Film review: Skin (2008), directed by Anthony Fabian
Here’s one of those occasions where being a fangirl can land you in front of the telly watching lots of different movies you never would’ve seen otherwise. If Sam Neill wasn’t in it, why would I want to watch a movie that sounds rather depressing? It has won awards – that normally means it’s dull as hell. Or – the critics are correct, and it’s a very good film. Skin is one of the latter, fortunately.
It begins in the mid-1950s in South Africa. Born from two white parents (Sam Neill and Alice Krige), Sandra Laing is black. This was back in the day of Apartheid, which was only abolished in 1994, the movie reminds us at the beginning. Being raised as a white girl, Sandra immediately discovers there’s an issue when she gets sent off to school for white children. There are complaints – “no black child should be in my child’s school!” “But I’m white!” “You don’t look white to me!” and so on. It’s a struggle, but she gets through it.
Having grown up into a beautiful young woman (Sophie Okonedo), Sandra is starting to date. The first white man she dates kindly tells her that he totally doesn’t mind that she looks like a [some derogatory term I didn’t quite catch], he’s okay with it. Wayyy to put your foot in that one, I thought. Sandra wasn’t impressed either. The second one tries to get a little too frisky a little too soon. On the other hand, she’s met this really nice man, who seems to like her for who she really is as a person: Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), a black man.
Mr Laing doesn’t exactly take the news very well, and shuns her. His white daughter, whom he has struggled so to actually get her to be classified as a white person (she was white, then the nasty headmaster had her examined and re-classified as black, to her parents’ dismay). There was a hearing when Sandra was a child, and a geneticist testified to say that it’s very common for white people in Africa to have black blood somewhere in the family tree, and two – for all intents and purposes white – people brought together can very well produce a black child. This eventually leads to a change in legislation, saying that your classification is down to what your parents are. If your parents are white, even though you look black, you’re classed as white – leading Mr Laing to happily exclaim, “Sandra! You’re white again!”
What puzzled me was that of all people, surely the Laings would be a bit open-minded to the whole skin colour issue. Alas, no. Mrs Laing might be a bit more friendly, but her husband is a fairly hateful man, to be honest. Even when they have their third child, who also turns out to be black like Sandra, he’s still not coming around.
If we’ve never been to South Africa and lived through the segregation, I don’t think we can ever fully appreciate what it was like to live during Apartheid. Those who are white will never be truly able to understand what it must have been like to be black then and there. It’s just impossible. Perhaps a comparison could be what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany before World War II kicked off. Also a segregation where one considered themselves the “master race” and discriminated against the “other race” for no actual reason, other than one that was fabricated. Being a Jew is just belonging to a certain religion. Being black is just a skin colour. We’re all just bloody Homo Sapiens at the end of the day!
Performance-wise, can’t fault it. Sophie Okonedo was fantastic, first as a young girl and then how she got older and how her life changed in that time. From a young girl to a mother of two, she took us for a heartfelt ride. Alice Krige looked familiar, and I don’t know if I associate her more as being the Borg Queen in some Star Trek bits or as Lady Russell in Persuasion ’07. As it happens, it would seem she’s been in another Sam Neill movie as well, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, but it’s been ages since I’ve seen that one. Been ages since I’ve seen most Sam Neill films now, actually. I think they’re due a re-watch. Anyway, she did a splendid performance, being torn between her husband and her daughter. Sam Neill – would somebody please give that man an Academy Award already?! If I can be distracted from the fact that I’m watching one of my favourite actors and think “what a prick!”, hey, you’re good!
Plus points for the brief scene between the Laings in bed. It was ever so brief but I was a hair’s breadth away from letting out a squeee when Mr Laing embraced his missus and sort of leaned over her in a passionate kiss. Gosh darnit, that was hot!
It wasn’t quite as depressing a movie as I feared. It wasn’t a complete downer, not all of the time, and it was also full of hope and love and fighting spirit. Based on a true story as well. I don’t envy Sandra’s life, because it’s not been an easy one, but I admire her courage and perseverance. All in all, it ends in a promising and positive way.
4 out of 5 racists.