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Skin
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Skin – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1965, South Africa was in the grip of the Apartheid regime.
People with different skin colours weren’t meant to talk to each other, let alone live together.
Sandra Laing (Okonedo) and her parents Abraham (Neill) and Sannie (Krige) are a bit of a special case.
By all accounts, Sandra is black. She certainly looks black, and in those days, that’s what counted.
But Abraham and Sannie are white – and their families have been for generations. So they send their daughter, who through a quirk of genetic fate seems to have picked up black genes from distant ancestors, to a regular white school.
She’s shunned by her fellow pupils and eventually ejected by the teachers.
The state reclassifies her as “coloured” which means she can no longer attend a white school. Abraham and Sannie are mortified and decide to fight the legal system – they set out to get her reclassified as white so that she can have the privileged life her white parents should entitle her to.
But – in time-old cinema-style (although this is based on an astounding real-life story) – things don’t go quite as Abraham had envisaged.
Having fought for Sandra’s whole life for her to be accepted by South Africa’s ruling white minority as one of their own, she eventually falls for a poor black man, putting unbearable pressure on her relationship with her father – jeopardising the close bond she’s always shared with her mother.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

This is one of those incredible real-life stories that you can’t believe you haven’t heard about already.
It’s beautifully shot and the three key cast – Okonedo, Neill and Krige – deliver outstanding performances that draw you into this desperately sad and tragic tale of a family torn apart by political circumstance and ignorant ideology.
It’s blistering with ironies – some make the drama all the more powerful, while others grate somewhat, making the story – or at least the whirlwind of emotions – feel a little contrived.
At first, Abraham is our “hero,” fighting the system for his black daughter, but later his societal hatred for her black boyfriend, based – arguably – on nothing but the colour of his skin…the same colour skin as his own daughter’s, make him a beast.
It’s not a huge surprise – given his initial rudeness to the black customers in his village shop – but it’s a disappointment that the guy we’ve been rooting for turns out to have been being bold not for his daughter – or the greater good of his country – but out of selfishness and shame.
At its strongest, it’s a fascinating study of the absurdities of the apartheid system – and the way bureaucrats could shift the goalposts to satisfy their whims. It also teaches you a thing or two about genetics. But as the plot unfolds, such material becomes more like wallpaper than the heart of the film.
Starting with a flash-forward to Sandra’s arrival at the polling booth for South Africa’s first free election makes it feel even more like the film-makers are taking a rather parochial family drama and dressing it up as sweeping political epic.
But don’t be fooled; this is not a film about a woman whose brave determination changed her country. The country changed despite the difficulties in the Laing family.
In that sense, this film treats a symptom, rather than making any attempt to cure the disease.
But treating symptoms is definitely better than doing nothing about an illness, so the film is enlightening and rewarding – although it’s not as profound as it could have been.

opens nationwide 24th July 2009

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