You might recall the mawkish tale told by Fannie Hurst in “Imitation of Life”—of a black girl passing for white and destroying her relationship with her loving mother in the process—when you watch “Skin,” a very different take on such racially-charged material. Set in South Africa during the last decades of apartheid, it’s the true-life story of Sandra Laing, who, though born to white parents, had dark skin and on that basis was officially categorized as black by government fiat. The decision was fought by her father, who saw it as an assault on his own racial identity, and eventually the government changed its policy; but when Sandra became involved with a young black man, he reacted violently.
Eventually Sandra ran away with her black lover and had two children by him, even electing to change her legal status to black. But her life was intensely unhappy. Shunned by her father, who even prevented his wife from contact with their daughter, she was also abused by her husband, who came to believe that his own misfortunes were the result of a curse laid on him for marrying a white woman. Eventually she fled with her children and struggled to make a life for herself with the still-segregated society, and only after her father’s death did she reconnect with her mother.
With its bookending sequences set at the time of the country’s first post-apartheid elections in 1994, when Laing has become a kind of celebrity, and the real-life “what followed” inserts accompanying the final credits (one of which adds the sad note that her brothers will still not have any contact with her), you can imagine this story as an uplifting TV film. But a good one, a powerful fact-based parable illustrating exactly how irrational and cruel racial bigotry is.
Neither the screenplay by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt and Helena Kriel nor the helming of first-time director Anthony Fabian is particularly imaginative, but they present the narrative straightforwardly, without frills, and don’t fall into the trap of giving in to the maudlin potential of what’s basically a tale of personal tragedy and triumph that mirrors that of Laing’s whole country. They certainly don’t shrink from the more depressing aspects of the story: the reality of Afrikaner racism is successfully conveyed, Abraham Laing’s stand on his daughter’s behalf is shown to have been based on his racism, and the cruelty of the last stages of Sandra’s initially idyllic marriage to Petrus Zwane (who’s noted, in the final credits, as having died in a drunken brawl) is presented unflinchingly. And the widescreen cinematography of Dewald Aukema and Jonathan Patridge makes excellent use of the locations.
The argument behind apartheid, moreover, is presented in a dramatic fashion that one might dismiss as sheer rationalism, but with as much reasonableness as can be mustered. The brief scenes of teachers indoctrinating students in the differences between the races are horrible, of course, but they’re presented in a low-key, matter-of-fact way that makes them even more so. And when the Laing case is brought before the country’s highest court, for example, a scientist testifies that most Afrikaners probably carry the genetic material that could produce an apparently “black” child because of the sexual contact between the races over the colonial period—a view that upsets the white observers but will upset viewers instead for the realization that it could ever have made any difference to people.
And the film is strongly cast. Ella Ramangwane does a fine job as the young Sandra, who’s surprised by the prejudice she encounters when she first moves beyond her rural family’s closed circle by going off to boarding school, where she’s beaten by a vicious teacher, and Sophie Okonedo takes over the role with both passion and quiet dignity. Sam Neill captures the conflicted nature of Abraham without being too obvious about it, and Alice Krige portrays Sannie Laing’s similar struggle between love of her daughter and fidelity to her husband with even greater subtlety. Tony Kgoroge is equally persuasive as Sandra’s initially jovial but ultimately brutal husband.
“Skin” tells an unusual story that emphasizes the absurdity of racial prejudice. And it does so if a forthright fashion that makes it all the more dramatically effective.