- The Washington Times - Friday, November 6, 2009

Any human being could understand what was wrong with South Africa’s racist system of apartheid. But one woman’s circumstances best exposed the absurdity in the system to those who perpetuated it.

Sandra Laing was born in 1955 to a white mother and father whose own mothers and fathers also were white. But Miss Laing didn’t look white — her skin was dark and her hair coiled. Her older brother was white; her younger brother turned out to be dark like her. Clearly, there was racial mixing at some point in her heritage.

The difference between Afrikaners and Africans wasn’t so black and white — literally and metaphorically — as the ruling whites would have liked to believe. That’s why they had such trouble dealing with Miss Laing, whose family fought to have her classified as white so they could educate her well, only to see her fight to be classified as black so she could live legally with the black man she loved and their child.

Miss Laing’s story is certainly the stuff of drama. Yet “Skin,” a film based on her harrowing life, has very little of it. This feature film feels more like a TV movie — it has all of the facts but none of the power.

Miss Laing is played as a child by Ella Ramangwane and as an adult by Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo. Her parents are played by Sam Neill and Alice Krige. There’s certainly nothing to fault about the acting, which always seems authentic, but even these talented actors can’t save a hackneyed script. There’s nothing fresh or provocative about the dialogue, which is stunningly disappointing given the heartbreaking nature of this story of politics made all too personal.

There’s something of a happy ending to this tortuous tale, but it’s not completely satisfying. Miss Laing’s story might have bridged a gap between black and white at just the right moment in South Africa. But, like many other people, she was forced to choose between them rather than being able to embrace everything in her that was human.

★★
TITLE: “Skin”
RATING: PG-13 (thematic material, some violence and sexuality)
CREDITS: Directed by Anthony Fabian. Written by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyz and Helena Kriel, with a story by Mr. Fabian.
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
WEB SITE: skinthemovie.net
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS