Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What does the colour of a person's skin really mean? "Nothing," many people would say today, but that negates the vast difference in life experience which it can bring about. It's the reason why social scientists still monitor race even though they don't believe it's of any biological significance. Back in Apartheid-era South Africa, skin colour was a crucial factor in shaping a person's destiny, and this film, based on a true story, demonstrates more clearly than ever just how arbitrary that was.

Sandra Laing was a bright, pretty, but otherwise ordinary girl who grew up with her family in a quiet rural area. That might have been the whole of the story, except that Sandra's parents were pale skinned, of European descent, whilst her skin was dark. Her father had to fight to change the law so that she could be classified on the basis of heritage rather than appearance and so keep her white privileges, but nothing he could do could change the way she was perceived and treated by other people, nor the way that she experienced herself within a landscape of privilege and stigma which her very existence rendered nonsensical.

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This film opens with Sandra as a child, beautifully played by Ella Ramangwane, who manages to make her both sympathetic and appropriately resentful as her world suddenly collapses. Sam Neill disappears into the role of her father, a man whose deep affection for his family is undermined by a lingering mistrust of his wife and increasing resentment of his daughter's conflicted identity. He's matched by the ever-reliable Alice Krige as Sandra's mother, whose desire to take the girl's side often comes into conflict with her instinct to protect her from suffering, and who, in that environment, is not without prejudice of her own. There are some really creepy scenes in Sandra's school as a class of white children is taught to think of blacks as inferior. This puts into proper perspective the real horror of a fascist society which most of the rest of the world turned a blind eye to as recently as 25 years ago.

When Sandra reaches puberty, Sophie Okonedo takes over. She's an excellent choice for the role, with her finely chiselled features appropriately ambiguous and her naturally distanced manner fitting for a woman who fits in nowhere. She brings an impressive sense of consistency to a story which unfolds over many years, convincing at each different age. Her Sandra is someone who knows she isn't really wanted or respected by white men but for whom all Hell breaks loose when she falls for a black man. He's attractive partly because he seems to understand her, but of course, in the end, that's not as simple as it might have seemed, and his resentment at the life he is forced to lead under Apartheid turns into resentment at this woman who "can always go home".

As a biopic, the film is somewhat uneven. In its later stages it substitutes sentiment for real character exploration, and there are many aspects of Sandra's life which we don't learn much about, such as the nature of her relationship with her children, which is glimpsed only briefly. As a personal story leading into a much larger one, about what Apartheid meant for human beings trying to get by in an otherwise beautiful country and modern society, it's much more successful.

For me personally, as a former campaigner, it was something special to see the introductory note explaining what Apartheid was for young audience members who may not have heard of it. Even for those who remember it well, this is an insightful and informative film, a cautionary tale illustrating the complex nature of socially ingrained prejudice. Skin colour shouldn't matter, but there's no denying that it still shapes lives today.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2009
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A biopic of Sandra Laing, a dark skinned girl born to white parents in Apartheid-era South Africa.
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Director: Anthony Fabian

Writer: Helen Crawley, Anthony Fabian

Starring: Sophie Okonedo, Alice Krige, Sam Neill, Tony Kgoroge, Ella Ramangwane

Year: 2008

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, South Africa


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