‘Skin’ hurt by blunt angle on its dilemma
‘Skin’’ is an apartheid story that doesn’t care for subtlety. The movie is called “Skin,’’ yes. But the opening seconds also bring with them a definition of apartheid, and almost every subsequent scene drums up a racial humiliation of some kind. The movie is based on the true story of Sandra Laing, who was born with brown skin to white parents in South Africa under apartheid and raised as white only to feel, in adulthood, more accepted by her oppressed black compatriots. It’s a fascinating story: part genetic mystery, part socio-racial tragedy.
However, Laing’s life, despite its inherent melodrama, does not automatically lend itself to the screen. And without the aid of a smart script or a prevailing sense of delicacy, a movie about her or apartheid risks being a blunt instrument. And so “Skin,’’ with its store-brand title and in-your-face denunciations, is an anvil dropped off a cliff. This is the sort of movie that has the black maid scrubbing in the kitchen so that when little Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) enters the room shouting, “Mommy,’’ we’re meant to be shocked when the girl runs to the white woman at the sink. Even the stabs at discretion have a little “gotcha’’ in them.
Mrs. Laing (Alice Krige) sashays with her daughter through the hallways of a private academy, immune to the baffled stares she gets from the faculty and the student body. In the dorm room, Sandra’s white neighbor from Swaziland tells her, sincerely, that back home, all her friends are black. “I’m not black,’’ Sandra insists, having been thoroughly trained by her father (Sam Neill) to deny her blackness.
The movie crashes through the levels of fascinating irony until neither the lives nor the story makes sense. Mrs. Laing is initially presented as an open-minded counterpoint to her husband’s unrelenting racism. But she’s almost as bigoted as he is, preventing a grown-up Sandra (Sophie Okonedo) from running off with the extremely appealing black gentleman (Tony Kgoroge, Mandela’s security chief in “Invictus’’) who loves her completely. But the movie asserts that just about every happiness in this woman’s life is a mirage.
She attempts to switch races, to become legally black, and is disowned by her parents, cursed, and later jailed. Through it all, Okonedo, who remains best known for playing Don Cheadle’s wife in “Hotel Rwanda,’’ looks simultaneously cowed and beatific. She does a lot of looking down and smiling. It’s the same approach she took to the simple woman she played in the far better “The Secret Life of Bees,’’ only this time it’s apartheid that has made her slow. But the movie is too keyed up to explore what Sandra’s racial dilemma really means. It’s an emotional thriller that wants, alas, to be a Teachable Moment. The character’s state of mind is beside the point.
Anthony Fabian directed the movie from a script by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, and Hannah Kriel, and the movie is more patient in the black shantytowns than it is among the whites. But there aren’t enough of those scenes, and eventually they are cheapened by manufactured conflicts and coincidences, too. A few good things have come from the bad of apartheid. This movie isn’t one of them.