December 11, 2009 at 11:37 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Skin' -- GRADE: B

Review: Racism rears its ugly head in 'Skin'

We are not black. We are not white. We're human.

Although we can act like beasts, a fact made plain in the biographical "Skin," a disturbing look at racism under the apartheid system in South Africa in the '60s and '70s.

It is the tale of Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo as a teen and adult, Ella Ramangwane as a girl), an obviously black child born to apparently white parents, who have black ancestors hidden in some heavily latched closet.

Acting blind to Sandra's appearance, her loving parents Abraham (Sam Neill) and Sannie (the chronically under-appreciated Alice Krige) raise her as a white girl in a society that treats blacks as fourth-class citizens.

But when Sandra goes off to school her classmates and teachers all consider her black, and soon she's ousted. Enraged, Abraham brings her birth certificate to the courts to have her certified as white. All sorts of demeaning experiences rain down on Sandra.

Still, as Sandra grows, she comes to accept the color of her skin. Even as Abraham is trying to set her up with white suitors, she falls in love with a young black man and becomes pregnant.

At which point Abraham -- who's every bit as racist as his fellow countrymen -- throws her out on her own, and Sandra finds herself in bureaucratic and personal nightmare.

The terrible thing about "Skin," directed by Anthony Fabian with a sure if obvious hand, is that it's fully believable, as preposterous as the racist laws of the time are. You never doubt the cruelty, the abandonment, the screwy red tape strangling Sandra's potential.

Potent, still relevant and inspiring while maddening, "Skin" shows some of our best and much of our worst.