One of the more bizarre illustrations of racial injustice under apartheid is dramatized in “Skin.” First feature for Anthony Fabian tells the real-life story of Sandra Laing, born with black pigmentation and features to a white couple due to a genetic irregularity. Her rocky road makes for an involving tale presented with polished straightforwardness, acted with conviction by Sophie Okonedo as well as Sam Neill and Alice Krige as the well-intentioned but often misguided parents. Prospects are good for offshore sales to specialty distribs and broadcasters.

Framed by sequences set on South Africa’s first day of racially nonexclusive free elections in 1994, the otherwise chronological narrative starts in earnest three decades earlier. Ten-year-old Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) has been raised so far in rural isolation by her shopkeeper parents Abraham (Neill) and Sannie (Krige), with no real perception that she’s any different from them or from older brother Leon (Hannes Brummer).

But when she’s dropped off for the first time at boarding school, it’s immediately apparent that everyone else thinks she’s quite different indeed. “I’m not black!” she protests in all sincerity to a dormmate trying to demonstrate open-mindedness. Others, staff included, express their racial attitudes more cruelly.

At last expelled for fighting back against a viciously abusive teacher, Sandra is escorted home by police as if she were a public menace. Such treatment enrages Abraham, who fights for her reclassification as white all the way to the Supreme Court. There, a geneticist argues convincingly (if offensively to many) that, as a result of South Africa’s long colonialist history, most Afrikaners probably have some “colored” blood in them.

Abraham’s relentless, angry pursuit of such justice unfortunately has little impact on the prejudices of others, which ensure Sandra remains unacceptable in Afrikaner society. As she matures (now played by Okonedo), her prospects of marrying or even dating whites are near-nil, though the Laings won’t entertain any other option. Their overreaction when she’s discovered sneaking off to see black produce-seller Petrus (Tony Kgoroge) only makes things worse, finally severing all relations once Sandra moves in with Petrus to bear his child.

But as anti-apartheid struggles heat up in the ’70s, this common-law husband comes to blame his wife for his own troubles, which aren’t helped by alcohol. While Sannie grows desperate to reconcile, Abraham’s bitterness blocks that possibility for years on end, and Sandra has to struggle on alone.

Conventionally well-crafted feature counts on the story itself rather than any notable stylistic gambits to carry the day. Evenhanded approach might strike some as a bit unimaginative, but it serves to downplay potential melodramatics inherent in some charged situations. Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda” and concurrent Toronto preem “The Secret Life of Bees”) is well matched by newcomer Ramangwane as the protag’s younger self. Neill is fine as the self-defeatingly rigid father, Krige moving as a woman whose warm maternal instincts battle against her own ingrained sense of racial propriety.

Design contributions are well-turned, tech aspects solidly pro.


U.K.-South Africa

  • Production: An Elysian, Bard Entertainments (U.K.)/Moonlighting Films (South Africa) production, in association with Aramid Entertainment, Industrial Development Corp. of South Africa, National Film & Video Foundation of South Africa, Lip Sync Prods. (International sales: the Little Film Co., Studio City, Calif.) Produced by Anthony Fabian, Genevieve Hofmeyr, Margaret Matheson. Executive producers, Simon Fawcett, Robbie Little, Laurence Paltiel, Alasdair MacCuish, Moses Silinda, Hellen Kalenga. Directed by Anthony Fabian. Screenplay, Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Dewald Aukema, Jonathan Patridge; editor. St. John O'Rorke; music, Helene Muddiman; production designer, Billy Keam; art director, Darryl Hammer; costume designer, Fotini Dimou; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Cotterell, Steve C. Shaw; supervising sound editor, Peter Baldock; sound designer, Art4Noise; assistant director, Mary Soan; casting, Christa Schamberger, Ana Feyder. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2008. Running time: 107 MIN.
  • With: Sandra Laing - Sophie Okonedo Abraham Laing - Sam Neill Sannie Laing - Alice Krige Petrus Zwane - Tony Kgoroge Young Sandra - Ella Ramangwane Nora Molefe - Faniswa Yisa Leon Laing - Hannes Brummer
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