Movie review: Ultimately heartwarming 'Skin' explores racism in South Africa

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

If you didn't know that it was based on a true story, "Skin" would be a little hard to believe.

Not the basic facts. They're likely enough. Set in apartheid-era South Africa, the film tells the powerful story of Sandra Laing, a dark-skinned, kinky-haired child born to two white parents (Sam Neill and Alice Krige). On her birth certificate it says "white," but everyone who looks at her sees a black girl -- or at least a mixed-race "coloured," under the country's strict classification of the races.

How could such a thing happen? Sandra, who is played by Ella Ramangwane as a girl and Sophie Okonedo ("The Secret Life of Bees") as a young woman, is an example of a throwback, or polygenic inheritance. Meaning that somewhere in her parents' ancestry, there was racial mixing.

That's the plausible part. Also all too believable is the casual racism that Sandra encounters. Not just at the whites-only boarding school she attends, but even in her small home town, where she's sometimes called the Afrikaans equivalent of the N-word.

What's harder to swallow is the way her father, Abraham, is able to compartmentalize his feelings. He unconditionally loves his daughter. Yet he can barely stand the blacks who work for him and who shop at his tiny general store. The fact that his wife, Sannie, even talks to the customers makes Abraham seethe. On his worst days, he throws his unfounded suspicion that Sannie was not faithful to him back in her face. So when a handsome black produce vendor, Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), catches Sandra's eye -- and she his -- Abraham's reaction is not pretty.

How can the man be such a monster? It's as if his brain, or his heart, were split in two parts. One filled with love for a caramel-skinned girl with tight black ringlets -- his flesh and blood -- the other poisoned with a toxic and unreasoning hate for those who look just like her. It just doesn't make sense.

Rather than a criticism of the film, that contradiction is, paradoxically, its strength. That's partly because Neill makes both sides so convincing. And partly because, as history has taught us, the nicest people can sometimes be monsters.

Ramangwane and Okonedo are even more affecting in their roles, which call for the two actresses to portray an especially difficult transition. It's one that goes from a little black girl who looks in the mirror and sees a white one to a young woman who comes to fully accept her dark complexion. Even at the expense of her father's love.

What takes that story of heartbreak and makes it ultimately heartwarming is that Sandra's story, much like the history of apartheid itself, doesn't end there. In the end, "Skin" isn't a movie about skin at all, but the indomitability of the human spirit.

*** PG-13. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains crude language, mild sensuality, violence and racism. 107 minutes.

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