Last week found me in Conference Room 4 of the United Nations, butt snugged in Namibia’s seat, mini mic before me, at a special screening of “Skin.” The she’s-white-no-she’s-black biopic is the true story of Sandra Laing, a distinctly dark-skinned girl born to white Afrikaner parents in the 1950s. They claim she’s white, the law (and eventually she) says she’s “colored,” she falls for a hot black dude, and mind-boggling apartheid bigotry ensues.
The award-winning film — out in NY and LA and arriving nationwide this month — stars Sophie Okonedo as Sandra. But holy heartstrings! The real-life Laing came to the U.N. for the screening, and did a Q&A with director Anthony Fabian. Here are highlights from what they said…
End titles reveal that Sandra is estranged from her two brothers, an older one who looks white and a younger one who, like her, looks black. An audience member wonders why they won’t reunite with her.
Sandra: I think they are still angry with me because I left home with a black man and because I classified myself as colored.
Anthony: The other problem is that the brothers feel this is a private tragedy, and that bringing it into the public arena is very painful and wrong. However, I think Sandra feels that sharing her story is important enough to risk that pain.
As a child, Sandra was kicked out of her white school for her dark skin color. Someone asked if her younger brother experienced the same thing years later.
Sandra: No, he didn’t. He went to the same school that I went to. He finished there, and wasn’t kicked out.
Anthony: Having kicked Sandra out of school so dramatically 10 years earlier, the school was very embarrassed. When this boy went to the same school, the headmaster decided to take him under his wing and look after him — which is something that Sandra would have hugely benefited from if she had had the chance. But, also, he was lighter skinned and his features less distinctly African. I think that just gave him the edge in being able to be accepted by the white community. Today he lives with a white wife and I believe has white children. You have not seen them Sandra? No? And he, more than her older brother who looks white, feels very threatened by the association. You could say he is sort of in the closet as a black person, and having a black sister is a very threatening to him.
Sandra’s parents owned a small shop in the remote corner of Eastern Transvaal where they lived. In 2003, in a suburb of Johannesburg called Boksburg, Sandra opened a convenience store called “Sandra’s Rainbow Tuckshop” in her garage. Someone wondered how the business was going…
Sandra: I had to close the Tuckshop because they brought a shopping mall nearby.
Anthony: The zoning laws changed and this bloody great shopping mall said that they have to close all of the local businesses because it would be unfair competition for them. I think Sandra’s little Tuckshop isn’t going to stop people from buying things form a huge shopping mall. Very sadly, we tried very hard to stop that from happening. It seems to me, and I am sorry to all of the South Africans in the audience, but it’s a terrible indictment in a country with so little employment possibility to shut down a self starting business.
Both of Sandra’s parents swore their daughter biologically belonged to them. Still, someone in the audience asked if she was the product of an illicit, interracial fling on her father’s part.
Anthony: Many people were much more questioning of Sannie Laing, Sandra’s mother, than of Abraham. I think Abraham himself, as is hinted at in the film, rather wondered how she came to be. But the truth is, genetically it is perfectly possible for white-appearing people to carry enough black genes to produce a darker looking child with African features. The history of South Africa is such that 300 years ago, the Dutch arrived without their womenfolk, and as a student so charmingly put it to me, they fertilized with the locals. The result is a large population of mixed people…Sandra, can you say whether your family ever was able to trace the black ancestry?
Sandra: They haven’t find [sic] anything. I didn’t know my father’s mother. It can be, maybe she was darker.
Anthony: What happens very often in these instances, and as you see in the case of Adriaan, Sandra’s younger brother, is that as soon as somebody passes for white, their black ancestry is swept under the carpet. There’s a pretense that it never existed. That’s why it’s been so difficult to trace Sandra’s black ancestors. It’s possibly only two generations back somebody looked mixed in their family. Most Afrikaners will tell you that they have some kind of black blood. You can see it in its myriad forms when you are there.
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