Identity and Belonging
May 14, 2012
Skin – directed by Anthony Fabian
Skin has so much power on so many levels. It is both empowering and disabling. Protagonist Sandra Laing proves to be a survivor, but at what cost? She is alienated from her family, her home and her identity because of South Africa’s ‘‘Population Regeneration Act’’. For a long time xenophobia, fear and racism have been enmeshed and hidden within government policy. The issues explored in Skin are no different to those sometimes raised in connection with British settlement of Australia, the stolen generation and Australia’s asylum seeker policies. More specifically, a court case last year in which commentator Andrew Bolt was accused of racial vilification touched on attitudes reflected in Skin. Mr Bolt’s comments regarding ‘‘fair-skinned Aboriginal people’’ were found to be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. A theme in both the Bolt case and Skin is the way skin colour is used as a weapon against individuals and their rights as human beings. One of the ‘‘disabling’’ elements of Skin is that so much of the South African landscape looks so much like the Australian outback. It is ironic that the beauty of the landscape is countered by the ugliness of racism where the rights of individuals to belong are less valued than the fear of those powerful few. Is the landscape the only aspect we have in common? Sandra’s question — What did I do wrong? — could also be the question posed by any person rejected and isolated on the basis of ‘‘difference’’. Sandra is neither white nor black, and as a result is denied a happy life. Though the film traces her life over 30 years, with legislative change along the way, a more entrenched culture of discrimination remains. Though the end of the film brings happiness to Sandra, with her tuck shop, doesn’t the fact that her two brothers refuse to have contact with her suggest a lamentation for true equality and the existence of persecution? In some ways, Skin is more about Sandra’s father than it is about her. He is a very complex character who insists justice be pursued. But what kind of justice is it that is based on denial? Abraham’s insistence on having Sandra reclassified ‘‘white’’ is not so much for her benefit. He admits he is doing it ‘‘for all of us’’. To have the young Sandra attend a white school and be subjected to furious media inquiries and to drag her to face a courtroom does not suggest an understanding of her needs as much as his pursuit of legal justice. Abraham needs her to be ‘‘white’’ to assuage his own ‘‘black genes’’ and racist philosophy. Working with the Text
Skin is all about identity. Sandra is ‘‘born’’ one thing but ‘‘taught’’ she is another. Throughout the film she is ‘‘punished’’ for committing a crime — that of being neither black nor white. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that her own family rejects her because she does not conform to the ‘‘Afrikaans’’ ways inherent in the National Party to which her family belongs. The nature-nurture divide is reinforced throughout the film and the idea that ‘‘without connection to others there is no me’’ (2011 VCAA English Exam) can be linked to the film in many ways. It is skin that causes tension with her father; it is skin that causes her to be humiliated in school and to gravitate towards the black workers on her farm. It is skin that forms an attachment to Petrus, the black employee and first male to show her any sense of happiness and comfort; it is skin that ultimately causes her to be abused by her husband and which made her a reference point for the multiracial elections of 1994 and the victory by Mandela’s African National Congress. Living among the black community, Sandra is confronted with racism from within — a racism created by racism. After the Government Issue destruction of the homes, Sandra and Petrus are exiled into the bush along with the many others exiled on the basis of their skin. One can understand Petrus’...
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