To call Sandra Laing an innocent victim of apartheid would imply that any of South Africa's people of color somehow deserved the abuses of the nation's brutal institutional racism. All of apartheid's victims were innocent. Nevertheless, Laing's unusual life, as dramatized in the uneven film Skin, hammers home the cruelties and pernicious effects of bigotry.
Played by Sophie Okonedo, Laing was a black girl born of white parents (Sam Neill and Alice Krige) who didn't realize they had black ancestry. Laing grew up legally "white," even though her complexion served as a constant affront to the racist powers-that-be at schools and in the government. Sandra's father, a shopkeeper in rural South Africa in the 1960s, furiously resists any attempt to define his daughter as "black," largely because it reflects on his wife's fidelity.
The girl never sought to challenge South Africa's color bar, but at a white boarding school, Sandra (played as a girl by Ella Ramangwane) faces ostracism from her classmates and a public beating from her principal, and then becomes the subject of legal challenges and press conferences. As a young woman, Sandra gives up on the white boys her father forces her to date and falls in love with Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), a charming black deliveryman. When they have a child and Sandra wants to legally marry, she learns she must be reclassified as "colored:" She's otherwise breaking the law.
When Petrus suffers personal setbacks, he violently vents his frustrations with the white power structure on Sandra, and even snaps at her, "In your head, you're still white!" In fact, Skin offers no evidence that Sandra has any trouble adjusting to impoverished life among black people, and why would she? Based on the film, the townships are places of nonstop song and dance, at least until bulldozers rumble through for a trumped-up eviction. Skin never explores the idea that Sandra might feel alienated among black people, and avoids examining her inner life.
Skin's final act avoids some of the story's most complex implications to focus on Sandra's relationship with her parents during the Mandela era. Okonedo's performance builds to some devastating moments and can turn Sandra's face into a mask of depression and self-consciousness. Nevertheless, Skin never proves as deep as Sandra Laing's story deserves.
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