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Sandra Laing may have been born to white parents but she’s believed to be a case of genetic throwback. This means that somewhere in her family tree, possibly decades beforehand, she may have had black ancestor.
"There are many, many documented cases of what is called genetic throwback," explains director Anthony Fabian, "which is to say that somewhere in the ancestry of these white parents they was black blood. In a case like this you'd have to have two parents who each contribute enough black genes to make a child look distinctly African. And that's what happened."
Sandra’s Afrikaner parents, members of the racist National Party, perhaps out of denial, viewed her as white. Even Sandra who as a young girl, lived in a very isolated area, saw herself as white. British actress Sophie Okonedo plays Sandra Laing.
"She actually thinks she's white," explains the actress. "It isn't 'til she goes to school that that her identity reflects in other people, other people don't see her as white. Basically, they see her as coloured or black and so they react. She can't understand why people are reacting to her."
The film shows the psychic toll of racism on Sandra and her family. The director views the film as a family drama but he also sees his picture as a very effective way of showing the irrationality of racism in South Africa at the time.
"I think 'Skin' is a wonderful example of the absurdities of racial definition," he says. "Because if you could have a black child born to white parents, what can it possibly mean to be either white or black? You can't then create an entire social system based on race, it just doesn't make any sense. So it just puts the whole question of race on its head. And it's a great illustration of that."
Sandra Laing’s life was torn apart by racism. She became estranged from her parents, forced into a marginalized existence. Eventually her life came together, and she tracked down and made contact with her mother before she died.
Laing’s story has been told before, though not through a feature film. She’s not a woman of many words. Overall her view on the film is that personally it’s been therapeutic.