My Review of the South African movie Skin (2008) – Don't Tell My Wife I'm a Cult Leader

My Review of the South African movie Skin (2008)

The other day I watched a South African movie called Skin (2008). It's based on a true story about a white family giving birth Sandra, a child that has darker complexion and curlier hair than her Afrikaner parents. She already has an older brother who lighter skin and less curly hair.

At first, everyone minds their own business, but when the girl goes to boarding school she is beaten by the schoolmasters and kicked out because she makes the other students feel uncomfortable.

Then the authorities want to reclassify Sandra as "coloured," a non-offensive term used to categorize South African people of mixed descent (European, African, Indian, Indonesian, etc), but that would mean her parents would have to get reclassified as coloured too, and lose all of their de jure white privilege.

The father fights her status in the courts and a new precedent is set: any child born to white parents is classified as white, no matter what they look like. The parents are elated because they can carry on as they used to.

But as Sandra comes of age, she is not accepted as white by the community despite what the law says. She tries dating some white lads, who to their credit don't mind the way she appears, but heads turn everywhere they go and Sandra realizes she'll never be accepted.

She ends up getting pregnant by a Zulu man and elopes, causing her family to disown her. After the couple's second child, the family's shantytown gets bulldozed to make way for a white settlement. The husband's livelihood goes up in smoke, which leads him to alcoholism followed by domestic abuse.

Sandra leaves her husband and strikes out on her own, at one point making contact with her sympathetic mother in order to get her original birth certificate. Since Sandra is still white on paper, by having a baby with a black man, the kids are officially coloured. And by law, a white mother is not allowed to raise kids from a different racial category, hence the need to jump through the legal hoops.

Years later, as Apartheid winds down, Sandra has a renewed interest to connect back with her birth parents. They get the message and the dad is dying of cancer and wants to receive her daughter's forgiveness. The mom stops him saying that neither one of them deserves her forgiveness.

We fast forward to South African's first election of the new government, and the media takes interest in Sandra's life story. After dismissing the mobs, she takes it upon herself to find her mom, who is now living in a nursing home, recovering from a stroke, her father gone for seven years.

Mom gives her an inheritance and a small doll she played with as a kid, the only memory that survived her father's fiery purge of Sandra's photos and possessions. They make up best they can and we see Sandra opening up a tuck shop in a township to the cheerful approbation of the crowd.

The ending is bittersweet because at least Sandra is able to live the rest of her life in a free South Africa, but at the cost of being robbed of her family's love. It's plainly obvious that both Sandra and her family's ability to exist as they wanted was limited due to the structural racism in place at the time of Sandra's coming of age.

This movie is a great portrait of the most incoherent aspects of the Apartheid system, giving us a microcosm of how people were so badly limited by it. Generally speaking, whites and blacks lived apart and the whites generally believed that things were fine due to the lickspittle local media and that they lived miles from black homesteads, whereas the blacks suffered daily from the heavy hand of the South African police state.

Only when the two worlds are accidentally knit together due to a genetic abnormality do the various parties see the the racial atrocities play out in real time. Had Sandra been born as white as her folks, she would have been just as clueless as every other Afrikaner. Afrikaners (originally of white Dutch descent) are roughly 10% black due to 400 years of living together on a black continent so it's not out of the question for children to appear with less European features more frequently than not. Paternity tests at the time weren't nearly as effective as they are now, but a less conclusive blood test didn't disprove Sandra's father's paternity.

Here's what I learned from the movie: it wasn't just Sandra, but her entire family that were victims of Apartheid. At first glance, it appears that the father is the oppressor, the one who disowned his own daughter and threatened her lover, and no doubt the buck stops with Dad when it comes time to render primary blame on the family's breakup.

And no doubt the father was raised with prejudice just like so many others, but it was "livable." That is, he harbored disdain for blacks, but wasn't an active agent of Apartheid himself. Only after his family is threatened by the state do his worst tendencies come to head. When he discovers that his daughter is sleeping with a black man, he knows that the end game of that relationship would mean the dissolution of the family bond. If she were to have a baby with a Zulu, the grandparents would not be allowed to see baby even if Mom was allowed to raise it, nor would the mixed family be allowed by law to even share a meal together. Most likely one or both would be jailed for daring to love one another.

So instead of waiting for the state to act, the father nips the "problem" in the bud by throwing her out of the house and telling her daughter to never come back. Though cruel, it's no crueler than the state effecting the same type of dissolution once they learned of the unlawful miscegenation.

Had the Apartheid system not been in place, that is, had there not been laws governing freedom of association, things may have played out differently. Sure the father may not have liked having a Zulu son-in-law, but he most likely wouldn't have threatened to kill him, whose murder might have been condoned by the government considering the gravity of a black man sleeping with a white woman, a crime that would have charged the black man for rape just 30 or 40 years ago. Personally, I've seen many families balk at their sons' and daughters' choice of a mate, only to see their views soften over time as reality doesn't match their overwrought expectations, especially when a baby comes into the picture.

Since in the movie we see life both during Apartheid and afterward, we get a clear sense of how much better life is without the racist sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all who dared to challenge the system, but by no means does a new government instantly wipe away all of the crimes of the former days. That is, a new government, constitution and code of laws does not make everyone educated, richer and more full of love. But it does allow for its possibility even though the change can't happen overnight.

So now that a whole new generation or two have been born in raised in a post-Apartheid South Africa, we see the limits of dismantling the du jure racist structure that governed the land for nearly 50 years. That is, there's still a wide gap between the rich and the poor, there is not nearly as much education parity as one would want, and the government still reels in its inability to provide basic needs such as electricity for the whole of its population.

Though things are way better in terms of prosperity for huge numbers of South African blacks, that prosperity has yet to fan out to the masses, with many still living in shantytowns that too closely resemble the ones that Sandra lived in during the 1970s and 80s. However, spirit is willing: no one wants this inequality or lack of basic needs being met, it's just harder to achieve than it looks and throwing money at a problem does not often fix things as well as we wish it to.

The problems of South Africa are not unlike the ones in the United States where we have a middle-class of black folks that is a much larger percentage than it was before Civil Rights, but there are still real world aspects of the vestiges of that earlier system in place even though generations of people have now come and gone.

Obviously, it's in our best interest to figure out a way to right the wrongs of the past without lighting up the house in flames. You want more economic and educational equality because poor people have become more prosperous and educated as opposed to the kind of equality that comes about when everyone becomes dirt poor and all the schools shut down. Review Haiti 2023 for a current example of the worst kind of equality.

I'm sure that after coming together and properly consulting on the topics at hand and earnestly applying these plans without a whiff of political deceit, we'll get to a point where it not only works, but the rest of the world will adopt a similar problem-solving strategy that can be adapted for each country and culture's long-lasting issues of locally brewed racism, sexism, nationalism and so on.

For now, I do my best to educate myself on the exigencies of the day in part to manifest ways that I can help, but just as importantly, my education acts as a bulwark to the demagogues out there who want us to believe that their way is the best and that you are a bad person if you do not follow their method. At the root of a new problem-solving system, we must recognize that we are all spiritual beings, that we must cleave to a spiritual solution to our practical problems, and that any other method will only have short-term results or create so much antipathy that the juice isn't worth the squeeze.

Once we're able to change the hearts, that is, we change the foundational principles that govern our thoughts and actions, we'll clearly see that what we are up against is no match for a united front of people who are guided by the same morality and penchant for justice.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published