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Skin Film Essay

I remember the story of Sandra Laing. I lived in Cape Town during 1965, the year this film begins, and it was all over the South African newspapers. Sandra was the daughter of white Afrikaners, the descendents of the country's original Dutch settlers.

There was no question they were her parents. But she didn't look white. Still, they cherished her and were proud of her. She was bright as a button. They enrolled her in school, and there was trouble. The white parents didn't want their children going to school with a black girl. Given the insanity of the apartheid system, it was unthinkable that white parents could have a black child. Her parents reassure her: Of course she's white.

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As "Skin" begins, they run a little shop with a black clientele, but that doesn't make them liberal. When Sannie Laing (Alice Krige) gets too friendly with the customers, her husband Abraham (Sam Neill) tells her, "Be friendly with them but don't adopt them!"

He's outraged by any suggestion of African blood in his family. Sandra looks "coloured" to the people white and black who see her, but not to her parents. He fights all the way to the Supreme Court to have Sandra officially classified as white. Among his witnesses is a geneticist from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, who testifies, "many and perhaps most Afrikaners have some non-white blood."

This was a very touchy subject in South Africa. I was aware of an Afrikaner student who hit another student when he was offered a pencil. That was an unmistakable reference to the infamous "pencil test": Stick a pencil through your hair and shake your head. The pencil will usually fall out of white hair, but not from black.

From being a cheerful child, Sandra now grows into a troubled adolescent (Sophie Okonedo) who tries to bleach her skin. Her parents set up two disastrous dates with white boys. She falls in love with Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), a young market gardener who is black, and her father chases him away with a rifle. Pregnant, she runs away from home, but now since she is officially considered white, it is a crime under apartheid for her to live with a black man.

The story of Sandra Laing (her real name) played out into the 1970s, and fascinated South Africa like no other. It cut directly into the official fiction that the races were separate and would never meet. She was proof that they'd been meeting a lot in the 400 years since the Dutch landed at Cape Town.

Sophie Okonedo you may remember from "Hotel Rwanda" (2004), which won her an Oscar nomination. Born in London of a white mother and African father (which is very relevant here), she was in "Dirty Pretty Things" (2002) and "The Secret Life of Bees" (2008) -- remember the childlike May Boatwright? -- and has completed the title role in "Mrs. Mandela."

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Here she's magnificent, convincingly spanning Sandra's ages from 16 into adulthood, and her buffeting by a society where race dictated who you could love, where you could live, how you could work, whether you could study and who society thought you were. Consider how she handles a scene where she applies to the same clerk who issued her a "white card" and now demands a "black card." Her very existence reveals her society is based on no more than a piece of paper.

This great film by Anthony Fabian tells this story through the eyes of a happy girl who grows into an outsider. This isn't one of those potted stories of uplift and doesn't end quite the way we expect, although we do get to see the real Sandra Laing right at the end. It's not giving away anything to say the film's first scene takes place on the day that South Africa elected Nelson Mandela as its first African president. Sandra is cornered by a TV crew that asks for her reaction. She says, "It comes too late for me."

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“Skin” is a fictionalized retelling of the true and terrible story of Sandra Laing, a South African woman whose race was classified and reclassified by the government, then in the mad grip of apartheid. Born in 1955 to officially white parents, Ms. Laing — played by an uncharacteristically unsteady Sophie Okonedo — was judged white. But when the child entered the larger world, her darker skin, and especially her tightly curled black hair, marked her as different. At 10, she was dragged out of school by the police because the principal had decided she wasn’t white. The government agreed and relabeled her “colored.”

Much of the film unfolds in a lengthy flashback that opens in the mid-1960s, when the young Sandra (played by Ella Ramangwane) is still living in her rural home with her parents and older brother, Leon (Hannes Brummer). Her father, Abraham (Sam Neill, wound too tight), and mother, Sannie (an effective Alice Krige), run a grocery store for blacks. A passionate supporter of the government and its policies, Abraham insists that his black customers put their money on the counter, presumably to avoid physical contact. Sannie seems more tolerant, though she’s under the patriarchal heel. They’re loving parents, demonstrably fond of their children, whose physical differences (Leon has a lighter complexion) they don’t appear to acknowledge or even see until after they drop Sandra off at an all-white boarding school.

It’s as if they had dropped a bomb at the school — and into their own lives — rather than a child. A chain of grotesque events ensues, each seemingly more improbable than the next, though often drawn from Ms. Laing’s life. Sandra, who had grown up believing she was white, becomes a pariah, forced out of school, then out of her presumed race and finally her home. Shunned by whites, she melts into the segregated shantytowns, having taken up with a vegetable seller, Petrus (Tony Kgoroge, delivering the best performance in the film), whose smile grows dim. Heartache follows heartache as Sandra, who had been reclassified as white after a court trial, later tries to have herself racially recategorized so she can keep her family with Petrus intact.

Ms. Laing’s story has been told previously, before and after the abolition of apartheid, in various newspaper reports, a documentary and the recent biography “When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race.” It’s no wonder: it’s an emblematic tale of a woman whose body became a kind of tablet on which racist laws were inscribed. Her skin, her nose, her lips were all scrutinized. At one point in “Skin,” a man sticks a pencil into the young Sandra’s short hair, a re-creation of the “pencil test” used by some government boards to judge race. If the pencil stayed in, the person was deemed black.

Written by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt and Helena Kriel, and directed by Anthony Fabian (who also has a credit for the screen story), “Skin” is sincere and well meaning and tries very, very hard to wring your tears. What a mistake! Crying at the movies can be one of the pleasures in life, like sobbing over a book that has delivered a dagger right to the heart. But Ms. Laing’s story is a tragedy, not a melodrama, and it doesn’t need to be goosed — nor do we. We don’t need overwrought performances to understand the calamity of her life or to weep when her parents turn their backs on her. If anything, the story demands restraint because, invariably at the movies, it’s the gentle touch that hits harder.

Alas, Mr. Fabian, directing his first feature-length fiction film, uses a club whenever a feather would do. He also mishandles the actors, in particular Mr. Neill and Ms. Okonedo, both of whom have been incomparably better elsewhere. As the heavy, Mr. Neill tends to turn the volume up far too loud, so you can really hear the script’s weaknesses. The usually charismatic Ms. Okonedo, in turn, shoulders hunched and eyes often downcast, gives a performance so recessive she almost slips off the screen. She might make you tear up. But if you want an honest cry, stay for the final credits to watch some footage of the real Ms. Laing as a child, happily and innocently tucked in the embrace of the family that betrayed her.

“Skin” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned), more for emotional than for physical violence.

SKIN

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Anthony Fabian; written by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt and Helena Kriel, based on the book “When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race” by Judith Stone; screen story by Mr. Fabian; directors of photography, Dewald Aukema and Jonathan Partridge; edited by St. John O’Rorke; music by Hélène Muddiman; production designer, Billy Keam; produced by Mr. Fabian, Genevieve Hofmeyr and Margaret Matheson; released by the Little Film Company. At Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, 139-143 East Houston Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

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