Grainy Lesson in Tolerance Bares All

Starring Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill & Alice Krige
Directed by Anthony Fabian
Rated PG-13
3 stars

Screen shot 2009-10-29 at 9.29.29 AMBased on the life of Sandra Laing, “Skin” is the story of a black woman born into a family of white Afrikaners in apartheid-era South Africa. Raised as culturally white, Sandra (Sophie Okonedo, “The Secret Life of Bees”) struggles to define herself amid her parents’ expectation that she marry a white Afrikaner.

Although Anthony Fabian’s film is framed by racial conflict, it succeeds by transcending what is expected of an apartheid biopic, emerging with an empowering feminist message from a meditation on love, family, betrayal, reconciliation and the self.

Bookended with textured footage of South Africa’s first free elections in 1991 and starring actors who look like photocopies of their real-life counterparts (we catch a glimpse at the end), the film nearly masquerades as a documentary, leaving us to wonder whether we’re just sitting through a collection of someone else’s home videos.

While Okonedo, the film’s only big-name star, fails to steal the screen from Alice Krige — who shines as Sandra’s mother Sannie — she brings Sandra’s emotional turmoil to life with an expressionless face and body language that betrays her character’s physical insecurities. The mother-daughter relationship are explored throughout, as both characters are tested by the stubborn cruelty of Sandra’s father (Sam Neill).

The story begins when a young Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) is sent to boarding school. The color of her skin immediately subjects her to peer abuse, and after being re-classified as “colored” by the school doctor, Sandra is expelled. Maddened by the decision, her father takes the issue to the Supreme Court, asking his daughter be permanently classified as white. But as the girl reaches adulthood, she realizes that no matter what her birth certificate says, the world will always identify her as black.

Rebelling against her domineering parents, Sandra runs away with a young black man named Petrus (Tony Kgoroge). Disowned by her father, she must forge her own path outside of the society in which she was raised. Her mother, meanwhile, is left behind to weather a marriage turning increasingly bitter with the years.

It is only when Sannie is torn between a duty-bound love for her husband and enduring sadness at the departure of her daughter that Krige becomes a profoundly conflicted — and finally interesting — character, letting some of the film’s most powerful themes of betrayal and reconciliation come to the forefront.

It is only after Sandra has broken free of the masculine grip on her life that she is able to forge her own sense of self. The film’s powerful voice on tolerance, love and identity make “Skin” more than just a bra-burning soapbox, and instead a thought-provoking take on the human experience.