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Skin, 2008

Sandy (Sophie Okonedo) is born in South Africa in the 1950s to parents Sannie (Alice Krige) and Abraham (Sam Neill). The only problem: Apartheid is in full swing, Sannie and Abraham are visibly white, and Sandy very much does not look white. The older Sandy gets, the worse things become. Her parents fight endless court cases trying to have their daughter classified as white---because if she's classified as Black or Coloured (ie mixed race) she cannot legally live with them--but Sandy constantly finds herself trapped between worlds.

There's no other way to describe this movie except to say that it is brutal. It's a harrowing look at the way that racial classifications are both arbitrary and yet potentially life-ruining.

At first blush, the film seems like it will be about Sandy's parents fighting for equality in social standing and education. It very much is not. What becomes clear very quickly is that Sandy's parents, and particularly her father, are deeply racist. Because they know that Sandy is "white", they fight for her. But them wanting her to be classified that way isn't really about justice for their child, or even recognizing her as a formal part of their family--it's just as much about them NOT wanting her to be Black.

Neill's turn as Sandy's father Abraham is intense and complicated. He obviously has a lot of love for his daughter--a daughter who looks to be mixed race. But as Sandy grows up, Abraham's anger turns toward his daughter. The more he tries to force her into white spaces--to her clear fear and discomfort--the more she pushes back and he starts to develop a contempt for her. Krige's Sannie is more sympathetic, but also deeply prejudiced. When Sandy finally just says out loud what everyone is thinking, that she isn't white, her mother strikes her.

Okonedo is very good as Sandy, a young woman who is smart and funny, and who in another time and place could have lived a happy, uncomplicated life. But at every turn she is made to feel out of place and shame for the color of her skin, something over which she has zero control. Her white family is deeply contemptuous of her attempts to socialize with Black friends. Her Black boyfriend resents her privileged upbringing. At one point Sandy has been classified as white, meaning that it is illegal for her to live with her own children, who are classified as Coloured. When she begs to be reclassified as Coloured, she meets with stone-faced bureaucracy. No matter what label is given her, it always manages to leave her on the receiving end of abuse and hateful words.

What is the difference between a Black person and a white person? The film displays the futility of trying to make official such a distinction. The language used in Sandy's court hearing is truly something else. "The definition of a white person is a person who in appearance obviously is a white person and who is not generally accepted as a colored person... Or who is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance
obviously not a white person." I mean, wow. They also perform scientific investigations like sticking a pencil in Sandy's hair and seeing if it falls out when she turns her head. When a scientist testifies that Sandy's case can be explained by the presence of Black genetic material in Afrikaaners, so that people who are visibly white could produce a child who is visibly Black, the white audience scoffs in disbelief.

There are several cultural properties that have delved into the idea of "passing", ie people who are born to Black families but who are assumed because of their appearance to be white. It was interesting to watch a story on the other side of that genetic phenomenon. Sandy's case only highlights the arbitrary and cruel nature of segregation. If Sandy is white she deserves her spot in the nice boarding school, but she doesn't deserve that education if she's Black? Sandy can live with her parents if her government ID says one thing, but it's illegal for her to live with her parents if it says something else?

I had very few complaints about this one. My only minor gripe is that Okonedo plays Sandy from teenagehood up through adulthood, and she definitely looks too old in the sequences where she's meant to be in her late teens and going on dates. She very much looks like a woman in her 30s and it makes those scenes feel like a stretch.

Compelling stuff, and well acted.