by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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If the pain, anguish, torture and atrocities suffered by millions in Apartheid South Africa were to be captured and revealed in the life of one woman, then that woman would be Sandra Laing. Laing is the subject of the film Skin, which is based on a true story and is now playing in limited release. Laing is a South African, born to two white parents (Sannie and Abraham, played by Alice Krige and Sam Neill) in the 1950s. Sandra’s skin is a coffee complexion, and at first glance, you would think she was black.
The movie begins in 1994, with the first free elections in South Africa, and goes back in time telling the Laings’ story when in 1965 the parents take Sandra and her brother to boarding school, and the administrators, other parents and, of course, students question and are amazed that a black girl is even walking into their school. The father does all he can and tries his hardest to convince the school that his daughter is white. One classmate is punched in the nose, because she tries to tell another classmate that Sandra is white. Sandra tolerates much humiliation, as a school administrator measures her skull one day. This is a throwback to when South Africans were considered inferior to the white Afrikaaners and “scientists” had a theory based on craniometry that skulls of a certain size would indicate intelligence. Whatever the reasoning, it was painful to watch this young girl, who considered herself white and didn’t understand why people would think otherwise. Sandra is finally expelled from school, when a teacher beats her for not reciting her numbers loudly enough, and she pees on herself right in front of the class.
The Laings are unaware of any black ancestry; the father questions the mother’s fidelity. The mother’s second son also has coffee-colored skin. All the neighbors and the Laings’ domestic help view Sandra as white. The father attempts to get Sandra’s classification changed from black to white, going all the way to the Supreme Court, only to be denied. But not before the official sticks a pencil in Sandra’s “curly” hair and orders her to shake her head—the theory being if her hair were straight and white enough, then the pencil would fall out.
The inability to reclassify Sandra’s race presents a problem, because blacks and whites were forbidden to mingle in Apartheid South Africa, and here this family was living under the same roof. And white Afrikaaners in no way wanted to believe that any of them shared black blood with the original inhabitants of South Africa, before the Dutch “settled” in Cape Town, South Africa. In desperation, in a painful, gut-wrenching scene, Sandra uses chemicals to try to bleach her skin, with disastrous results.
The parents own a shop in the rural area, and the family scolds the mother for being friendly with the black customers. Skin follows Sandra’s 30-year journey trying to belong; first being love and protected, and then ostracized by her family, because she falls in love with and becomes pregnant by a black farmer who does business with the family. This relationship sours after a time, when while living in the black shantytowns with her boyfriend and after having two children together, he questions why Sandra misses her mother. He doubts her allegiance to him and everything black; as if he can’t see ALL that she sacrificed and abandoned to be with him. When she wants to marry him, she again petitions to change her white card to a black card, because they certainly can’t marry with her being technically labeled as white. The entire card system further emphasizes that one’s being and worth in South Africa is simply relegated to what’s on a card.
Skin is a captivating story, and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) is perfect for the older Sandra; she was born in London to a white mother and African father. It’s a sad story, indeed, and not just for Sandra. Her father is most bitter and evil toward blacks, as white Afrikaaners were, even though he has a daughter who could very well have belonged to his black maid. The mother is caught up in this madness. As Sandra has been banned from the house when she left with the black boyfriend, she sneaks a visit to her mother with her firstborn. The father finds out and tells the mother that if Sandra ever shows up again, he’d kill her and her baby and then himself. This is heavy stuff for the mother who longs to see her daughter again and worries about her fate. Mother and daughter don’t reunite for 20 years, when the mother is incapacitated with a stroke. Sandra has in the interim struck out life on her own with her two children; and she never sees her father (or her two brothers) again. The ending is so sad; the father finds himself in terminal health, is wretchedly suffering from guilt and attempts to rectify the situation, but it’s too late, and deservedly so. Skin is a movie that commands wider release; it’s compelling, provocative, entertaining and educational.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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