Interview with Sandra Laing- Real Life Subject of Skin

by Melissa Silverstein on October 30, 2009

in Movies,Racism,Reviews

Sandra Laing and Sophie Okonedo

Sandra Laing and Sophie Okonedo

Skin is the heartbreaking true story of Sandra Laing (played by Sophie Okonedo) as a woman with black skin born to white parents in apartheid S. Africa.  She is a white girl who looked black.  As a young girl she knew she looked different but her biggest problems began when she showed up to school. They couldn’t and wouldn’t believe she was white, and were of course convinced that her mother (Alice Krige) had an affair with a black man instead of the fact that maybe somewhere in her family’s past there was actually mixed race blood.  This poor girl was just torn between two very different worlds.  The place she felt safest and most comfortable was amongst people who looked like her, so she left her family to live in the black community.  Her family then broke all ties with her because they just couldn’t believe their white daughter would rather live with black people. The whole thing just broke my heart.  This is a small film that makes you really think about race and how much racism hurts.  Skin opens today in NY and LA.

Sandra Laing is an very quiet woman (now I understand Okonedo’s understated performance) and she answered some questions about her life and the film.

Women & Hollywood: How did the film come about?

Sandra Laing: Tony Fabian the director of the film phoned me in 2000 that he wanted to meet me and told me that he wanted to make a film about my life.  I agreed because other people — newspaper and tv people — always came to me and they just took the story and went, and in Tony’s case I felt that he was the one who would change my life.  He did but it took 7 years to make the film.

W&H: Did he change your life?

SL: Yes, I was staying in a small rented house wasn’t working and couldn’t support my children, but now I am in a bigger house and my life is much better.

W&H: What was the hardest part for you to watch in the film?

SL: The time when I called my mother from my cousin’s house which was the first time I spoke with her after 10 or 15 years since I left home but I still didn’t know where she was staying she didn’t tell me.  And then the time when I found her in the old age home.

W&H: Why do you feel it was important for your story to get out there?

SL: I wanted to let the world know what apartheid did to a person in S. Africa and to let people know that if something happens to you long ago and you are scared to talk you must talk about it and let it out and you can then go on with your life.

W&H: In the press notes you say that this is a story of family, forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit.  Have you forgiven your family?

SL: Yes, I have forgiven my family.  I didn’t get a chance to ask forgiveness from my father but I did see my mother before she died and now just my brothers are left.

W&H: Have you spoken with them?

SL: They don’t want to speak to me.  They are still angry with me from when I left home and when I chose black people over them.

W&H: It is so hard to rationalize what you must have felt — you were white but had black skin.  What can your experience teach people about racial issues?

SL: I think you mustn’t see a person through color whether she is black or white or brown.  We are all the same.  We all have the same blood.  Inside we are all the same.

W&H: Were you ever on the set?  What did you thnk about Sophie Okonedo playing you?

SL: Sophie is a brilliant actor.  I do see me in her acting.  She is doing the same things that happened to me.

W&H: Anything else you would like to add?

SL: Ask people to pray for me so that my brothers will one day come and see me.

W&H: Will this film open in S. Africa?

SL: It will it open in S. Africa on January 22, 2010.

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

ksolo October 30, 2009 at 10:04 AM

great site! just heard you on blogtalkradio mentioning this film. i love sophie okonedo – this looks like a very powerful, moving film. my prayers are with sandra….


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist October 30, 2009 at 11:19 AM

Wow. This is a true story? That’s really devastating her family is still angry with her and won’t speak with her.

truly heartbreaking

C.K. October 30, 2009 at 1:03 PM

I saw this film at the TIFF last year and it was fantastic (absolutely loved Sophie Okonedo in the lead role). Sandra Laing was there in person and stepped onstage at the end. It was so inspiring to see her live, knowing all that she’d been through. Great to see a Q & A with her here!

Bigg Nikk October 31, 2009 at 4:34 PM

I pray that Sandra is reunited with her broters. With today DNA testing, the world can find out the truth.

Melissa Silverstein November 1, 2009 at 8:20 PM

She was actually very emotional on the phone. My heart just breaks for her.

Melissa Silverstein November 1, 2009 at 8:21 PM

Glad that the blogtalk radio interview went well. Thanks for finding me.

Jennifer November 5, 2009 at 1:16 AM

I was born in S. Africa and just saw the movie…so glad things have changed there but so sad Sandra’s brothers haven’t…I will pray that they see the movie and understand what she went through and reconcile with her.

Patrice November 24, 2009 at 3:58 PM

I saw this film just yesterday with my husband. In one word… AWESOME. Sandra you are very BRAVE and STRONG. I pray you and your brothers will reunite in Love and Forgiveness one for another one day soon.

duma January 22, 2010 at 5:15 AM

This story should be preserved for posterity. Our children and grand children will never believe that these things happened in their very own beloved land.

Caiphus January 27, 2010 at 10:46 AM

(I am a black SA ). I can’t wait to see the movie .It is so true, our neighbour was just so heartless, if told by the elders what they went through- you break down and cry ( the funny part is our parent forgive them ).

Anyway, God bless my home land


ursula abdull February 8, 2010 at 9:11 AM

this is trully just sad i just cry if i speak about this film
god must touch the hearts of her loved ones because they will always be part of each other no matter what they can go hide as far as the end of the world they will always be part of each other and that is blood line that bond them fore ever and ever. you can run but there is no hiding place for a broken hearth . please brothers of sandra you must come together and heal you are dening your selfs from true healing

Ayesha March 27, 2010 at 7:54 AM

I find her strength inspiring. She is an amazing women that went through a lot. And very thankful that I am part of a free and democratic South Africa…

inc123 May 13, 2010 at 7:01 PM

I would like to see a real DNA test not a blood typing test, which is useless to determine paternity. I do not beleive she is the biological child of both parents. Regardless of her biological parentage, she was their child by choice, and should have been treated as such.

That old “throwback gene” is a myth- used to explain rapes, affairs, but does not hold water with today’s science. No, that does not mean a child can’t be lighter or darker than either parent, but a child cannot be a race that has not been parent or grandparent. The gene has to have been there, though it may have been recessive. Eye, skin color, hair color is not just the dominant/recessive inheritance pattern that was taught years ago. There is a continuun of expression but the gene must have been present…

shannee August 12, 2010 at 12:21 PM

Brothers still not wanting to see her.Very twisted guys.

Katie September 22, 2010 at 11:57 AM

Afrikaners [germanic south africans] have slave ancestry,cant believe how few know of this.There were hardly any euro women in the early colony compared with slave and half caste women.

This is why alot of white South Africans get African/Indian etc Mtdna results.

My father and his family were “play whites” in South Africa –
that is they had mixed ancestry[coloured] but passed as white, one of my aunts married an afrikaner’ who probably didn’t even know.I can imagine that happened very very frequently in the history of the country.

Sandras mum looks more coloured than most of my ”coloured” aunts.I can see her foreign admixture easily.I am not suprised that a mulatto looking child could appear during recombination.Sandra does look mulatto not black,she looks german/khoi to be precise and that is not suprising if they are rural dwellers,that is a fairly common mix there.Given how light skinned the khoi are it would be fairly easy to start appearing white after a two generations.

On a sample [living history project] of 153 white afrikaners it showed their Mtdna [early maternal line] as follows.
White: 6% EU[europe]; 8,5% SA[khoisan]; 1,5% SSA[sub saharan]; 0% NA; 80% EA[Indian]; 4% A[East Asian]

Only a mere 6% of them show early descemt from a european female/

Katie September 22, 2010 at 12:11 PM

if you notice that the majority of early maternal ancestry for afrikaners is indian, and if you have ever seen an anglo-indian,mixed indian or even an albino[depigmented] indian .You can imagine how easily it would have been to pass for white after just one generation.

kate September 22, 2010 at 12:49 PM
usenia March 28, 2011 at 5:21 AM

Thanks a good movie. I pray that one day Sandra gets to meet,speak and feel his brothers forgiveness.
God Bless.

Nunda April 15, 2011 at 8:10 AM

A powerful movie. Was very close to home for me. It took me 33 years to work thru my identity crisis. How confusing for Sandra as a child. I am adopted by European parents. I had 2 mums. I love them both. “Love doesn’t have a clour”

Carmen August 10, 2011 at 1:26 PM

I think the parents were angrier that she chose to be a second wife at 14 to an older man, black ,white or purple her parents would not have wanted this for her.
It is amazing that in 2011 in NY City women with white children, that happen to also be white but darker or mix race are asked if they are the nanny.
Excellent film, those parents loved her so much and defended her, specially her father.
They felt betrayed that she chose another culture and religion. I believe that culture and norture makes a person, not race.

Sheila Z August 16, 2011 at 4:01 PM

The evil continues in so many people. You can see it in how Pres Obama is disrespected. I just stumbled onto this film on Netflix and learned Sandra’s story. I’m so glad this movie was made and hope it will be used to teach high school classes about the history of apartheid and the evils of racism. It is going to take time to change the world. I wish it would happen faster though because my grandson is mixed race and I don’t want to see him or any other children being damaged by discrimination. Sandra is a real hero, she deserves all the best in life and I hope her brothers someday are able to do the right thing.

Carol Dickinson August 20, 2011 at 12:21 AM

I wish I could meet Sandra and tell her I have compassion for her… and I am praying for her. I hope and pray her brothers will contact her. Actually they need to appologize to her…. she was the one that was cast out because of her skin color. They need to go running to her and ask for her forgiveness… not the other way around. She wanted to see them… but the father kept preventing her. Poor lady. I can not even imagine what she went through. You know… predjudice is such an evil thing. Predjudice is from the pit of hell.
Jesus said “I give you a new command to love one another as I have loved you showing yourself to be my disciple if you have love one for another.”
Sandra if you ever read this… I wish I could encourage in the Lord more… but the best encourager is the Lord Himself. Know that our Heavenly Father is the best Father you could ever have. Read the book of John in the Bible and discover God’s love for you!
Much much much much love in Jesus Christ,
Sandra consider yourself hugged! You are precious!

Jack August 26, 2011 at 4:33 PM

just watched the movie and it is very emotional.
during the movie and even more now after reading her comments I dont think this was a black white thing. That fellow she left her family for was a scumbag…pops had been doing business with him for how long? I think it was the man she was falling for that he had problem with, not the fact he was black. Her dad even admitted to having black blood in his family line – what prejudice person would admit to that?

I think she did a serious injustice to her family and did not understand what he was so angry about.

No doubt her life prior to leaving home was not fair – that sucks – but to run off like that and not even hear her dads side of it….bad decision. she now says 10 or 15 years she did not speak to her mom – WHAT…you dont know the difference in 5 years…thats huge – and it expresses to me that hollywood had a huge influence on the story itself. like the scene were dad wanted to see her but mom said no, you made your decision. All hogwash

everyone has a sad story

I really think this lady made a selfish decision as a child and it should not have affected her whole life but sometimes it does.

J August 29, 2011 at 12:40 AM

It is all very sad. The bottom line is that until YOU WALK in those shoes you DON’T REALLY know how YOU would react so to speculate and say she was selfish is PLAIN STUPID. I would love to see, one day when we judge a person by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, by their gender or race.

Donna September 3, 2011 at 6:52 AM

This Lady (Sandra) does NOT NEED to be forgiven by anyone. Being shunned by the society her parents lived in forced her to make the only decisions she knew how to make…to go where she was accepted. I applaud her for her courage and strength. Whether or not her skin is caused by (throw back)<–repulsive phrase, or a recessive gene or even IF her mother was unfaithful..none of that was this woman's fault and yet SHE has been made to carry the brunt of the blame from both sides. As we are all is a gamble as to how we look…some things we can control..but what is determined at the time of our creation we have NO control over, thus we should not be blamed for genetics…yet sadly in this world we still are. I support all who strive for racial equality..but what I TRULY PRAY FOR…is….EQUALITY FOR HUMANITY !!!

dr banda October 9, 2011 at 12:31 PM

you write ”I dont think this was a black white thing. ”
Of course it was . Apartheid = APART HATE.
Not what God the Creator wants for any society.
Her brothers must seek out their sister and ask for forgiveness. They had it good while she suffered from an un just South Africa.
Do it before time runs out.That’s what God says –Matthew Levi 1-10
Dr Banda

Suzanne Meyer October 21, 2011 at 10:26 PM

I went to school with Sandra Laing, The convent school where she was accepted by her fellow classmates. I grew up in Swaziland, the nearest town across the boarder was Piet Retief, where Sandra went to school. I know what small town mentality in apartheid South Africa was like. I am so glad this movie was made and that finally her story is told.

Rob December 30, 2011 at 2:10 PM

I just saw the movie. Sophie Okonedo was brilliant. I have lived in South Africa since 1982. Back then, my parents were in Swaziland and I was studying at Wits (I could tell some stories here that involve rubber bullets and tear gas). At that time, South Africa could be described as a Nazi Police state. My Parents begged me to stay away from politics and I was a dutiful son in all appearances. In any case, I couldn’t see a system so reminiscent of Nazi Germany lasting too long. I was very glad when it all ended. I remember a day at work in Pretoria when we took a break to watch De Klerk announce the release of Mandela. The majority of my work colleagues weren’t so happy about it – which made me all the more happier! I really hope Sandra Laing’s brother’s see the light and ask their only sister to forgive them for being such bad brothers. Hey you boys, sisters are a blessing. Why won’t you see her? You’re being daft and it’ll cost you in the things in life that matter the most! Sister’s forgive very quickly too – so don’t fret.

Amanda Pride February 13, 2012 at 2:36 PM

I saw this heartbreaking and beautiful movie today on Showtime. Sophie Okonedo you brought true justice to this story. I pray God’s love will flood her brothers hearts and they will be reunited with their Sandra. Love never fails.

Dominga October 24, 2012 at 12:16 PM

I seen the movie “Skin” and i can tell you it was very emotional. I cried through out the movie. Sandra you are a very strong person and never give up on faith. I do hope and pray that you get to see your two brothers again.

Angel December 12, 2012 at 3:06 AM

People always say its not bout black and white . How do you know about wat went on in africa in the 1950s. If you are white you will never know how whites treat blacks. She is a strong women for doing what she believes. Just like slave owners force and made the slaves have sex. Back then salves were consider property and had no choice to have sex. Were all this black genes. My husband look mix but both his parents are black. His blood line is mixed so much his family look like a rainbow. From looking white to the darkest skin tone. No dna test is need.

JH January 2, 2013 at 2:22 PM

The problem will always remain. The comments up here prove it clearly. How can people say it’s not a black/white thing. How can u say its d young age Sandra left home for a boyfriend that’s the problem in stead of a black/white problem? And the worst of all; how can somebody say Sandra’s father defended her. He did not, not at all. Sandra’s father kept saying his daughter is white. When you denie that she is black, you denie everything she is. He was fighting for himself, not for Sandra. If he wanted to fight for her, he could have fought for her entering any school as a black, sitting on any chair as a black. Her parents chose for the racist laws from their country over their own child. Sad, sad, sad. I prais Sandra for beïng able to forgive her familie. That makes her greater and stronger then all of them.

Let’s hope that, one day, the world won’t see skin colour anymore. I’m afraid it won’t happen until everybody has a mixed skin. Anyway, that will be okay so white people can’t feel bigger or better in any way. And for the record: I am white like snow myself.

SY January 30, 2013 at 12:39 PM

Just caught this on Netflix. “Skin” proves how shallow the concept of race really is and yet, I still don’t believe the answer to be that of ignoring race. To do so implies that there is something “wrong” with being nonwhite. Funny thing is, there is nothing particularly nonwhite about Sandra’s features; her skin color alone dictated how she was treated.

Then again, race has always only been an external perception. It doesn’t matter how much one explains their heritage; people will always be labeled according to they appear to others in their society.

This simple truth is what her parents failed to accept; that Sandra could no more be “white” within the confines of their society than they could be Asian. This is why it’s important to resist the urge to be colorblind. Sandra didn’t need people to NOT see her skin color; she needed her skin color to not make a difference. That’s the measure of true equality.

Desiree Gaffley March 17, 2013 at 7:28 PM

I am a South African who now resides in USA from mixed origin. I identify with her pain. It is heart rendering, I am very happy that Sandra now has a better fiscal life. I prayer for her is to find true peace and happiness.

anne lapedus brest April 3, 2013 at 3:34 AM

I remember Sandra Laing’s story from the mid sixties. Heart-breaking. I cannot understand her brothers’ attitude towards her, afterall, they may look “white”(the older one) and the younger one may be “lighter” albeit they both carry the same Genes as Sandra. It was never her fault that her parents” joint DNA contributed to how she appeared. Sandra was a victim that no child should ever have experienced. I saw the DVD of SKIN last night, and i would love to meet Sandra Laing. she is a woman of virtue.

Cricket August 22, 2013 at 2:20 PM

I am encouraged by this truly incredible, courageous woman and by her loving and forgiving heart. So many of us want to be like her and strive to be like her but our allow our weaknesses to stop us instead of what Ms Laing did. She moved forward and she never gave up!!!! Her story is one that will always stay close to my heart and encourage me every day of my life!! May God keep her and give her a long and happy life!!!

Ms Klute August 31, 2013 at 7:29 PM

Representing a Dutch organization named ‘ World Children’ = Wereldkinderen, I am interested to meet with one of the brothers to Sandra Laing as I feel her openness and readiness to forgive deserves support. As an external person representing multi-racial families, I may communicate with Sandra’s brother(s) to have him/them reconcile with their full sister for something completely beyond her will! Can anyone help me find one of her brothers?
Thank you in advance.

Ambubuyog Lilibeth November 2, 2013 at 3:39 PM

God is soooooooooooo Great. His Unconditional Love is always with His children.
You will always be blessed Sandra Laing and your prayers (our prayers together) will be heard. You will be reunited with your dearly brothers.
Always have faith and more power to you and your family.

Jean March 21, 2014 at 6:28 AM

to Ms. Lilibeth, why on earth would Sandra want to be reunited with her brothers, when they are determined to be pretend to be white, and keep her black, or perhaps “colored”, where she can be of a different caste?

Whether or not her parents are both her *biological* parents is something we probably won’t ever know, as the storyline, is about forgiveness, the cost of apartheid, and so on, but I submit the real story *should* be about the true biological facts of her birth.

If her mother is indeed her mom, then she likely had either and affair or a rape by a black or mixed race man. That is clear, use your eyes. We have centuries of race mixing in the United States, and there has never been a case so blatantly ridiculous as a child born black of parents who “appeared” white.

It just does not happen.

It’s like saying I have a white glob of paint on a palette: and I mix in a pale mixture of grey, and suddenly, i come up with near black globs. Or, I have two globs of white paint, and somehow when I put them together on a brush, suddenly they paint black pictures! Geez, get a clue people, doesn’t happen!

Trying to make it so, no matter what the past heredity of her parents this is all silliness.

what is likely a much more nuanced, and tragic story is who her real biological parents are. I do not doubt something different was going on IF her mom gave birth to both Sandra and her brother Adriaan. He looks just like any child of black white mixes over the years in the US, and i presume it works the same way on the continent of Africa with more admixture of indians and other incoming peoples.

In my own family, I had white looking, pure white looking ancestors who were defined as mulatto, or black. Obviously they didn’t turn white all by themselves, but there also are NO cases of children born who turned out to be black from those white looking parents. The darker relatives I have are because of the reintroduction of darker skinned people. It is really not rocket science.

Bottom line is here, from the picture of the laings both children were mixed race, just like you typically get with parents of mixed race or two different races. One is just darker then the other, and obviously has made his choice.

The REAL question is………WHO are the two parents. Not so much what happened to Sandra, even though it is lamentable: that was predictable, what is not predictable is what she might have become IF she had actually known from whence she came, and I mean, who her genetic parents were, rather than suffering this insane nonsense of being classified white and having to pretend to be something she was not.

No matter what, adoption, or whatever everyone should have the right to know their true parents, and to be treated as any other human being expects to be treated. She should have been able to take pride in who she was instead of having to been a lower caste, and to feel she was a stain on the family.

No designation will ever decide whether or not you get respect, and enjoy the fruits of you country. it is what we make of who we are, and people should stop making such a distinction between one or the other. It’s rather like saying I have two children, because I say so they are mine, but i only respect my child with the red hair. How ridiculous! How utterly juvenile and destructive apartheid and racist notions are. Time for people to grow up!

Audrey March 21, 2014 at 10:52 PM

Interesting Arts Lessing here…Maybe you go for that just in case turning Arts into lets call it ‘biology today’ as …
“Genetics will be carried for up to 7 generations and it is possible to show up even if both parents are of the same skin tone etc. If anyone in the blood line was of a different skin tone it can show up in their children for 7 generations. So to answer your question yes it is entirely possible and a dna test can be done on the parents and children to establish if they are related by blood and how close they are genetically. It can establish a family connection, sibling or parent connection depending on the genetic markers it can be seen through a dna test.”
And grow up to it.

Kind regards from Germany

nonya June 22, 2014 at 4:58 PM

I am an AA of multiracial background and I can tell you that in south Louisiana it is quite common for the biological children of the same two parents to have varying skin tones and hair textures within the same family unit. On both my paternal and paternal sides there are many examples of this most to similarities in the history of South Africa and Louisiana, the only difference is that in the US we have the one drop rule.
I am a mixture of Nigerian, Malian, Italian, Irish, French, British, Dutch, and Native American. My father and parents would most definitely be considered white had he grown up in Apartheid South Africa, my mother and her parents black, however both have siblings that would not be classified the same as them, for instance of 6children in my fathers family, one would be like Sandy Laing, she has a dark olive complexion and a coarser hair texture, though not as coarse as Ms. Laings, all 6 share the same parents and like the Laings share the same facial features with the exception of hair color and texture, and skin tone.

Joan mbele July 3, 2014 at 6:33 PM

Each time when I watch this video I cry all the time cos it reminds me my fathers history he died not knowing his white father cos his mother never told him. He had his black stepfathers surname. His mother got him n id which was taken by the previous regime cos he couldnt speak Afrikaans.

Joan mbele July 3, 2014 at 6:46 PM

Im a South African, I can tell u these brothers are under pressure from their community members. They a so ashamed to accept that black blood runs in their family. They wish that Sandra never existed. The reason for them to be angry is because she is coloured n that embarases them . Sandra is now having children from black men. One day their children will come to Sandra..

Fabiola Lau De Karlsson March 28, 2015 at 9:37 PM

To the interviewer of Women & Hollywood:
You might use lens and get better with your questions, Sandra Laing is not black in skin, she is mulat! There are many kind of shades between black and white!

critic July 7, 2015 at 9:08 PM

Unless areal DNA-test prooves that (her brothers are still alive), it remains a hoax

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