Skin: Anthony Fabian’s Tale of South African Family Torn by Race, Sarring Sophie Okonedo

Anthony Fabian directed Skin, a British-South African biopic about Sandra Laing, a South African woman born to white parents, who was classified as “colored” during apartheid, due to genetic case of atavism.

The tale draws on the book “When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race,” by Judith Stone.

The film received limited release in the US cinemas in October 2009, before playing in South Africa in January 2010, and in Australia and New Zealand in July of that year.

Set in 1965, the story centers on 10-year-old Sandra and her white Afrikaners parents, Abraham and Sannie, who are shopkeepers in a remote area of the Eastern Transvaal.

Despite Sandra’s mixed-race appearance, she has been brought her up as a white girl. Sandra is sent to boarding school in the neighboring town of Piet Retief, where her (white) brother Leon is studying. However, the parents of other students and teachers complain that she does not belong there.

Examined by State officials, she is reclassified as colored, and expelled. Sandra’s parents are shocked, but Abraham fights through the courts to have the classification reversed.

Soon, the story becomes an international scandal and pressures force changes in the law so that Sandra be classified as white again.

By age 17, Sandra realizes she is never going to be fully accepted. She falls in love with Petrus, a black man and the local vegetable seller, and begins an illicit love affair.

Abraham threatens to shoot Petrus and disown Sandra. Sannie is torn between her husband’s rage and daughter’s predicament. Sandra elopes with Petrus to Swaziland. Abraham has them arrested and put in prison for illegal border crossing.

Released by the local magistrate to return home, she nonetheless decides to return to Petrus, as she is pregnant with his child, leading to her father disowning her

Sandra must now live her life as colored woman for the first time, restricted to housing with no running water and no sanitation. Although she feels more at home in this community, she misses her parents and yearns for a reunion. She and her mother make attempts to communicate but are consistently thwarted by Sandra’s father.

Late in his life, when he is too sick, he reconsiders and asks his wife to take him to visit Sandra. Sandra’s mother, angry that his new-found guilt had surfaced only after ignoring her emotional torment and longing for a reunion, refuses his request.

Eventually, Sandra’s marriage to Petrus deteriorates and he becomes physically abusive. She leaves him, taking their two children with her. She looks for her parents but finds they had since moved from her childhood home. Not knowing where they are, she continues with her life, raising her children by herself.

When the country’s apartheid government ends, there’s renewed interest in her story. When her mother sees Sandra interviewed on TV, she informs her of her father’s death. The letter provides no return address, nor any clue as to Sannie’s whereabouts, but upon receiving them, Sandra is determined to renew her search.

Eventually, Sandra finds her mother living in a nursing home and the two are happily reunited.

The epilogue informs that Sandra’s mother died in 2001, and her two brothers continue to refuse to see her.

Sophie Okonedo … Sandra Laing
Sam Neill … Abraham Laing
Alice Krige … Sannie Laing
Tony Kgoroge … Petrus Zwane
Terri Ann Eckstein … Elsie Laing (aged 19)
Bongani Masondo … Henry Laing (aged 20)
Ella Ramangwane … Young Sandra Laing
Jonathan Pienaar … Van Niekerk
Hannes Brummer … Leon Laing
Onida Cowan … Miss Van Uys
Lauren Das Neves … Elize