Brown skinned Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) is born in 1955 to white Afrikaners, Abraham (Sam Neill) and Sannie Laing (Alice Krige), who are unaware of their black ancestry. Her parents are rural shopkeepers serving the local black community, who lovingly raise her as their 'white' little girl. But at the age of ten, she is driven out of white society. Sandra (Sophie Okonedo) embarks on a thirty-year journey that takes her from rejection to acceptance, betrayal to reconciliation, as she struggles to define her place in a changing world - and triumphs against all odds.
Review by Louise Keller:
When it comes to emotions, things are never black or white. But when it comes to describing this extraordinary film about skin that is black or white, in the context of race, discrimination and belonging, it is a totally different story. Skin is a haunting film that tells its unforgettable tale about a coloured girl, born to white parents in South Africa, with simplicity and heartfelt sentiment. Never give up, is the film's central theme and a rousing, rhythmic and uplifting music score, intricately depicting a mix of African and western cultures, counters the narrative, nursing our hearts and tearing wide open our emotional response.
The enormous hurdles of South Africa's political divide have never had such personal resonance as in this story, which depicts the tragedy of bias, ridiculous laws and the impact on a family, torn apart. When the film begins, coloured balloons symbolically soar into the Johannesburg sky, as the country's first free elections take place. It is in flash back, when we see a pretty little black girl (Ella Ramangwane, excellent) desperately and painfully trying to lighten the colour of her skin, rubbing bleach on face and arms, that our hearts start to break. Her parents and brother are white, yet she has inherited her polygenic heritage through a throw back black gene, carried by many Afrikaans. (Her mother's fidelity is quickly confirmed.) It's a childhood of conflicted emotions and being an outcast: rejected at school, classified as black (definition based on appearance), then reclassified as white (definition changed to depict parents' race).
Sophie Okonedo is simply astonishing as the adult Sandra Laing, who endures a lifetime of humiliations, the angst of a fractured family and a conflicted relationship, as she struggles to find her own identity. South African born Alice Krige brings heart to Sandra's devastated mother Sannie ('You can't help what you were born into, but you can help what you become') and I like Tony Kgoroge as Petrus, the black employee who becomes the catalyst for Sandra to embrace the culture that mirrors her appearance. Sam Neill's patchy accent is a slight distraction to an otherwise superb portrayal of the father whose determination and inflexibility are both his strength and downfall.
If we think Sandra's story is complex at the beginning, it beggars belief by the end. But that is the nature of a true story and why truth is so often stranger than fiction. Not surprisingly, the film has won countless accolades and many audience awards, for its visceral emotional power, buoyed by its vibrant African music.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's an extraordinary story, one that only real life could invent. It begins in the mid 50s, when a rather ordinary Afrikaner couple have a baby - a girl with brown skin. (We learn during the film that this is not an isolated case, nor a miracle: many Afrikaners carry black genes which occasionally result in a brown baby.) Born in the apartheid era, Sandra's life becomes a nightmare when she starts going to school. The whites see her as a coloured girl, a reject in white society. But that's the least of it.
The most depressing part of the story is how her parents, notably her father Abraham (Sam Neill), find it impossible to accept her - not because of her skin colour but because she chooses a black boyfriend, a choice of great significance in an apartheid-ruled society. At first, he going goes to great lengths to have her classified as white, but he makes her a family outcast when she most needs her family.
Sophie Okonedo (memorable in The Secret Life of Bees) is wonderful as the grown up Sandra, her unique and expressive face conveying the range of emotions she experiences as she moves through a life filled with heartache, shunned by her family. She could easily have made Sandra seem a soppy victim, but she avoids this trap with a strong and dynamic performance. Sam Neill is excellent as the brittle, well meaning but hardhearted Abraham whose stubborn refusal to accept his daughter costs him dearly in remorse. Alice Krige is moving as Sandra's mother Sannie, who has to endure a mother's pain throughout the rest of her life.
Production values are superb, too; the filmmakers depict South Africa as it was, without overstating any one aspect for the sake of an agenda. Nobody is merely black or white, if you get my meaning. Often deeply moving, Skin is also a confronting story for the way the socio-political environment can poison decent lives. Co-writer Jessica Keyt was a schoolteacher at the time and has fed her experiences into the screenplay to great effect. You won't forget this film in a hurry.
Published First in the Sun-Herald
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SOPHIE OKONEDO INTERVIEW
CAST: Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Tony Kgoroge, Ella Ramangwane
PRODUCER: Anthony Fabian, Genevieve Hofmeyer, Margaret Matheson
DIRECTOR: Anthony Fabian
SCRIPT: Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dewald Aukema SASC, Jonathan Partridge
EDITOR: St. John O'Rorke
MUSIC: Hélène Muddiman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Billy Keam
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: All Interactive
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 22, 2010
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