Skin, the buzzy documentary produced by Beverly Naya and directed by Daniel Etim Effiong is the kind of well-intentioned project that arrives every once in a while.
You know the type.
The conscious coupling of celebrity with cultural impact issues has been a fascinating sub-class of the documentary genre. At the Sundance film festival this year, Viola Davis backed and appeared in Giving Voice, a heartwarming report of a high school competition based on the work of playwright August Wilson. Kerry Washington was a producer on the inspiring The Fight, a chronicle of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) record of resistance to the Trump administration across several hot button issues.
Skin might not have the prestige or narrative depth of the aforementioned films but that doesn’t mean it is any less important. Naya one of the most famous actresses of her generation, and her creative partner, Etim Effiong, also a popular actor in his own right, have taken it upon themselves to investigate the cultural phenomenon of skin lightening. Or toning. Or bleaching. A matter that must surely be of occupational importance to both of them.
According to a statistic pulled by the film’s research team, 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products. That is a rather high number of women looking to alter or enhance the body’s largest organ. Especially for a country where black is the predominant skin color. What are the factors responsible for this and what does it say about the larger society?
Naya who is Skin’s principal investigator assembles an inclusive and interesting mix of talking heads to make sense of her queries. And they lead her to some compelling answers too. On the surface, the cultural obsession with skin lightening may appear to be cosmetic; the basic human desire to appear in the best possible light. But as Skin reveals through interviews with medical experts and the women who have directly been impacted, there are deeper factors at play.
A visual artist and filmmaker traces the roots of skin lightening obsession to the cult of capitalism. Corporations manipulating real and existential fears and using them as foundation to set up a billion dollar industry. On the individual level, an awkward conversation with a transactional sex worker makes it clear that forces of sexism and perhaps financial insecurity are clearly at play. She uses skin altering creams because her man prefers light skinned girls. She would stop in a heartbeat if he asked her to though.
Then there are people in certain visual driven occupations who feel they can only get ahead by lightening their skin. A provocative contrast is made between two female actors of opposite complexions who have had different experiences on account of their skin color. This set up and the failure of Naya and Effiong to do anything with it is ultimately a reflection of the structural problem that dogs Skin from the very first frame.
The filmmakers know they want to talk about colorism, they have fine ideas on how to source their film but ideologically their experiment cannot hold up because they have predetermined answers that their subjects must dance towards. Instead of showing the working to arrive at their conclusions, they go about manipulating their findings to accommodate their hypothesis.
For a project tackling a culturally sensitive issue like colorism, there is the surprising lack of depth that the filmmakers bring to the project. This is responsible for the imprecise handling of some of the talking heads.
Eku Edewor is an understandable addition as the filmmakers must have sought to expand the notion of what black skin can and should be. Her segments could have justified the inclusion with much more pointed questioning and shrewd editing. Instead Effiong does her no favors and lets her ramble on in a tone-deaf manner that only highlights the privileges she enjoys as a mixed-race woman in the Nigerian media and entertainment industries. In a cringey scene Edewor even brandishes her British passport.
Beyond this inclusivity, Phyno doesn’t seem to understand why he was asked to show up- in his defense, the film doesn’t seem to know either and Hilda Dokubo wraps up with some false equivalence messaging for actors, dishing out the kind of advice that is helpful to exactly no one.
With these kinds of stories, the gaze as far as where the camera is positioned and how the subjects are observed tells a lot about the filmmaker and their intentions. As a woman of privilege, Naya makes it clear where her loyalties lie from the beginning and it isn’t with her less privileged subjects.
The stars are treated to studio interviews with faces made up, skin glistening and cameras capturing their best angles. The poorer folks enjoy no such privileges. There is an obvious case to be made for observing them on the field, in their natural habitat, but it is still no excuse for the fixation on say the unflattering results of the sex worker’s not-so-successful experiments on her skin.
One of the interviews with a lady who deals in skin products feels like an ambush with Naya and her team surrounding her outside her space and asking her questions like “Is this your natural color?” On the other side of town, her well-heeled colleague, beautician Leslie Okoye welcomes Naya for a sit down in her all white space. Even though both ladies get defensive during their sessions, it is clear there is a dynamic relating to wealth, education and privilege going on. And Naya either encourages or is oblivious to it.
Skin gets cloudy in the final act where Naya takes a trip to her maternal home in Ibusa, Delta state. Though there are warm and empowering moments celebrating three generations of women as they sit together and display affection, the link with everything that has come earlier is tenuous.
More worrisome is Naya’s condescending gaze. Her expectations of what village life in the south-south could be for a grandmother who trained in London, worked in the civil service and speaks fluent English is at best eye rolling. Plus Naya has been based in Nigeria for most of the last decade so it becomes hard to take her seriously when she recites a poem about corrugated roofs glittering in the rising sun.
Skin unintentionally picks up on the reality that is Nigeria’s class problem though. And if there ever was an avatar for the national obsession with celebrity culture and securing wealth, it would be social media sensation Bobrisky. She comes across exactly as vapid and money grabbing as you imagined her to be but there is a lesson there. Bobrisky knows how to game the system having clawed her way to fame and cultural relevance. In many ways, the worst thing to happen to anyone in Nigeria is to remain poor and voiceless. She is now neither poor nor voiceless and for the extent of her participation in Skin, Naya sees her, treating her with the same respect she affords the other celebrities.
Bobrisky understands that her skin color as much as her social media influence has been responsible for bringing her into the room where Skin happens. To pacify Naya’s probing, she may make the right noises about wishing to go back to her original appearance but when the chips are down, and she has to make the choice all over again, chances are she picks the side that will lead to fame and riches.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.