Rearview Mirror: “The Color of Friendship”

Guess who’s coming to the foreign exchange program? A Disney Channel original, 20 years later.

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.

If you were a kid in the early aughts and you watched the Disney Channel, you definitely remember The Color of Friendship. Ads for the movie played every day, every February. It was Disney’s Black History Month go-to. And with the twentieth anniversary of the after-school staple this month, it seemed apt to revisit one of the first movies about serious political themes many of us ever saw.

Set in 1977, The Color of Friendship covers South African apartheid through a long, faraway lens. White South African teenager Mahree (Lindsey Haun) travels to the United States to spend the first part of her school year with a black Congressman and his family; she assumes the family will be white, the family assumes their African houseguest will be black, it’s quite the mix-up! And it’s based on a true story and grounded in real events. California Representative Ron Dellums did speak out against apartheid, his family did host a white student, and the capture, beating, and death of activist Steve Biko (referenced by the characters but never portrayed) really happened. But the plot isn’t about saving the day or even, really, fighting injustice. It’s a dramatic slice of ice tale about girls from different worlds—Mahree and the Congressman’s daughter Piper (Shadia Simmons)—becoming friends and overcoming their assumptions. (For more on the real story, click here.)

The movie has flaws, to be sure. It’s simplistic, convenient, obvious, and stridently makes the case that while South Africa oppresses its citizens, the United States has solved that issue, which wasn’t true in 1977, or in 2000, or now. There’s even a line about capitalism being the salve that fixes discrimination which, sure, but also, no. But it’s a movie for kids. Moreover, it’s a movie for white kids. After all, it’s not Piper who needs to get her head set straight about race relations, it’s Mahree. Black families, presumably, can decide for themselves how to teach children about what it means to be black in America, or in South Africa, or anywhere. It’s white kids (like me) who had to learn about it from the Disney Channel.

In that regard, I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Color of Friendship didn’t let Mahree off the hook too easily. It’s stated again and again in the movie that institutions, not individuals, are responsible for racism, and that a fourteen-year-old girl can’t reasonably be expected to challenge her family and her country’s world view, especially when her government is censoring what she sees and reads. Mahree is no better or worse than a product of her environment; she believes in apartheid because it’s all she’s ever known. But when she’s confronted with America, heck, when she’s confronted with black people who expect to be treated with dignity, her psychological pain is real. 

At first, she locks herself in Piper’s room for days, refusing to interact with her host family. Matriarch Roscoe Dellums (Penny Johnson Jerald) is endlessly patient, but simply by presenting the family as so reasonable, the movie manages to point out how unreasonable (for lack of a better word) racism is. Hiding from this totally normal, kind, actually really cool family makes Mahree and her prejudices look pretty stupid.

Later, at the integrated school Mahree will be attending with Piper, she walks through a hallway of black students and becomes so uncomfortable, the camera goes wonky. The same thing happened when she unexpectedly entered a room full of black politicians and their aides. When faced with being the only white person in a room, or even simply a person in a room in which her whiteness does not grant her power and superiority, her world collapses. She’s helpless. Her mind has been so poisoned that simply being around a group of black kids who are just standing in a hallway triggers in her something like a panic attack. 

While The Color of Friendship isn’t exactly up to Roots’ standard, I wonder if it had some small version of the same effect, bringing to family-friendly entertainment a moment in history that many Americans would just as soon forget. 

James Baldwin once wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I’m not sure Mahree is hateful, exactly, though the society that raised her certainly is. But her pain is palpable. The unlearning of her racism nearly breaks her. It’s one of those bizarre Disney double-meaning moments. The movie says, look how hurtful oppression is, that it’s warped the humanity of this young girl even as she has benefitted from it. And the audience says, wait, this is a movie about apartheid and you’re spending time showing us how this white girl is the victim?

Like I said, this is a movie for white kids to begin to learn something. There’s even suggested reading: Mahree picks up both Cry, The Beloved Country and Roots during her stay with the Dellumses. The story takes place in the months after the Roots mini-series brought slavery into the American public’s living rooms. While The Color of Friendship isn’t exactly up to Roots’ standard, I wonder if it had some small version of the same effect, bringing to family-friendly entertainment a moment in history that many Americans would just as soon forget. 

In the most striking scene in the movie, Piper and Mahree have a discussion about South African slang words, going over the different names for black people in both countries. Both girls explicitly say the N-word, casual as you like. It’s startling but it’s real: these are the words those girls have heard, and just because they are kids doesn’t mean they don’t understand what people are saying. They’re not too young to engage with the world around them, and the kids watching aren’t too young to start a conversation about race relations in the U.S. and beyond. The Color of Friendship might not be the most nuanced part of that conversation, but it’s a start. FL


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