A true-life tale of prejudice that hinges on a unique anomaly, Skin recounts the story of Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo), a South African girl born during apartheid with black skin to white Afrikaner parents. After a childhood sheltered from society at mom Sannie (Alice Krige) and dad Abraham’s (Sam Neill) rural general store, Sandra is sent to a boarding school where the disgusted stares of adults and students alike serve as rude enlightenment. “I’m not black!” she protests, which for a while holds legally true thanks to her birth certificate. But Sandra’s dark features and the discrimination it incites soon compels Abraham—both loyal to his daughter and prejudiced against blacks—to mount a vigorous legal defense to have her permanently classified as white, culminating in a Supreme Court hearing where a geneticist argues that most Afrikaners boast some black genes. Soon enough, the combination of Sandra’s self-loathing, Abraham’s intolerance, and Mom’s failure to mediate between daughter and father leads to estrangement, with Sandra fleeing home to marry and have kids with black farmer Petrus (Tony Kgoroge).
Director Anthony Fabian treats his material with a respectful reserve that keeps events from toppling over into corny histrionics, maintaining empathetic focus on Sandra, Abraham, and Sannie’s related struggles to reconcile internal and external realities. Without the sermonizing generally employed by such tales, the film gets at its three protagonists’ conflicted emotions thanks to patient, modulated performances that flesh out the dynamics of the near-impossible circumstances— caused in part by a 1950 law that outlawed blacks from living under the same roof as whites—into which Sandra and her parents were thrust. Sandra’s marriage eventually falls apart under the weight of Petrus’s booze-augmented resentment toward whites (which he comes to view his wife as), a development that completes Fabian’s portrait of Sandra’s purgatorial no-win situation in a somewhat neat, cursory manner that clashes with the sturdy early going’s attention to authenticity. Nonetheless, though stylistically humdrum and unevenly plotted, Skin articulates the confluence of outside assumptions and familial heritage that impacts one’s process of self-definition.