When the movie "Skin" came out in 2009, it was publicized in some circles, but wasn't exactly prominent in the mass market of local theaters across the United States. The story of a "white" Afrikaner couple who found their daughter, born in the 1950s, had distinctly African physical features, is worthy of another look by those who didn't see it after release. Its available on DVD, but those are already being discounted to bargain catalogs like Daedelus.
The movie, directed by British film-maker Anthony Fabian, who is also one of three producers, won seven prizes at international film festivals. Its always interesting when the human gene pool throws out a baby that philosophers of racial purity tell us couldn't possibly happen. Of all the times and places to be born with African features, Sandra Laing was born to parents who were firmly committed to the policies of the National Party of South Africa, the party that devised and implemented the policy of apartheid.
The science of this is briefly alluded to in the movie. At one of many hearings to consider how Sandra should be officially classified by the government, a geneticist highlights 'we believe that most Afrikaners have some African genes.' They ought to. Their ancestors were wild frontiersmen in a fluid agricultural society dating back to the 17th century.
Even after racial lines became more rigid, every new generation of marriages brought lines that were entirely European into matches with lines that were mixed. While Afrikaners may not often have had children with individuals from the powerful baNtu-speaking clans, they likely did absorb some of the Khoisan and other peoples whose social cohesion was already being destroyed.
To his credit, her father stood up for his daughter - both parents did, in the only way they knew how. They insisted that being their daughter, Sandra was "white." They enrolled her in a good boarding school like any good Afrikaner girl from a prosperous home. When other parents complained and fellow students rejected her, the Laings fought persistently against her reclassification as "colored." At that age she sincerely insisted "I'm not black," because she had never known herself as anything but her parents' daughter.
This was not only a political and social imperative, it was their religion. The branch of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa had developed a theology of apartheid. Nowhere in the world, not even in the southern United States or the Caribbean, did the dubious Biblical reconstruction that Noah's curse of Canaan consigned all Hamitic peoples to slavery become so deeply entrenched in worship and world-view. (Ham was Canaan's father, and heredity generally does not run backward.) Perhaps there was some divine sense of humor in bringing the genes together in exactly this family, in this time and place.
The Laings won legislation that racial classification would be based on parentage, not on physical appearance, setting off her father's excited exclamation "She's white again!" But never once did the experience lead the Laings to question apartheid. The problem, as they saw it, was not that people in South Africa were classified by the color of their skin. The problem was, that their daughter was being classified according to the color of her skin.
As she grew older, her father's attempt to arrange a marriage with an Afrikaner man, any Afrikaner man, became cruelly ludicrous. The best of them spent an entire date telling her he didn't mind that she looked colored. When she married a man classified as "black," her family disowned her. She had to apply to change her classification from "white" to "colored" so that she would legally be able to marry "the father of my black child."
When the movie came out, there was the inevitable chorus, particularly from the particular school of intellectual black nationalist thought that also believes there is some sort of racial purity, insisting "it looks like somebody in her family was lying" about her parentage. Apparently Sandra's father never believed his wife had been unfaithful. Razib Khan, who writes on gene expression for Discover magazine, outlined in 2009 exactly how possible it is for parents unaware of their ancestry to have a child who seems... different. Hybrids do not breed true, and human beings are nothing if not hybrids.
It took nine years to produce "Skin," with four rewrites of the script and some prominent actors coming in and out before the final cast was settled. "Whether this convoluted development process constitutes an adaptation is anyone’s guess," Fabian concluded in a 2009 interview. "It does not, I am sure, in the official sense. But I do feel that, since it didn’t entirely spring from our imaginations, it is an adaptation of sorts, even if it came from countless sources."