Skin

SKIN REVEALS THE FATE OF SANDRA LAING
Directed by Anthony Fabian, Skin is a biopic of Sandra Laing that differs in important ways from the 1977 documentary The Search for Sandra Laing. In the documentary, journalists try to find Sandra’s whereabouts, so they inquire at various places featured in news reports, ultimately finding her in Swaziland, happy to have left White Afrikaaner society, thus fulfilling the anti-apartheid aims of the filmmakers. Skin could be called “The Search of Sandra Laing,” as the aim is to trace her search for identity on her own terms. The film begins in 1994, when apartheid ended with a nationwide free election, at the factory where she works. Journalists want to interview her, but she says little. Then the scene reverts to her childhood as the mulatto daughter of Abraham (played by Sam Neill) and Sannie Laing (played by Alice Krige), who run a foodstore where customers are primarily Black. When she reaches school age, she goes to Piet Retief Primary, a White-only school, where her appearance provokes so much consternation among the pupils that she is expelled at age 10 but not before a question is raised about her race. Soon there is a hearing, and she is classified as Colored. Mr. Laing, though in favor of apartheid, takes the case to the South African Supreme Court, where a geneticist testifies that most Afrikaaners probably have a bit of Black blood, but she is finally classified as White when parliament changes the law in 1967 to allow children of White parents to be determined as White regardless of their skin color. When Mr. Laing insists that Sandra must marry a White boy, Sandra is unimpressed with the arranged suitors, preferring Petrus Zwane (played by Tony Kgoroge), a Black vegetable supplier to the Laing foodstore. Laing threatens to kill the man, boards up her room, and at age 16 (now played by Sophie Okonedo) she elopes with him to Swaziland. After she is charged with illegal entry to the Bantustan, Sandra is released by the court to her parents, but she admits she is pregnant on the courthouse steps, whereupon Mr. Laing banishes her and burns all traces of her existence. The couple relocates in Kromkrans, a Black ghetto inside South Africa, where she gives birth. Since a White woman is not allowed to care for a Black child, she has herself reclassified as Black in 1971. But Kromkans is bulldozed in 1973, very much in the manner portrayed in the recent film District 9. Sandra’s husband, however, takes the bulldozing as another sign that Sandra brought him back luck, and soon she packs up with her two children for Johannesburg. Sandra then searches for her parents. Her father is dying of cancer, and her mother later has a stroke, but there is a very touching scene when Sandra at age 45 meets her mother just before her death. The film has more details, some Hollywoodized, but the full true story is found in the book When She Was White (2007) by Judith Stone. The Political Film Society has nominated Skin as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2009. MH