting film is based upon a true story; but I’m guessing that what pushed it out in front of so many other great films offered at this year’s SBIFF and got it my vote was the subject matter. This film crosses over the obvious racial issues to address many other universal topics to which we can all relate such as love, loyalty, betrayal, identity, personal values and dignity.

Skin is a poignant tale about the racial injustice in the life of Sandra Laing, a black woman who was born to and raised by two white Afrikaner parents during South Africa’s Apartheid. The film opens in 1994; it is the first day of racially nonexclusive free elections. Then the narrative quickly flashes back three decades, to where ten-year old Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) is living with her white parents, Abraham (Sam Neill) and Sannie (Alice Krige) Laing–shopkeepers in the rural eastern region of the Transvaal. No one seems to notice Sandra’s dark skin and nappy hair. That is, until Sandra is old enough to attend classes in the same boarding school where her elder white brother is already enrolled. Suddenly, life is turned upside down.

Both school staff and white students are shocked about having a “colored” child in their midst. When she is expelled, on trumped up charges, Sandra’s father is furious, and starts a campaign to have her reinstated. But when court officials have her reclassified as “colored,” she is expelled from school once again.

Blinded by misplaced pride and indignation, and wholly unaware of what all this uproar is doing to his child, Abraham takes the case to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, where he actually succeeds in changing the laws and having his daughter reclassified as “white”–despite her obvious Negroid features–with all the privileges that entails. This is mainly because both her parents appear to be white, regardless of their genetic background.

In her late teens, Sandra (now played by Sophie Okonedo) is old enough to date; but her father will only allow her to go out with white boys. More heartache and confusion ensue, especially after Sandra falls in love with Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge), a black produce seller who frequents her parents’ store. When Abraham discovers their relationship, he barricades Sandra in her room, and threatens to kill Petrus. Now pregnant and in love, Sandra escapes, and the lovers move into the slums with his black mother.

Despite the joys of a growing family, life is hard for them. But the still bitter and unforgiving Abraham refuses to help. He even takes steps to block correspondence between mother and daughter.

Things in South Africa heat up, and Petrus finds himself unable to provide for his family; turning to alcohol for solace, he blames Sandra for his ongoing problems and takes his frustrations out on her with his fists.

Friendless, without money, and unable to return to a home with her parents, she heads off with nothing but her two small children in tow, to an unknown future. Nevertheless, we know it will be a brighter future where she can be true to herself–with pride and dignity that cannot be broken.

Skin is documentary filmmaker Anthony Fabian’s first feature film; and if this is an example of the type of compelling work we can expect from him in the future. I can hardly wait to see what is next to be served up by this master craftsman. Well done, Anthony!

I cannot close without saying a bit more about Sophie Okonedo. Nominated for an Oscar for her work in Hotel Rwanda, Sophie’s face and talent are unforgettable, and the range of her skill has only grown since–if that is at all possible. The emotions Sophie is able to display upon her face in Skin will twist tears out of your eyes and break your heart. I have also just seen her in “Oliver Twist,” a PBS series currently being aired on TV, and I can tell you this is no flash in the pan actress. Sophie Okonedo is one exceedingly talented lady whom I hope we will be seeing and hearing a lot more about in the not too distant future.

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