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 from a foreign country.
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 but nuanced 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, he helps enforce apartheid and the movie makes it very clear through his nasty racism (even by Apartheid standards) that he's not merely a Punch-Clock Villain. 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.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Since Apartheid is one of the movie's major themes, it goes without saying that this trope is in play.
- 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 aside from Mahree's racism, her assumption is somewhat justified; she knew her host family included a Congressman, most of whom were (and still are, albeit to a lesser extent) white, plus it probably just didn't even occur to Mahree that her own experiences — namely living in a country where every person in power was white — might not hold true in other countries with different racial politics. 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, and yet it seemingly never occurred to him that there was even a possibility of the student being white, despite the likelihood that an exchange program under such a regime would be, at the very least, heavily skewed towards white children.
- Disneyfication: Mostly averted. The movie isn't as lighthearted as other Disney films. We see the issue of apartheid and racism 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 (which is South Africa's equivalent of the n-word: even under apartheid it was illegal to say; that being said, the law's enforcement at the time was inconsistent, as shown in the previous scene with the waiter).
- 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.
- The Dellums family themselves are this as well.
- Innocent Bigot: While Mahree is racist, it's not out of malice, it's simply a product of the environment she was raised in and not knowing any better.
- 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. Spending time with a black family helps her to realize that they're actually not so different after all, which leads her to reexamine her beliefs.
- Kids Hate Vegetables: Mahree’s brother Rian is implied to dislike vegetables.
- 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 that he's significantly worse than your typical Afrikaner racist.
- Nice to the Waiter:
- The aforementioned Kick the Dog moment for both Mahree's father and the abusive Afrikaner is contrasted with a white American guy who instantly forgives a black waiter for accidentally dumping a sundae on his shirt (and even asks for an order of it).
- Even at the start of the movie, as much as Mahree is oblivious to the struggles her maid Flora faces as a black person under Apartheid, she still has a friendly relationship with her. This becomes true in an even deeper way at the end, when Mahree secretly shows Flora the freedom flag she'd smuggled back as a way of telling her that she understands now and is on her side.
- N-Word Privileges: Averted. Congressman Dellums nearly kicks Mahree out of the house upon learning she used the Afrikaans slur kaffir, but calms down somewhat when Piper explains that she and Mahree were merely discussing the different words used for black people in Afrikaans; Mahree specifically mentioned that "kaffir" was a slur akin to the n-word, in contrast to the more neutral term "bantu" (more equivalent to "black" or "Negro"), and only after Piper specifically asked about it.note Notably, Mahree actually apologizes to Congressman Dellums for the misunderstanding, even though it's not really her fault (Piper didn't initially explain very well the context in which the term came up).
- Slave to PR: When Mahree gets taken by the South African embassy after Steve Biko's death they do so on the racist assumption that her black host family might try to harm her in retaliation, and they do so before even informing Mahree's parents of the decision. Congressman Dellums meets with the South African ambassador and points out that with all the bad press his country is currently facing, he probably doesn't want to compound matters by having the press find out he authorized the effective kidnapping of a 14 year old girl from her American host family. The ambassador quickly relents.
- 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 a criminal who killed himself in custody (as the official story went).