It's likely that no one was more startled than Abraham and Sannie Laing, both white, when their daughter Sandra was born black. The apparent result of a recessive gene springing to the forefront generations later, the Laings faced great challenges raising their oft-ostracized girl in apartheid-era South Africa.
Skin, which opens tomorrow in LA and NYC, recounts this fascinating, true story. The film's excellent screenplay and extraordinary acting trio of Sophie Okonedo (as the adult Sandra), Sam Neill (as Abraham) and Alice Krige (as Sannie) bring a little-known historical episode to vivid life. Already a winner of several film festival awards, Skin could well end up a contender among this year's Academy Award nominees.
To their credit, Sandra's parents apparently accepted her completely and treated her no differently than they did their other children. They repeatedly fought school administrators and the apartheid government over several years to have Sandra recognized as their child and ultimately designated "white" so she could enjoy the numerous privileges white Afrikaners had over blacks.
As Sandra matured, however, she ran afoul of her father by rejecting the various white suitors he set her up with and falling in love with a black neighbor. When Sandra bore her lover a baby out of wedlock, her father sadly turned from liberator to oppressor — with Sannie caught in the middle — in his treatment of her.
I found Skin riveting in the frequent shifting of its characters' justifications and allegiances. Abraham's changes most dramatically yet most easily, contrary to his heartfelt feelings for Sandra but faithful to the ideal life he envisions for her. This never seems contrived; rather, it is recognizable even in contemporary individuals and institutions.
Director and co-producer Anthony Fabian makes a very impressive feature debut after directing several short films and operas. He wisely keeps the politics in Skin focused on the family rather than the larger social structures that re-enforced apartheid, an approach that makes the vile system of legalized racism's effects all the more tangible.
Okonedo, an Oscar-nominee a few years back for Hotel Rwanda, is mesmerizing as Sandra from ages 17 to approximately 40. Even better, though, are Krige and the always-reliable Neill. It is wonderful to see Krige back on the big screen, her last notable role in the US having been the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. Krige brings extra credibility to Skin since she was herself raised in South Africa and witnessed apartheid first-hand.
There have already been two movies released this year — District 9 and Disgrace — significant for their reflections on apartheid, which was thankfully dismantled in the 1990's. Skin is even better and harder-hitting than those films because the Laing family's experience as shown is both more personal and has broader implications.
Instead of a girl like Sandra being born black to white parents today, she could be born physically or mentally disabled, lesbian or transgender, or with some other sign of different-ness that even her parents could deem unacceptable. GLBT viewers might feel particularly at home in the territory of discrimination and displacement traversed in Skin.
Click here to watch the trailer for Skin.
UPDATE: Skin is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.