Alice Krige, Ella Ramanqwane, Ella Ramanqwane
  4 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

"Skin" is the true story of Sandra Laing, a young girl caught up in a maelstrom of racial intolerance. If you're going to release a film about prejudice and racial injustice, why not set it in South Africa, the cradle of bigotry and narrow-mindedness?

"Skin" follows Sandra journey from childhood to motherhood, from segregation to emancipation. There's a huge twist - Sandra's parents, store owners Abraham (Sam Neil) and Sanny (Alice Krige) are white. Sandra was born with the features and coloring of a black girl and in the mid 1960s in South Africa that meant she was subject to the laws of Apartheid, the stringent equivalent of segregation in the U.S.. No one believes Sandra is the couple's biological daughter, and to make matters worse she's been raised believing she's white, which guarantees her life is going to be a solitary hell.

When Sandra attends a white boarding school the principal makes it his mission to have her expelled, even though her birth certificate says she's white. The scene in which a doctor sticks a pencil in Sandra's hair to prove it's kinky and then glimpses at her butt to confirm her black features is both telling and repulsive.

Sandra is reclassified as black and is expelled from school. Abraham fights in the courts to have her re-reclassified as white. Media and political pressure builds, forcing changes in the law. Sandra is classified white again, which elevates her social status, but doesn't cure her insecurities or isolation.

Now 17, Sandra catches the eye of Petrus, a black man who sells produce to her father. Against her parent's wishes, she falls in love with him. ("Dead and buried," Abraham says to Petrus. "That's what you'll be if you come near my family or property again.") When Abraham threatens to disown Sandy if she disobeys him, she runs away with Petrus. Sandra's sense of self and well-being grows while she lives with Petrus and his family in a black community, but she longs to reconcile with her parents.

Sam Neil is superb portraying a father who is both contrary and contradictory. In order to get his daughter designated white, he takes her case all the way to the Supreme Court, yet he calls his employees "kaffers" (the equivalent of the N word in Afrikaner) and shoots to kill when he aims his pistol at Petrus. The viewer gets the feeling that Abraham isn't fighting the good fight for his daughter - he's fighting for himself, for his pride and his reputation. He loves daughter, as long as she abides by his rules and lives her life the way he wants her to. He turns his back on her and makes his position clear to Sanny when he realizes she met with Sandra and her family behind his back: "If I ever find them here I will kill them...and then myself." Neil is tender, torn, protective, rash, loving and angry and gives a wonderfully rounded performance, including a spot on Afrikaner accent that would fool Pieter Botha.

Ella Ramanqwane is a moppet revelation as young Sandra. She captures Sandra's innocence, confusion and sadness, particularly in the scene where she's embarrassed and whipped in front of her classmates. She out performs Sophie Okonedo, who portrays Sandra as a teenager and an adult -- and that's no easy feat given Okonedo's past Oscar nomination for "Hotel Rwanda."

Okenedo is a bit too old to pull off the wide-eyed innocent teen phase of Sandra's life, but shines as Sandra's conflicted and eventually emotionally emancipated older self.

Alice Krige gives a career performance as Sanny, Sandra's sympathetic and loving mother. Krige grew up in South Africa and her pre and post Apartheid guilt seeps into her character's Mother Theresa personality. Sanny draws the line at Sandra dating Petrus (as her emphatic slap across the chops proves), but unlike her husband, her reaction isn't out of embarrassment or her fear that Sandra's breaking the law - she's more worried about the personal hardship Sandra will face if she falls in love with a black man. 

Extra Skin

"Skin" has many enlightening extras, including interviews, a script development workshop, a behind the scenes featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes that show the seriousness of the subject matter didn't completely dampen the actors' ability to laugh at themselves.  

Director Anthony Fabian's reasons for making "Skin" go beyond the typical goals of box office success or Oscar worthiness: "It's an important film because many people have already started to forget what Apartheid was." Sam Neill's understanding of his character's character (or lack thereof) is in part responsible for his outstanding performance: "(Abraham) is a man of his time and place. That doesn't excuse any of it, but explains it. Explaining and excusing are two different things."

The most touching interview is with the real life Sandra Laing, who is obviously still affected by what she went through as a child and mother.

You have to have a thick skin in order to wade through all the misery, bullying and degradation Sandra endures, and if "Skin" makes you feel uncomfortable, well then maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.



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