The Color of Friendship is a 2000 television film based on actual events about the friendship between two girls; Mahree & Piper, one from the United States and the other from apartheid South Africa, who learn about tolerance and friendship. The film was directed by Kevin Hooks, based on a script by Paris Qualles, and stars Lindsey Haun and Shadia Simmons.
Set in 1977, Mahree Bok (Lindsey Haun) is a white South African who lives in a mansion with her parents and little brother. They comfortably benefit from the system of apartheid without questioning its morality; Mahree's father, Pieter Bok, is a South African policeman who cannot hide his joy when Steve Biko (a black South African man fighting against apartheid) is caught by the South African authorities.
They also have a black maid, Flora (Melanie Nicholls-King), whom Mahree, in her racial blindness, considers her best friend, not realizing that Flora is not satisfied with her life under apartheid. It is from Flora that Mahree hears about the weaver bird and its communal nest-building, which is used as a metaphor for the possibility of racial harmony that Mahree does not understand at the time.
Piper Dellums (Shadia Simmons) is a black girl who lives in Washington, D.C. with her father, Congressman Ron Dellums (Carl Lumbly), an outspoken opponent of the South African apartheid system and the oppression of black South Africans, her mother Roscoe Dellums (Penny Johnson) and two younger twin brothers Brandy (Anthony Burnett) and Erik (Erron Jackson). Piper is eager to play host to an African exchange student, who she assumes will be black; Mahree is likewise excited about spending a semester in America, where she assumes her host family will be white.
Their assumptions are not corrected until Piper and her mother meet Mahree at the airport and bring her home. Piper is bitterly disappointed, and Ron is completely repulsed by Mahree's political views. Mahree reacts with horror bordering on panic when confronted with this new situation. Once she gets back to the Dellums' house, she locks herself in Piper's bedroom and refuses to come out.
Eventually, Piper picks the lock on the door to bring Mahree some fries and a chocolate shake. Mahree is standoffish, and Piper, upset by her attitude, tells Mahree how disappointed she is in her. Stunned by this, Mahree sees how rude she's been, and agrees to stay and try to make this work.
During Mahree's stay, she and the Dellums grow close. Mahree sees people of different races getting along and realizes how much she and Piper have in common. The two become good friends. Mahree also begins to see her host family as individuals and learns to live among them day to day. Gradually, she develops a better understanding of what life under South African apartheid must be like for people of color.
When Steve Biko, a member of the South African liberation movement and who was mentioned towards the beginning of the film, is killed by South African police, there are mass protests around the world, including at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. In the wake of these protests, South African embassy diplomats arrive at the Dellums' house and take Mahree to the embassy, intending to send her back to South Africa.
In response, Ron goes to the South African embassy. After he threatens to tell the press that the embassy kidnapped Mahree from her host family, the embassy releases Mahree. Mahree returns to the Dellumses without fully understanding what happened to her and why.
When Mahree returns to the Dellum's house, she makes a cold offhand comment about Biko's death. Outraged, Piper shouts at her for being blind to the racial struggle happening in South Africa. Hurt, Mahree runs from the house. At first, it seems that their friendship is over; but Piper's parents soon bridge the gap between the girls. With Ron's help, Mahree finally fully grasps what the liberation fighters in South Africa stand for. She and Piper reconcile.
Soon, Mahree departs the United States, now a very different person. When she returns home, the first person she greets is Flora. Secretly, Mahree shows her a freedom flag sewn inside her coat, signifying her decision to side with the black liberation movement. Flora is touched and pleased.
An epilogue-like scene at the end of the movie shows Mahree with the Dellumses at an African pride event back in America. Ron Dellums delivers a speech that includes the weaver-bird story, as told to him by "a new friend from South Africa."
The film was based on a short story called "Simunye" written by the real-life Piper Dellums about a South African girl named Carrie coming to stay with her family. Dellums writes that she lost touch with Carrie after she returned to South Africa and does not know what happened to her. In "Simunye", Piper speculates that Carrie may have been murdered for her anti-racist views.
Actor Erik Dellums, Ron Dellums's son and Piper's brother, appears in a small role.
- The movie is set in 1977, but the first shot of the movie shows the Washington Monument with the scaffolding used for its renovation in 2000.
- In the final scene when Mahree returns to the farm, the car arriving at the farmhouse has the newer, yellow number plates. During the 1970s South African vehicle number plates were white text on a black background. Transvaal province was the first to use the new black on yellow plates in 1978.
- The light switches on the walls throughout the Dellums' home are all "Decora" rocker-style versus the classic toggle style, despite rocker wall switches being very uncommon for home installation during the time period of the movie.
- Mahree's home in South Africa appears to be next to an ocean, while Dundee, South Africa, located in KwaZulu-Natal where she is supposedly from, is not near the ocean.
TV and VHS Release
The movie was met with overwhelming praise, and was played on the Disney Channel several times throughout 2000 and 2001. After this, the channel stopped airing the movie for unknown reasons. However, beginning in 2006, Disney Channel began airing the movie annually in early February, to correlate with Black History Month. Then, is mostly played every year during Black History Month A VHS was released early in 2002, and included the film, as well as the music video for "Galaxy is Ours" from Zenon: The Zequel. This has been long out of circulation, and Disney Channel rarely airs or sells DCOMS from before 2004.
- Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program
- Humanitas Prize
- NAACP Image Award
- Outstanding Youth or Children's Series/Special
- WGA Award
- Children's Script Category, Paris Qualles
- Young Artist Awards
- Best Performance in a TV Movie (Drama) - Leading Young Actress, Shadia Simmons
- DGA Award
- Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children's Programs, Kevin Hooks
- Young Artist Awards
- Best Family TV Movie/Pilot/Mini-Series - Cable
- Best Performance in a TV Movie (Drama) - Leading Young Actress, Lindsey Haun
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