South African doccie takes a poignant look at the effects of skin-lightening

A Gentle Magic co-director Lerato Mbangeni speaks at the New York African Film Festival. (Instagram/AfricanFilmFest)
A Gentle Magic co-director Lerato Mbangeni speaks at the New York African Film Festival. (Instagram/AfricanFilmFest)

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended the premiere of South African documentary, A Gentle Magic at the New York African Festival where the directors and producers held a post-screening Q&A session. 

New York - In many South African households, the mint-green tubs and tubes of Gentle Magic creams, serums and masks, have become staples in skin care regimens. The manufacturers of skin-lightening products may vary, but a new documentary makes clear the potential danger is not merely skin-deep. 

At its New York premiere this past weekend as part of the African Film Festival, A Gentle Magic screened to a full cinema in Brooklyn. The documentary, which lends its name from a range of popular skin-bleaching products in South Africa, not only speaks to the practice of skin-lightening but also investigates the psychology behind it. 

Questions about the idea of beauty are certainly not new, but with A Gentle Magic directors Lerato Mbangeni and Tseliso Monaheng, as well as producers Susie Neilson and Graeme Aegerter, give a voice to "the women in the middle who have fallen off the grid."

Though the documentary is partly premised on societal pressures that perpetuate an idea that lighter skin is more attractive, many of the women (and a few men) that the filmmakers interviewed, started using skin-lightening products as a way to combat oily skin or pimples – not as a way to make their skins look lighter. 


Speaking after the film, Mbangeni says that when they first started telling people about the documentary the assumption would be that they were talking about South African celebrities like Khanyi Mbau, or, as a more universally known example, Michael Jackson.

“Because that is the face of skin-lightening and skin-bleaching. It's the extreme stark contrast from going from complete dark to complete light – and wanting that. The, I want to be white or to be as close to white as possible,” says Mbangeni.

“But all the women in the middle fell off the grid. No-one spoke about the woman who just wanted to remove her pimples. The woman who just wanted even-toned skin because everything in advertising says your skin needs to be even-toned.” But then, when their skin did get lighter – whether that was the reason for using the product or not – they would get compliments and told that they were beautiful, essentially trapping them in a hamster wheel, says Mbangeni. “As black women, we aren’t affirmed enough. Then when we are, we want to keep doing what gave us affirmation as long as we can.” 

Many of the women they spoke to told harrowing stories about how they tried to stop, but then their faces would start itching. Soon their skin started breaking out, and then, as societal pressure has led them to believe, they stopped being beautiful. “It just felt like they weren't spoken to or about. And because of the perpetuation of that narrative, they felt like they weren't the ones who were bleaching their skins. That's where the danger lies. They don't know they're doing it, they don't know the dangers, they don't know what's going to happen to them down the line.” 


By 2027 the global skin-lightening industry is projected to grow to somewhere in the range of R120 to R130 billion, according to a report by The Guardian. Despite ingredients like mercury being banned in many countries, Mbangeni said they were shocked to find out how companies were manipulating natural ingredients, like liquorice and lemon, to bypass laws. There is no lack of demand, and manufacturers are well aware of this, she says. 

The filmmakers, however, never spoke to manufacturers like that of the Gentle Magic brand – a deliberate choice, according to Mbangeni. Despite their journalism backgrounds and an initial fervour to do investigative journalism and “bring these companies down,” they soon realised that “actually, maybe just now let the women speak. Don't make it about us. Don't make it about the government or the legislation or the companies. We're just speaking to the people and letting them tell their stories. We're not telling them what to say or asking them anything in leading ways. We're just saying, ‘This is your skin. What happened? Why are you using this [product]?”

The choice of title is, however, a subtle poke of sorts at the brand. “But it’s also the way in which people have to look at themselves and love themselves and speak to themselves about this. Gently.”

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24