Skin - film review
A SIMPLE WOMAN’S STORY OF COURAGE
by William Gooch
published November 8, 2009
now playing in select cities
Sometimes the stories of simple, everyday folks make the best movies. Who can forget Norma Rae, a movie about a textile worker who had the gumption to bring a union into her
factory? Or the critically acclaimed Silkwood, a
film that details a woman’s desperate attempt to be heard as she exposes worker’s safety violations at a nuclear plant? Films like these
illustrate that fighting adversity is the not just the domain of war heroes and human rights activists. Skin is just such a film.
Based on the heart wrenching, true-life story of Sandra Laing – a black South African girl born to seemingly white
Afrikaners during the government-imposed apartheid system in South Africa – Skin, in poignant
detail, follows Sandra’s life from her expulsion from a whites-only boarding school at the age of 10 to her adult life as a mother of two
children, and her parent’s desperate struggle to have her reclassified as a white Afrikaner. Unlike Cry Freedom and A World Apart, Skin looks at the crisis of racial injustice in South Africa through the eyes of someone who is not
politically motivated but still affected by apartheid’s brutal system of inequality.
Director Anthony Fabian brilliantly unfolds the horrors of the apartheid system and the costs that the system
protracted on families and human dignity. We witness the utter ridiculousness of a system that
would give full citizenship to one Caucasian sibling while denying privileges to another sibling because hair texture and complexion
suggest racial mixing. Yet Fabian delves much deeper than governmental policies and institutional prejudices. Fabian details the everyday
challenges of a young woman who struggles to find a place for herself and her children in a country that denies her basic human dignities.
Strikingly, Fabian does not vilify white Afrikaners in Skin. He deftly demonstrates that they
are also victims of a system that privileges one group over another. And though they may discriminate, deny basic human rights, and even
abandon loved ones, they also have the capacity to love.
As Sandra Laing, Academy Award nominee Sophie Okonedo brings her bountiful gifts of intensity, dramatic authenticity
and nuance to a role that would have daunted many actresses. Okonedo unquestionably owns this role. We see her seamlessly transition from
insecure teenage girl to a woman who understands that she must stay strong for the survival of her children. Though she doesn’t look 16
years old in some scenes, Okonedo’s sensitivity to the character and awkward adolescent posture is nonetheless convincing. Throughout Skin, Okonedo gently peels back layers, revealing
Sandra’s desperation, bewilderment and eventual acceptance and embrace of her racial classification. But most impressively, Okonedo
captures the character’s immense capacity for love. This ability to cinematically portray the character’s abundance of love, in spite of
unbelievable hardship and discrimination, ricochets Okonedo’s portrayal to a level that few actresses obtain and causes audiences to not
only empathize with the character but route for her survival.
As Sandra Laing’s parents, Sam Neill and Alice Krige deliver noteworthy performances. Krige is
particularly effective in the scene where she meets her grandchild for the first time and frantically fills Sandra’s basket with food and
dry goods. Neill and Krige’s performances convincingly support the fact that Sandra’s parents did love her, but the system that they
themselves are victims of prevented them from fully accepting her humanity.
In 1994, when news reporters asked Sandra Laing how she felt about the election of Nelson Mandela, she replied, “I
am pleased South Africa is changing, but it is too late for me.” That was 15 years ago, and though the wounds of apartheid may never
completely heal, with the release of Skin, maybe for Sandra Laing, it is not too
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read William Gooch's interview with the real Sandra Laing and director Anthony Fabian