“Skin” (2008) is a British film based on the true life story of Sandra Laing, a black girl born to white parents in South Africa in the days of apartheid, back when the races were kept apart by law. It stars Sophie Okonedo as Sandra Laing, Sam Neill as her father and Alice Krige as her mother. It was directed and produced by Anthony Fabian.
I like Sophie Okonedo, so odds were I would like the film too, which I did, but it made me like her even more.
To Okonedo it is a film about identity, of how you fit in.
To Neill it was about how people are shaped by their time and place.
To Krige it is about how love can overcome the hurt we cause each other.
To Fabian it is about hope, tolerance and forgiveness, of overcoming our differences.
To me it was about how utterly mad the whole idea of race is. Racists like to say that racism is rooted in nature, but anything that could separate parent from child is rooted in something unnatural.
It was very upsetting to watch. Yet they made it way less upsetting than her true story by leaving stuff out – like how she was separated from her own children for years due to both apartheid and her father’s fight to keep her white in the eyes of the law.
None of that. Instead they showed her father on his deathbed changing his mind about disowning her – something which, as far as I know, is not true. (What I know of her is based mainly on accounts in the British press.)
One of the best parts of the film is that you get to see her meet her mother again after 20 years, after her father’s death and the fall of apartheid. I knew about that, but it is one thing to read about it and another to see it.
Most would suppose that Sandra Laing looked part black because her mother had an affair with a black man. The film allows you to believe that her mother most likely was faithful and that white South Africans just are not as lily white as they like to believe, so every now and then one of them will not be able to pass for white.
Sophie Okonedo was wonderful as Sandra Laing: the hurt and confusion written all over her face, her pig-headed, never-say-die spirit, her courage. She seemed so lonely and lost I kept wanting to hug her.
Sam Neill was believable as the father even though some of his character’s actions were extreme, to say the least. Unlike Hilly in “The Help”, he was not made into a cartoon racist.
Alice Krige was good too. She, by the way, grew up in that time and place, out in the South African countryside in the days of apartheid. She is just a year older than Sandra Laing herself.