In 1977, Steve Biko, the famous anti-apartheid activist, is arrested by South African authorities. Around this time, Mahree Bok (Lindsey Haun), a young Afrikaans girl, decides to spend a semester abroad in the United States, and learns she will staying with the family of U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums (Carl Lumbly).
Unbeknownst to her, Ron Dellums is not only black, but one of the most outspoken critics of apartheid in Congress. His daughter Piper (Shadia Simmons) is excited about the prospect of meeting what she assumes will be a black girl her own age.
When Mahree and Piper meet, they are confused and shocked. Mahree spends the first few days locked in her room, and Ron is dismayed that a racist girl is spending time in his home. Gradually Mahree opens up to the family, she and Piper become friends, and she realizes black people aren't so different. But when a scandal hits South Africa, it may force Mahree to see the oppression in her own country or drive a wedge between her and Piper.
The film was positively received for its message and its frank discussion of race, and it won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.
The Color of Friendship provides examples of:
- Amoral Afrikaner:
- Subverted with Mahree, who is pretty racist, but her attitudes were things she was taught as a child, and after some time with the Dellums family, she grows out of them.
- Mahree's father is a straighter example. He is a family man, but as a policeman, helps enforce apartheid. See Kick the Dog.
- Armor-Piercing Question: A couple directed at Mahree by Piper:
- "Can I come and visit you?"
- "Do you have any black friends?"
- Bittersweet Ending: Carrie, Mahree's inspiration, overcame her prejudice, but Piper Dellums claims to have never heard from her again, speculating that the South African government disappeared her. And Ron Dellums' apartheid bill was passed in Congress in 1986 over Ronald Reagan's veto, the only override of a veto of a foreign policy bill in the 20th century.
- Didn't See That Coming: The Dellums family expected to host a Black South African, while Mahree expected to be hosted by a White family. Even with Mahree's racism, her assumption is justified. She knew her host family included a Congressman, most of whom were (and still are, albeit to a lesser extent) White. The Dellums' assumptions are less justified. As an outspoken anti-Apartheid activist, Congressman Dellums knew full well the kind of oppression Black people faced under Apartheid; did he really expect the incredibly racist regime to allow a Black student to participate in an exchange program?
- Disneyfication: Mostly averted. The movie isn't as lighthearted as other Disney films. We see the issue of apartheid touched upon, as well as a scene with a black ghetto.
- Dramatization: The story is based off real life events, but some things have been changed. Mahree's real life counterpart, for example was named "Carrie".
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Mahree's father is shown to be extremely racist even by the standards of Apartheid-era South Africa, but he is also shown being genuinely affectionate to his wife and children. Part of Mahree's reluctance to acknowledge the truth about Apartheid is that she doesn't want to face the fact that her father has done genuinely horrible things.
- Everyone Has Standards: Mahree, early in the film, is very disgusted with the cruel treatment a black waiter receives from another patron while out on dinner with her family, in contrast to her father's nonchalant reactions. She's also somewhat offended when Ronald assumes she called Piper a Kaffir.
- Historical Domain Character: Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist. His arrest is a joyous occasion for Mahree's father, as a dead giveaway to his own racism. His death in police custody results in South African embassy employees trying to sneak Mahree out of the country, and Piper's own anger at his death results in Mahree finally truly understanding the injustice in her country.
- Innocently Insensitive: Mahree, having grown up under apartheid, makes many condescending remarks about black people, and doesn't notice the anger her family's maid has for apartheid.
- Kick the Dog: Mahree's father says a lot of the same things many white South Africans said, but when he acts nonchalant when a black waiter is beaten in the middle of a restaurant, it shows his enormous racism.
- Nice to the Waiter: The aforementioned Kick the Dog moment for both Mahree's father, and the abusive Afrikaner is contrasted to a white American guy who instantly forgives a black waiter accidentally dumping a Sundae on his shirt (and asking for an order of it).
- N-Word Privileges: Averted. Congressman Dellums nearly kicks Mahree out of the house for using the Afrikaans slur Kaffir, but Piper and Mahree say the word out loud when discussing what "kaffir" means vs. what "bantu" means in Afrikaans. Notably Mahree is somewhat offended when she assumed Congressman Dellums believed she would say that.
- Positive Discrimination: Actually subverted. Flora, the Bok family maid, is quite perceptive about the society she lives in with her "weaver bird" analogy, but is clearly uncomfortable with Mahree's racism. Ron Dellums' fight against apartheid is highlighted, but he treats Mahree pretty coldly, and the rest of the family are shocked to see Mahree is white. The film does not condone their behavior any more than Mahree's. While many of the black characters are well-to-do, they also show a scene with a black ghetto.
- Putting on the Reich: Mahree's father's uniform looks more like the SS than an actual South African police uniform.
- Television Geography: Dundee is set near a coastline in the movie. Dundee is really a town surrounded by mountains.
- What the Hell, Hero?:
- Piper calls Mahree out early on for hiding in her room and not opening up to her family.
- Roscoe, Piper's mother, calls Ron out for his own attitude toward Mahree, a young girl who's clearly sheltered and doesn't know any better, pointing out the Double Standard they'll be teaching their children if they write Mahree off without giving her a fair chance.
- Piper later gives Mahree a bigger one for refusing to acknowledge the injustice of apartheid. This comes after Steve Biko is killed by the South African police, and Mahree believes that he was criminal who killed himself (as the official story went).