An improbable true story of bloodlines and color lines, "Skin" dramatizes the life of Sandra Laing, a black girl born to white Afrikaner parents in apartheid-era South Africa.
Sandra's birth certificate classified her as white, though a genetic quirk had given her dark skin and curly hair. In her youth Sandra attended a whites-only school where her appearance created an uproar. She was reclassified as colored under apartheid laws, and her parents mounted a judicial challenge to establish her "whiteness."
Sandra's life story is quietly devastating. Her experience is a tour through a society where racial delineations that make little sense were legally all-important and personally crucial. Sandra's decision of what racial identity to choose redirected her into a life of hardship among oppressed blacks and estrangement from her family.
A provocative personal history is no guarantee of a compelling biography, however. "Skin" is heartfelt but clumsy. It feels hurried, looks cheap, and works overtime to simplify a complex, flawed character into a noble, tragic heroine. The film speaks fluent cliche.
Sam Neill and Alice Krige play Sandra's parents, shopkeepers in a rural township. Abraham treats their African customers with chilly disdain, depositing change on the counter rather than place it in a black man's hand. His wife Sannie is a warmer kind of racist, her unseemly friendliness toward their male customers pricking Abraham with sour suspicions. Still, they adore their daughter, an agile feat of racial doublethink.
Sandra (played as a child by Ella Ramangwane) graduated from her parents' nuanced racism to the full-on hostility of her peers in grade school. Teachers treat her as if she was invisible; students bully her only friend; administrators whip her for imaginary infractions. Her parents tried to defend her with a court case to change her classification. Changing the society was unimaginable.
Sophie Okonedo (Oscar-nominated for her work in "Hotel Rwanda") plays Sandra as a teen and an older woman. She is jarringly miscast as a schoolgirl, but brings hushed dignity to the part even in a student uniform. She can cast a glance that whispers of distress.
Useful, because Sandra's life was unspeakably hard. By her teens she had absorbed so much hatred from whites that she identified with blacks. She eloped with an African but couldn't legally live with him, nor was she allowed to change her racial designation and join him. Her racial reinvention estranged her family, and she was denied even the respite of anonymity, since the world press followed her colorful case for decades.
If this were fiction, Sandra would triumph, or at least speak out against injustice with passionate insight. Life is not so tidy. Even after apartheid, the legacy of Sandra's confused identity frustrated her. The filmmakers shift focus to South Africa's first free elections in 1994 for borrowed dramatic uplift.
"Skin" never probes as deeply as it should; it never reaches the heart of a family that struggles against its own flesh and blood.
2 1/2 stars
Starring: Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Ella Ramangwane, Sophie Okonedo
Directed by: Anthony Fabian
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some violence and sexuality.
Colin Covert reviews movies for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.