Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
"I'm not black," says little Sandra to her schoolmate, after the girl has mentioned that all her best friends back home are black. No, Sandra is "white," as we learn in a terrific movie called Skin, which, before it is over will have sent Sandra, officially, from black to white to black -- and back again. The adult Sandra is played by the beautiful actress Sophie Okonedo (of Hotel Rwanda and Secret Life of Bees), and the younger version by charming newcomer Ella Ramangwane, who comes across as lovely as she is intelligent.
Skin, made in 2008 and only now reaching DVD, is about what its title suggests -- or more precisely about skin color and how it impacts on lives led in South Africa, from the 1960s until the 90s, at which time the official policy of apartheid came to an end. (How apartheid was practiced in South African schools is shown in one scene that will cause your hairs to stand on end.) Sandra's skin is dark, you see, even though the child was born of two white parents, played extremely effectively -- Elephant Man-sized warts and all -- by Sam Neill and Alice Krige. During the closing credit, we see the actual family upon which the film is based, and the resemblances are surprisingly strong.
How do you explain to your mixed race child the ins-and-outs of skin color and other racial features in a society where these count for all -- and the permutations by which that society twists itself into knots trying to smooth out all race wrinkles becomes initially ludicrous and then appalling? This is what Skin shows so well as it tells the story of the Laing family and its three children (two of which bear the hallmarks of African, rather than Afrikaner, ancestry). Sandra's parents demand that she claim her heritage as white, though she clearly looks black, and they even go as far upwards as the country's Supreme Court, using the science of genetics to have the law changed to incorporate their needs. What about Sandra's needs? Her understanding of identity? These, it appear, do not count for much.
How this young woman grows up provides the meat of the story, which is so fascinating, if special to South Africa -- that it could easily get by with only a so-so telling. Fortunately writer-director Anthony Fabian, tells it much better than that. Indeed, though it is not presented with any great "style," the film does not need it. Beginning at the time that apartheid was officially eradicated, Fabian introduces us to a rather cowed Sandra and then flashes back to her early years. In the very first scene from her childhood, the filmmaker neatly pulls our expectations up short. Near the end of the film, too, as a young man lounges on a couch, ignoring his sister's plea for help, we see his father reflected subtly but all too well in his lazy sense of entitlement.
Skin is full of memorable, sometime shocking scenes -- a class recitation of the 7s multiplication table, sticking a pencil in the hair then shaking one's head as a test of racial identity, the sudden destruction of a shanty town that might bring to mind the recent District 9 -- all of which lead us to conclude how sick, brutal and destructive South Africa was under apartheid. Yet as awful as conditions were for blacks during that era, once Sandra is "freed" to live as a black, the cultural differences seem as immense as they often are oddly gratifying.
Skin might best be seen on a double bill with the recent Disgrace: before-and-after book-ends, the latter of which can be understood as one of the many unintended results of South Africa under apartheid. I cannot recommend either movie highly enough.
Extras on the E1 Entertainment DVD just include a behind the scenes featurette and some deleted scenes and outtakes.
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