Judge Clark Douglas is grateful for films which embrace uncomfortable complexities.
The story of a woman shunned by society.
Cinematic explorations of racism are fairly common these days, but rarely do such films tackle the issue with such painful complexity as Skin. This apartheid-era drama is not merely an examination of the divide between those classified "white" and "colored," but a detailed study of the absurd politics of bigotry. People will often go to astonishing lengths to justify their own hatred, and the life of Sandra Laing was one which accentuated the illogical foolishness of apartheid very sharply…too sharply for many.
We first meet Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) when she is a young girl attending a public school for the first time in the mid-1960s. She is the biological daughter of Sannie (Alice Krige, Star Trek: First Contact) and Abraham (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park), both of whom are unmistakably white. Though Sandra's skin is lighter than most of the other black South Africans, most who see her assume that she is colored. She is the subject of much derision at school, and is often treated as a lesser citizen by other white people despite the fact that her parents have legal documentation to prove that she has been classified as white.
As time passes, Sandra (played from her teenage years on by Sophie Okonedo, The Secret Life of Bees) and her parents go through a series of legal battles over her skin color. First she is classified as white, then re-classified as colored, then re-classified once again as white. The constant changes and the varying attitudes towards her skin color give her a great sense of insecurity and self-loathing; to the point where she even attempts to bleach her skin. Will Sandra ever find a sense of identity or anything resembling a happy life?
One of the great tragedies of Sandra's life is that the answer to the question seems to be changing constantly. Just when she has finally come to terms with the idea that she is white (or that she is black, or that she is white again), something comes along to shatter that level of acceptance. When Sandra finally decides to run away with the black man she has feelings for, one initially suspects that she is finally going to a place where people accept her for who she is, even if that place is one of greater poverty and less comfort than what she grew up with. Sadly, even her lover begins to look down on her after a while. "Your skin is white," he says derisively. "It is a curse." No matter which side of the fence she stands on, she is regarded by many of those around her with spite. When Nelson Mandela rose to power, the news media asked Sandra about her reaction to the news: "I'm happy for the country, but it is too late for me," she said sadly.
Much like Steve Jacobs' Disgrace, Skin is a portrait of South Africa in which any hints of hope eventually dissolve into despair. In the end, there is no room for politically correct posturing or even simple self-assertion…there is only making the best of things by weighing a series of cold, cruel practicalities against each other. There is a deep, unnerving power in the film; largely due to the skillful manner in which it blends raw anger with its portrait of a world without simple answers. When the good moments come, they usually don't last. By the time life has become tolerable, too much of it has slipped away to justify celebration. Skin is an emotionally crushing tale, but in many ways a more valuable one than a conventional story of triumph over prejudice.
Young Ella Ramangwane is quite good in her half-hour of screen time as a younger Sandra, but the most challenging scenes are handed to Okonedo. This is an actress we need to start paying more attention to. She has been in a variety of forgettable films in recent years (Aeon Flux, Martian Child, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker), but consider her great work in films like Hotel Rwanda and The Secret Life of Bees. Skin is another performance on par with those very fine turns; a subtly beautiful piece of work that never erupts into attention-grabbing histrionics. Sam Neill is frightening effective as Sandra's bigoted father, while Alice Krige essays an often-hidden brand of prejudice masked beneath surface-level tolerance.
The DVD transfer is quite good, offering sturdy detail and depth. The film does a nice job of capturing the slight changes in the look and feel of Cape Town over the years, and its warm yet muted palette serves the story nicely. The audio is quite solid, with the occasionally overcooked (but mostly effective) score blending nicely with the dialogue and sound design. The South African dialects make just a few lines of dialogue a little difficult to make out, but for the most part it's easy to understand. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette (colorfully titled "Behind the Scenes Featurette"), some deleted scenes, outtakes, a trailer and footage from the film's script development workshops.
Though sometimes a bit difficult to watch (don't let its PG-13 rating fool you into thinking otherwise), Skin is a thoughtful, well-crafted exploration of apartheid that's well worth your time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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