I’ve said before that The Color of Friendship is one of the most important DCOMs ever made. I first saw this film when I was in elementary school, and I loved when it would air on the Disney Channel. Though I didn’t fully understand all the important points in the movie at such a young age, it still made a huge impact that has had a ripple effect every time I revisit the story. I highly recommend The Color of Friendship to anyone and everyone. Directed by Kevin Hooks and based on true events, it is set in 1977 and educates viewers on both the global and personal effects of South African apartheid during that time.
Congressman Ron Dellums (Carl Lumbly) and his wife, Roscoe (Penny Johnson Jerald), live in Washington D.C. with their three children. Their daughter Piper (Shadia Simmons) asks to host a South African exchange student, and her parents finally agree to that.
In South Africa, Mahree Bok (Lindsey Haun) wants to visit the United States as an exchange student. With prompting from her mother, Mahree’s father, a policeman, allows her to go. The discussion occurs over lunch and coincides with a critical event for the viewer’s understanding: as the Boks are talking and dining, a Black waiter bumps into a white waiter. The Black waiter drops his container of dishes, spilling a bit on the pants of a white patron. As the waiter apologizes and cleans up, the patron kicks him and hurls a racial slur at him. This is the world Mahree Bok lives in.
Mahree, a white South African, is paired with the Dellums for her exchange program. Before she departs for the States, Mahree’s maid, Flora, recognizes the Dellums’ last name and quietly realizes who exactly Mahree will be boarding with. Congressman Ron Dellums would be instrumental in the passing of the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Though her job isn’t addressed in the movie, Roscoe Dellums worked as an attorney.
I read a TV Guide article by Sydney Greene about The Color of Friendship, featuring insights from the real Piper Dellums, whose short story, “Simunye,” inspired Disney to make the film. Believe it or not, the real Mahree Bok (actually named Carrie) was even more overtly racist in her initial interactions with the Dellums family. “Carrie wrapped towels around her hand to open doors in the Dellums’ home, and she ran hot water over utensils before eating with them,” Greene writes.
In the movie, Piper Dellums and Mahree Bok are close in age and are expecting to become fast friends. However, they’ve never seen photos of one other. Piper and her mom are shocked that their guest is white, and Mahree doesn’t immediately comprehend that her host family is Black. She treats them like her servants, expecting them to carry all her bags out of the airport. Mahree locks herself in Piper’s room for hours, but she decides to stay with the Dellums so that she can prove her father wrong. He never expected her to last in the U.S. He also has no idea that she isn’t staying with a white family. Mahree surprises her host family when she announces that she’s sticking around. In the film and in real life, Piper and Mahree/Carrie truly became close over time. Some of my favorite parts of the movie are the shopping scene and another montage where Piper and Mahree are dancing to records. As a young child, the “friendship” part was a hook, an understandable concept that opened up a much deeper discussion. Shopping and dancing, though great sources of joy, aren’t permanent solutions. Right after the shopping, Mahree enjoys ice cream with Piper and Roscoe, and she notices that this time, when a Black waiter trips and spills ice cream, the white patron is kind, not abusive. Piper also notices, smiles and says, “Alright!”
After Mahree and Piper have forged such a strong bond, white South Africans from the embassy come to take Mahree away from the Dellums. At the embassy, she is waiting on travel arrangements and notices protestors in the streets. Congressman Ron Dellums is necessarily occupied by what’s going on out there — South African Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko has died. In the midst of the tragedy, Congressman Dellums intervenes in Mahree’s situation and stops the embassy from sending her home.
Piper has been talking to her Nigerian friend, Daniel, who suggests potential flaws in Mahree. Piper has a lot on her mind when Mahree comes home later, particularly Daniel’s questions. Would Mahree ever invite Piper to come stay with her in South Africa? Mahree’s “yeah, sure” is hesitant. Piper immediately gets an answer to another question Daniel posed earlier. What does Mahree think of Steve Biko’s death? “Who cares?” she asks. “Just some crazy terrorist who killed himself.” Piper confronts Mahree with the truth, that Biko was killed by the police. Mahree continues to make racist comments in relation to her life in South Africa, and Piper brings up yet another crucial question: Does Mahree have any friends who are Black? Mahree cites Flora as her best friend. Piper answers, “Flora is your maid. If you stopped paying her, do you think she’d stick around?”
The exchange between Piper and Mahree ends and fades into a new conversation between Mahree and Congressman Dellums, about the cycle of racism. As Piper joins her father and her friend, Mahree tells a story Flora told her earlier in the film, about a bird that nests with birds of all different colors (Mahree’s brother has such a bird, which Mahree later sets free). Congressman Dellums repeats the story at a Freedom Festival before Mahree goes home.
When the real-life exchange student, Carrie, went back to South Africa, she took part in establishing the first student anti-apartheid group. Carrie was arrested for her efforts, and at some point, she sought out Congressman Dellums. Per TV Guide, “After attempts to reach her through official channels failed, Dellums and her family assume that Carrie was killed as a result of her activism.” That part of the story, I never knew. Mahree’s journey in the film ends with her return to South Africa, where she shares a new secret with Flora: a Black South African freedom flag, sewn into her vest.
Actresses Shadia Simmons and Lindsey Haun each won Young Artists’ awards for their work; the film also garnered a Primetime Emmy, the Humanitas Prize, a Writers Guild award for Paris Qualles’ script, and an NAACP Image award. I think many of us still have much to learn from The Color of Friendship. I’m thankful that Disney Channel chose to teach history with the truth that racism is ugly, “nasty,” as Congressman Dellums says. Now, if only everyone would believe that.