For a film on skin color and the politics of race in apartheid South Africa, Anthony Fabian’s newly released “Skin” goes, it seems, only skin-deep into what could have been a most arresting set of questions. Sophie Okonedo plays Sandra Laing, a girl of colored appearance born to white parents in the South Africa of the 1960s, when apartheid reigned supreme. Though classified at birth as white, Sandra’s “colored” looks incline the white community to treat her as a colored person rather than as one of their own. At the onset of the film, we see Sandra and her brother Leonore being driven to a boarding school for white children. Before too long, the headmaster summons Sandra’s parents and insists that she be taken back home: she is too much of a distraction. Her father, Abraham Laing (Sam Neill), is wholly resistant to the idea: as she has been classified white, she must, in his view, be admitted to all the privileges of white people. But, as the movie progresses, it becomes all too apparent that he is driven not merely by a sense of securing justice or privileges for his daughter. Could it be, he wonders, whether his wife Sannie (Alice Krige) was unfaithful to him? The rumors flying around furiously must be quelled. The headmaster succeeds in having Sandra re-classified as ‘colored’, whereupon Abraham becomes resolutely dedicated to having her classification restored to ‘white’.
In a moving scene, Sandra and her parents are summoned before a racial classification board. The race expert, if we may call him that, calculates the ratio of her hips to her waits, and with a ruler takes the measurement of the width of her forehead; putting a pencil through her hair, he asks Sandra to shake her head to determine whether the curls can restrain the pencil and prevent it from falling out. All this passed for ‘science’, a holdover from the days when colonial regimes routinely deployed anthropometry and craniology to establish racial and social hierarchies. Desperate to establish the white credentials of his family, Abraham Laing has the matter taken to South Africa’s Supreme Court, where a geneticist testifies that Sandra’s appearance can be explained through her ‘polygenetic inheritance’. Indeed, says the geneticist to gasps from the white audience, nearly all Afrikaners have some black genes – nor should this be surprising, considering how, much as in the United States, where white slave-owners routinely bedded their black women slaves, white men readily took black women to bed while otherwise declaring that complete segregation between the races was the law of nature. Abraham’s hopes are crushed when the re-classification of colored for Sandra is nevertheless reaffirmed; but the passage of Parliamentary legislation decreeing that children born of white parents must be classified as white eventually makes him declare victory.
Several years have elapsed as the film moves into the next sequence of events. Sandra has matured into a young woman and is now back home, awaiting the appearance of a suitable suitor. Abraham Laing’s repeated attempts to match Sandra to a white man are the desperate gestures of a man whose attachment to whiteness is assumed by the filmmaker, but never probed. What is there to be probed, one might ask: is it not evident that ‘whiteness’ confers privileges, and in a profoundly hierarchical society is the principal passport to security, sustenance, and comforts? Sandra, however, has set her eyes on a black man, a mere vendor of vegetables and busboy. One senses that the immense struggles to claim whiteness have taken their toll of Sandra. She has certainly been transformed to the point where her father can no longer recognize her. Returning from a sexual rendezvous with her lover, she is discovered in the act and confined to her room. Throughout, her mother has been the emotional bulwark of her life; but now, facing the fury of the law of the father, even Sandra’s mother reprimands her for her unconscionable behavior. Many a film has gone that way: the father represents the harsh customs of patriarchy, the mother strives valiantly to soften the blows inflicted by the father and cushion her children from the corrosive effects of the relentless display of a domineering masculinity. Sandra elopes; the lovers are hunted down; thrown into jail, Sandra is released into the custody of her parents but rejects them – when her father pleads with her to return to them, she asks if they will accept the baby she has had with her black lover, Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge). Her father moves away dejectedly, and she leaves with her lover. Their baby is born, but Petrus soon shows all the marks of the possessive husband. There is no Iago scheming fatally to alienate Othello against Desdemona: no such histrionics are required, since Petrus is little more than a small-minded lazy native. A second baby comes along, but by this time Petrus is well on the way to spending much of his time with the booze bottle. Years later, Sandra will walk away from her abusive husband, as she walked away from home: as she climbs up the hill, her two adolescent children in tow, dawn breaks upon Johannesburg.
Just what is the heart of whiteness? Where is the heart of the whiteness that has no heart? And, yet, sunk in its darkness, whiteness is still inescapably desirable to others. We all have heard of creams to lighten the skin color, and there are innumerable ‘home remedies’ to scrub away the darkness. One such remedy, a poisonous concoction of chemicals and cleansers, makes Sandra’s skin erupt into boils. This is the nearly ineradicable poison wrought by apartheid and racial ideology. One of the many pillars of whiteness in South Africa was the Byzantine system of classification, enforced through a maze of written and unwritten laws. Though white and classified as such, Sandra is reclassified as colored at the instance of the school headmaster, and her father wages what purports to be a heroic struggle to reclassify her yet again as colored. His success is short-lived: seeking acceptance among black people, Sandra seeks — shockingly, valiantly, inexplicably — to undo her privileges and seeks reclassification as colored. A visit to the government office charged with such matters reveals that Sandra cannot will herself into extinction as a white person. That the state should find objectionable the efforts of colored people to prove themselves white comes as no surprise, but perhaps even more objectionable, in principle, is the apostasy of those who disown the ancestral privileges of race. Perhaps there is enough in the film’s scenes to point to the filmmaker’s recognition of the oppressive ostentatiousness of classificatory schemes, but nevertheless I had the feeling that the politics of classification is insufficiently probed in “Skin”.
In the aftermath of the end of the apartheid, the film moves to a closure by reuniting Sandra with her mother. Her father has long since been dead; for some twenty odd years, Sandra has been separated from her mother. Women are the only strong characters in “Skin”: the men are morally crippled by patriarchy, energized only by authority, and confined in their actions by a maze of laws and the force of custom. Everyone’s focus will perhaps be riveted upon Sandra’s father, but there is no more pathetic creature than her older brother. Protective of his sister, he turns, suddenly and ferociously, against her when their father tries to hunt her down after her elopement. Abraham and Leonore make a huge bonfire of everything that might remind them that Sandra is part of the family. Fire is cleansing and redemptive, and men are incapable of moral reflection. The film makes the attempt, but only inconsequentially so, in putting forth the idea that the authority of the state and the paternalism of the father are born of the same seed to dominate. No new ground is being tread here, and even the idea of the quiet but strong and determined woman, whose inner strength prevails against all odds, who knows no end of oppression, has now been encountered often enough to constitute a predictable trope of what might be called movies in the ‘inspirational’ mode. Sandra has weathered many a storm, and the viewer feels relieved at what is evidently her quiet triumph. One wishes only that the story of the new South Africa were more congruent with this flash of inspiration.