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A sweet, quiet 10-year-old girl is bullied at her boarding school because she’s a little bit different from the other children. She knows she’s being stared at as she walks down the halls, even though she can’t figure out what she’s doing wrong. And even when she stands up to recite her multiplication tables—and gets them correct—the headmaster beats her so hard that she pees herself. Then he turns to the whole class and proclaims her “Disgusting!”

It’s 1965, her name is Sandra Laing, and this is apartheid-ruled South Africa. She’s being persecuted because she’s the daughter of white, Afrikaner parents—but she has caramel skin and African features, like nappy hair and thick lips. Afrikaners, most of whom are white descendants of European colonists, carry an average of 7% African genes, due to white male colonists taking African women as wives or concubines. Therefore, generations later, two white parents can produce a child with black features—and Sandra has them.

Under pressure from the school, the government reclassifies Sandra (Sophie Okonedo) as “coloured” so they can expel her, depriving her of her education. Her father (Sam Neill), ashamed, carries out a long, humiliating legal battle, and Sandra is finally reclassified white, again—but too late for the education she lost. When she starts dating, she runs into discrimination, rejection, and even sexual harassment, and her father’s anger toward the outside world is suddenly redirected toward Sandra instead. Eventually, she falls in love with a black man who accepts her, but when her father finds out, he threatens to kill the young man. So Sandra decides to run away with her lover to begin a new life in the shanty towns of Swaziland.

Skin is the true story of a woman who lived through some of the worst abuses of the apartheid era. The film depicts routine violence against the poor black residents in the townships, as well as the upheaval when whole villages are bulldozed and their residents are turned into refugees overnight. At the same time, you see the simple, daily rhythms of the villagers when their lives are not disrupted: extended families caring for each other, community gardens, joyous African dancing for family celebrations, from the birth of children to the milestones of the elders.

Sophie Okonedo’s understated performance takes Sandra from a lost young girl to a worn but strong older woman and mother, who slowly but doggedly carved a way to survive in a cruel world. Sam Neill’s performance as the tortured father is brilliant; he moves from defending his daughter at all costs to turning his shame and rage against her. For families like his, there was always the never-to-be-spoken question: was his daughter’s color truly the result of latent genes surfacing, or did his wife cheat on him with a black man? Alice Krige will melt your heart as the wife and mother who is torn between the two irreconcilable people she loves.

On a metaphorical level, the personal consequences of the family’s separation—for the parents, as well as for Sandra—mirror the pain and violence of the apart-ness that apartheid created. Skin won 19 international film festival awards—and for good reason. Seeing it helps us to understand why life is never, ever just black and white.

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