Nearly 20 years ago during Black History Month, The Disney Channel premiered The Color of Friendship, a movie based on true events about a young white South African girl and a young Black-American girl who develop a strong bond despite their racial differences and experiences. Mahree Bok (Lindsey Haun), who lives a comfortable life in apartheid-era South Africa, participates in a student exchange program in America, thinking she will be staying with a white family — but is surprised when Piper Dellums (Shadia Simmons) and her family are Black — and in turn, the Dellums are shocked that Mahree is white.
In the DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie) golden age of Johnny Tsunami, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, Halloweentown, and other millennial cult favorites, The Color of Friendship distinguished itself as a groundbreaking movie that took an an unflinching look at racism, specifically the racism experienced during apartheid — South Africa's institutionalized system of racial segregation and white supremacy, in place from 1948 through the early '90s. Racial groups were geographically and economically separated by oppressive laws that limited Black people's access to a variety of economic and social opportunities. Apartheid has commonly been compared to the Jim Crow Laws legalizing racial segregation in the United States, particularly in the South; both systems kept Black people socially and economically disadvantaged, the effects of which persist today. The Color of Friendship explored the different ways racism was expressed in South Africa versus America, and how it impacted both Mahree as a white South African, and Piper, a Black American whose father, Congressman Ronald Dellums of California, was one the most vocal American political voices against apartheid in the 1970s and '80s.
The movie won several awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program in 2000 and an NAACP Image Award in 2001, and enjoyed a widely positive reception from critics, who praised Disney for making an unapologetic statement about racism, particularly to a young audience accustomed to the lovable, if corny, DCOMs of the late '90s. But all these accolades would have been impossible if not for one person — Piper Dellums.
Disney was inspired by Dellum's short story "Simunye," which focused on that pivotal summer in 1977 when she, as an 11-year-old girl, came face-to-face with a kind of racism completely outside her experience. Dellums told TV Guide she remembers the thrill she felt as a child at the prospect of hosting a young, Black South African girl in her home. "I knew we would be able to offer freedom for a year from a regime or experience that was so outside of ability to even cognitively understand," Dellums said. "I was a young, naive kid who wanted a sister." In fact, that summer with Carrie — renamed Mahree for the TV movie — is one that she often evokes, even now as a 53-year-old author, director and public speaker who has traveled the country to speak on the socioeconomic and political structures that oppress people of color.
In the late '90s, while Dellums was living in South Africa to help build some of the first free housing for Black people after apartheid, Kevin Hooks, the director of The Color Of Friendship, and Allan Sacks, the executive producer, contacted the Dellums family in hopes of adapting their story into a DCOM. In an unusual push for a delicate handling of the material, Dellums and other members of her family were consulted throughout the entire writing process of the movie.
Friendships cannot be defined or limited — friendship, love, justice, peace, honor, respect, integrity — these things can't be defined by race or distinction.
"This was a very progressive and provocative step to confront race relations on the Disney [Channel]," Dellums said. "It was less about the truth of how the family dynamic unfolded and more about this conversation about race — it was safer to have that conversation about race between an American and a South African than to confront racism in America."
And The Color of Friendship didn't shy away from the truth about racism. The film pointed out the lasting effects of slavery on Black Americans. It also highlighted the conflict between Mahree and Piper over the death of Steve Biko, a Black South African anti-apartheid activist. And although some parts of the movie were altered to fit the family-focused tone of Disney Channel, Dellums said the majority of the movie stayed true to her experience. Perhaps the most powerful scene of the movie is a two-minute conversation that shows Mahree's nonchalant attitude about her own racism. When Mahree learns that she's going to attend Piper's school, she's shocked that she is attending a "Bantu school" — a term for Black schools in South Africa's segregated education system meant to ensure Black people remained in the uneducated working class. Piper is confused at the word "Bantu," and she asks Mahree if it means the N-word. Mahree tells Piper "Bantu" means "Negro" or "Black" in Afrikaans, adding that "Kaffir" means "N--" before adding that she would never call anyone that word.
A conversation like this — one that did not censor the N-word — was shocking to hear on the Disney Channel. But Dellums said hearing someone so casually describe the practices of economic and social enslavement showed how blind Carrie — and her fictional counterpart, Mahree — was to the racist system she had been raised in and benefitted from. "It's very at ease that [way] she discusses — she knows it's a bad word... but as you recognize, it's very casually spoken, which lets you know that it was common in her home," Dellums said.
Dellums said the movie accurately depicted Mahree's shock, not only when learning that her host family was Black, but also upon discovering they enjoyed a rather upper-class lifestyle (Dellums' mother was an attorney and her father was a congressman). However, the movie couldn't begin to touch on the true breadth of racist behavior Mahree's real-life counterpart displayed when she first arrived. For instance, Carrie wrapped towels around her hand to open doors in the Dellums' home, and she ran hot water over utensils before eating with them. But as the months went by, similar to what is seen in the movie, Carrie began to awaken to the racism in her own community and the realities of being Black in a racist system like apartheid, thanks to the Dellums' consciousness of their own Blackness. During this time, Dellums said she and Carrie grew closer and did "everything together," from trips to the mall to roller skating to going to movies. During the summer of 1978, Dellums recalled the girls saw popular teen film Grease five times in a row and memorized the songs and dances, both developing crushes on lead actor John Travolta. "That's how we became sisters," Piper said. "We were tremendously inseparable."
The movie ends with Mahree returning home, and upon greeting her Black housekeeper, Flora, Mahree shows her the inside of her jacket, which has the African National Congress flag sewn into it — proof of Mahree's solidarity with the Black liberation movement. In real life, Carrie helped form the first anti-apartheid student underground movement when she returned to South Africa, Dellums said, but was soon arrested for her organizing. She wrote letters asking for Rep. Dellums' help, but then communication from Carrie ceased. After attempts to reach her through official channels failed, Dellums and her family assume that Carrie was killed as a result of her activism. (According to Dellums, Carrie's father was a high-ranking judge in South Africa, rather than a police officer as shown in the movie.)
Nearly 20 years later, Dellums said the movie's powerful message is as relevant as ever. She still believes that love and respect can help tear down systems as powerful as institutionalized racism. "We are one body of humanity," Dellums said. "Friendships cannot be defined or limited — friendship, love, justice, peace, honor, respect, integrity — these things can't be defined by race or distinction."