Depending on who you ask, there are either way too many or far too few films being made about the South African apartheid. This past year alone, we’ve had a soapy Nelson Mandela biopic (Clint Eastwood directorial vehicle “Invictus”) and a gripping allegory expressed through aliens and cat food (“District 9”). The truth of the matter is, these types of films fall into two categories: the sappy melodrama, of which too many are made, and the imaginative reinterpretation, of which too few are made. “Skin,” weirdly enough, has a story that belongs to the latter type and execution that belongs to the former.


Tonight at the Michigan
Jour De Fete

“Skin” is based on the true story of Sandra Laing, a black girl born to white Afrikaners during the peak of the apartheid era. The increasingly self-aware Sandra (Sophie Okonedo, “Hotel Rwanda”) serves as a literal palette on which the 20 years of South African history are painted. As Sandra eventually casts off her white background by deciding to run away with a black man (Tony Kgoroge, “Invictus”) and get reclassified as black, she sacrifices her rights, her home and her family.

The best moments of “Skin” occur in the background depiction of the country itself. South Africa shimmers beneath a sun-tinted lens, brimming with rich culture and change from the tips of a wheat stalk to a scarlet patch on a headscarf. If the rest of film were handled with such subtlety and attention, “Skin” would surely serve the purpose it was meant for: bringing an imperative social issue to light.

But subtle it is not. Sandra’s father, Abraham Laing (Sam Neill, TV’s “The Tudors”), is an angry, racist maniac whose hate for his daughter and everything she represents is painfully transparent. His obsession with getting Sandra classified as white as a young child quickly escalates to insanity — banging things on the wall, screaming nonsensical obscenities and gesticulating wildly to his own white skin.

Okonedo’s portrayal of Sandra is no better. To whatever extent Neill overacts, Okonedo seems to withdraw from the screen with equal degree, with a hunched back and morose looks. Fledgling director Anthony Fabian doesn’t leave the film room to breathe, instead resorting to cheap tricks to hound sentimentality, when the story alone could have survived without manipulation. These exaggerated character polarizations scream their purpose loud and clear — racism is bad, bad, bad.

Try to imagine an alternative film about Sandra’s life and her quest for self-discovery. Her parents try painstakingly to get her reclassified as white. They aren’t racist, after all — they simply want their daughter to have better rights. But the girl plainly isn’t white. Nobody believes she is white. The girl, unsure of her identity, flirts around trying to experiment with who she truly is. The result: a complex story about race and color and what it really means to be “black” or “white,” and if it really matters at all.

“Skin” is a film that can raise a lot of worthwhile questions about race and skin color, at least on the premise of the true story it was based on. The source material is rich with intricacies and brings attention to the horrors of segregation and human rights abuse of the era. With its clunky, overwrought handling of apartheid, however, “Skin” is just one of the worst films that could have been made from it.

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