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Starring: Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, Tony Kgoroge, Ella Ramangwane

Directed by: Anthony Fabian

Produced by: Anthony Fabian, Genevieve Hofmeyr, Margaret Matheson

Written by: Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel (screenplay), Anthony Fabian (story)

Distributor: Jour de Fete

As seen at AFI Fest 2008:

     The day before a black man became the President-elect of the United States, I saw Anthony Fabian’s Skin, the true story of a South African woman named Sandra Liang (Sophie Okonedo) who was denied the same rights as her white family because she was born with brown skin acquired from generations-old genes. Think of the opposite of the Anthony Hopkins character in The Human Stain, only living in a culture where being black meant being oppressed.

     The most interesting part of Skin is not the rare genetic inheritance that long pained the life of its protagonist. Instead, it’s how the people around Sandra respond to her color. After a brief flash-forward in time, the movie begins with Sandra as a young girl (Ella Ramangwane). Her parents enroll her in the same whites-only school as her older brother. Sandra is allowed to attend despite an apprehensive administration, but she is soon kicked out when a racist teacher makes up a reason to beat her and kick her out, causing her father (Sam Neill) to engage in battle with the government over her official race. One would think he’d become a tolerant guy because of the ensuing hardships, but he doesn’t at all. When Sandra begins to date his general store’s black supplier (Tony Kgoroge), her father immediately tries to end it because of the man’s race. In other words: he thinks it’s a-OK to persecute blacks, just not his black-appearing daughter because she has white parents. And the chaos doesn’t stop there. After Sandra marries the man and shuns her family as a result, he turns out to be abusive, suggesting that she was subconsciously attracted to him because he possessed the very same violent qualities embodied by Daddy.

     While Skin tells a remarkable story packed with painstaking themes about fate, it isn’t a remarkable film. This is primarily because storywriter/director Anthony Fabian sticks to a rote narrative approach. He embraces the classical style to an unhealthy extent and the film, as a result, gets stuck in the standard “true-story” mold and the characters are never explored in any true depth. Fabian clearly chose a simple structure so that he could convey the story factually—when introducing the film at the screening I attended, he made sure to point out everything onscreen was true—but in doing so he robbed Skin of its emotional authenticity. In other words, Fabian invested so much of his attention in the facts that he didn’t have any time to flesh out his characters’ feelings, meaning they are not actually fully honest representations of real people because they do not reflect the many emotions essential to the story. Had Fabian allowed his actors to reach a little bit more in their work—perhaps embellishing, but discovering greater truths in the process—Skin would’ve been a better movie. Given Sophie Okenedo’s previous performances, we all know that she especially could’ve turned a good lead performance into a tour-de-force had the movie’s style and structure provided her more room to roam.

     Alas, Skin is a lot like many of the other films that have been made about the atrocities committed in Africa’s recent history, but not nearly as inspired as the most memorable ones. Viewers interested in the general subject-matter will do far better renting the Okonedo-starrer Hotel Rwanda or, for South Africa specifically, Tsotsi.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 11.8.2008

Screened on: 11.3.2008 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA.


Skin is rated PG-13 and runs 107 minutes.

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