At some point in the documentary Skin, Bobrisky, the bête noire of a certain segment of the internet community, appears.
She talks about herself and himself — by that I mean she speaks about how she is now and how he was. (I know that’s a thicket of pronouns to wade through but this is the way we live now.)
“The transformation is intact,” she says, smiling but towards the end of the interview, she changes her mind and says she would like to go back to how he was.
Now this is a scene that could be over-cooked until it’s maudlin, you know to help the viewer pity one of God’s creature who’s lost the way — but Bobrisky is too bubbly, too bright, too queen, too full of herself to allow that happen, so instead you watch and go your way. She even mines her predicament for comedy when she discloses the trouble with the transformation: “The stress I use in rubbing my cream every day is terrible.” At Freedom Park where Skin showed as part of the iRep Documentary Festival, the audience mostly laughed during his segment.
The Bobrisky interview is one of the bits Skin’s producer and chief interviewer, Beverly Naya, judges her subject impressively. She isn’t so successful with other interviews, which are intended to show the audience the effects of colourism on people and perhaps the society.
This misjudgment is most obvious in a scene where Naya visits the Lagos mainland and one of her stops is a brothel. With the aid of a Yoruba translator, she quizzes a prostitute. Blessed Beverly, she looks like she is really interested in this lady’s regimen and reasons. “Why does she bleach her skin?” she asks almost incredulously.
It should come as no surprise that the answer is that her lover likes her with fairer skin. It doesn’t quite end there: Naya has more questions, including the well-meaning but ultimately silly question: What if this man leaves her?
At this point, I wished the lady offered a retort: “What if he doesn’t? Would you think I have made a good choice?”
But, of course, she doesn’t say that; she cries. And those tears* are supposed to let us know just how much she realises altering the colour of her skin is from the devil. But, here’s a question: Is it really that simple?
To my mind, those tears might be the result of getting questions thrown at you about your beauty choices by a beautiful, young, and successful woman — all things the lady in the brothel can’t really be due to a trick of birth. And this is the first of two problems with Skin. Beverly Naya and her director, Daniel Effiong, cannot see that having a woman attractive enough to be typecast as a Nollywood-bombshell speaking to one from a different social and aesthetic class on the topic of beauty introduces an avoidable imbalance into the mix.
That imbalance is Naya’s and her documentary’s major blind spot: not realising that there is a subtle influencing of the results going on just by being the documentary’s chief interrogator: The lady in the brothel, who is only appearing onscreen because her time is paid for, takes one look at Naya and sees what might have been possible with a little luck on her side, so those tears passed off as a bleaching prostitute’s remorse is really the product of a complex play of the politics of class and beauty standards.
This is what Skin is supposed to investigate but the filmmakers have not allowed what they have found on the field to influence and maybe change their preconceived ideas about colourism. Sure, there’s colourism, but it is an ism complicated by classism, which this documentary inadvertently exposes.
This seems quite clear when the viewer notices that the filmmakers have the elite interviewees in what looks like a studio for a fashion shoot but then show the non-elites in the dilapidated spaces where they work; even the lighting in these latter scenarios is harsh. The more elite interviewees also seem to get less rigorous questioning.
For instance, one highbrow vendor of lightening creams admits she wouldn’t want her child to use what she sells, and Naya doesn’t really query this response as much as she does the romantic choices the Mainland women have made. Makes you think: The filmmakers might claim the documentary is for the public good but how much good is in the underlying message that the profit motive trumps everything else in a corruption-ridden society? Why is one woman’s desire for romance inferior to another woman taking advantage of the very thing the documentary criticises to enrich herself? The perceived sins aren’t even on the same scale: the latter woman, quite obviously, is spreading what the former has merely confined to herself. Why is she less deserving of a grilling?
Skin’s second problem is structural and connected, perhaps, to a common problem with actors: vanity. As the film progresses, a broad canvas becomes smaller, as what in the film’s first half had been an examination of colourism turns inward and is transformed into an exploration of Naya’s ancestry.
We leave Lagos to Naya’s family home in Delta state and, instantly, there is a considerable loss of cohesiveness. We are told about the Biafra War and how Naya’s matriarchs survived, which is certainly serious but how does this connect to the film’s first half? I couldn’t have been alone in thinking that the reasons later proffered by the filmmakers at iRep were tenuous.
So: Skin’s first problem is one of depth; the second is one of breadth. And yet it isn’t a total failure — it is, after all, the first such work from both Naya and Effiong, a pair known for getting in front of the camera not behind it. They deserve some praise for how well they shoot brown and black faces, and their film is quite pretty to watch. The big problem, though, is that you leave thinking the filmmakers should watch their own politics.
*A number of people have said the lady that cries during an interview is different from the lady who spoke about her lover. When I saw the documentary, I think it was the first time it was showing publicly in Lagos, Nigeria. Skin has now appeared on Netflix more than a year later. I haven’t seen it again so there are two possibilities: I have written up a composite of two different subjects in error or the filmmakers have reedited their film. I do not believe either case changes the substance of this review so I’ll leave it as it is online. But because the “Netflix version” is very likely going to be more available, I’ll tweak the relevant sentences when this piece gets published in my forthcoming book, From Wizkid to Chimamanda: A decade of Nigerian film, music, and literature. Featuring reviews, essays and interviews, the book is a snapshot of the Nigerian culture scene. When it gets released, please support it if you can. Thank you.