Racism creates a vast array of emotions when presented in American society. It seems that the US has the need to own the divisive treatment that is created by people and their personal,social, and learned hatred of other cultures. The US however finds it difficult to actually analyze, and create narratives discussing race. People in America want to forget the past, move on without acknowledging the inherent conflicts that skin creates. Entertainment in America tends to make its stories and movies that deal with racism about popular individuals. While the stories that are beginning to fade away, with the passing of grandparents and elders, are becoming lost in time; other societies that have also progressed from segregation and racism are taking those stories and generating films that attempt to understand the psychology behind skin.
One such film that takes the challenge of bringing light to the absurd nature of superiority is the flim Skin. Released in 2008, Skin is the story of Sandra Laing a woman who was born into the apartheid era of South America. The immediate thought generated by this is in regard to Nelson Mandela, however this film does a very good job of focusing on the people who are affected in their day to day existence by apartheid. The film does not stray into a homage to Nelson Mandela and he is only shown in one scene, on a sheet of paper listing the people running in the first free election of 1994. This is important because the narrative created allows the viewer to feel a connection to the family of Sandra Laing, who is important because she is a black child born to white parents.
In the film the actress Sophie Okonedo (Secret Life of Bees, Hotel Rwandaa) delivers a solid performance in bringing Sandra Laing to life on the screen. Her facial expressions, and mannerisms exist somewhere between confident and unsure. Her initial confidence as a child being broken by a system that cannot make sense of itself, is in stark contrast to her young adult life where she forsakes her birthright of whiteness to marry a black man. In making the decision to be with this black man, she isolates herself from her family. Her choice is less of a decision considering the white men her mother and father set her up to date cannot see her as white although her birth certificate states she is.
The irony of apartheid, is the same irony in segregation of the American south. At one point in the film, when Sandra is a child and her father is attempting to keep her status a white Afrikaneer, an inspector measures her head, studies her teeth and examines her body as if she is a slave on a southern trading block. All of these things are given validation by a truly absurd sheet of paper that is only barely shown in the film that has various pictures of black faces, and body parts. This sheet is used as the determining factor of blackness. In a court of law a doctor states that all Afrikaans white and black, have genetic traits which can surface and manifest at any time. The doctor states this to the disbelief of the people in the courtroom. Sandra’s father successfully defends his daughter’s whiteness, although it is her blackness that is evident.
Skin takes a story, that could have easily slid into an oratory on race relations, and creates a story about family and how societal influence can destroy the bonds that blood and logic should maintain. Alice Krige, who Sandra’s mother in the film, is the character that is the most interesting. Her love for her child/children, there is an older son who does not look black, and a younger son who does, makes for an uncomfortable understanding of a completely irrational form of goverment and behavior. Even in the film when she states that she was unaware of any black blood in her, it seems that there has to be a reason for her child being black, a reason that is the first thought in any person’s head when they see a black child born to a white woman. The most poignant scene with the mother is when the father is on his deathbed. In contrast to most films that discuss race, there is no compromise in the mother’s behavior when the father wants to see his daughter. What she does is powerful and sad.
Skin is not a film that seeks to answer questions. It is simply a solid narrative that presents the life of a woman who embodies the confused problem of race.
Skin is based on the book: When She Was White by Judith Stone.