It's not hard to show how heinous South African Apartheid was, but the story of Sandra Laing proves how clumsy and untenable its white-versus-black dividing line could be. Director Anthony Fabian's award-winning 2008 fictionalized film Skin is based on this South African woman — thrust into unfortunate fame because she straddled the line. Born to white Afrikaner parents (unaware of their own black ancestry), she looked black, with a darker complexion than them and kinky-curly black hair. The troubles began when Sandra was kicked out of an all-white boarding school. Her father Abraham (Sam Neill) initiated a challenge, contending that her parentage made her white, regardless of what she looked like. (A younger brother also looked black.)
Fighting over her racial status pulls the family apart. As Sandra grows up, she becomes estranged from her father, whose love for his daughter is restricted by the condition that she live as a "white" person. But Sandra only feels comfortable with friends and boyfriends who are black, and she knows that a mixed-race family is unwelcome anywhere in South Africa (where legally blacks and whites are not even allowed to share a church pew). Her mother Elsie finds herself in the middle, aware of her daughter's struggles but unable to moderate her husband's rigid views. As he pushes Sandra to date white men, the tensions mount.
Much of the heartbreaking film is about Sandra's (Sophie Okonedo) search for love and peace as an adult. Most of her life is spent in a peculiar netherworld: Whites discriminate against her for being black, and some blacks who know her story hold her privileged upbringing against her. Under political pressures from the outside world, South African laws change back and forth, but Sandra is never on the right side. After her father wins the right to classify her as white, she is in danger of not being able to maintain custody of her own black child. She appeals to various government offices for help, but the white bureaucrats at the front desks are rarely inclined to assist her. Ultimately, racism is so pernicious it punishes her for fitting all or none of its crude categories. Sandra never seeks a spotlight or political role, and yet her personal struggle, rendered passionately here by Okonedo, is nothing short of heroic. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Reserve a seat at firstname.lastname@example.org. — Will Coviello
7 p.m. Thursday
Antenna Gallery, 3161 Burgundy St.; www.press-street.com