It’s 1977 and Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Berkeley) and his family have gotten quite a jolt: They’ve just met the South African foreign exchange student who’s to be their house guest for the next four months.
They’re black, she’s white, and she’s as shocked as they are.
“We assumed African meant black African; she assumed congressman meant white congressman. We assumed wrong,” Dellums says.
What happens from there is a surprisingly compelling new Disney Channel movie, “The Color of Friendship.” Yes, it’s frequently predictable and pat, with teen bonding at the mall, ‘90s anachronisms, a pair of stock Nazi-like white South African authority figures and civics lesson-type speeches. Yet it delves unexpectedly deeper, too. Transcendent moments, with resonance for contemporary racial divides, are infused with heart and charm, anchored by a top-notch cast.
Carl Lumbly brings powerful stature to the role of real-life Congressman Dellums, a strong apartheid opponent who finds himself living with an indoctrinated child of the system he abhors. This personal tale of worlds colliding, written by Paris Qualles, and directed by Kevin Hooks, is based on a true story. It takes place as Dellums, a top-ranking House member (now retired), is beginning his decade-long fight for legislative sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
It is 14-year-old daughter Piper (sparkling Shadia Simmons), hoping to “bond with her black African brothers and sisters,” who asks her parents to host an African student. Color never came up.
Nor did color occur to Mahree (Lindsay Haun in an impressively nuanced performance). For her, governed by the rigid rules of apartheid, people of color are second-class citizens and the face of abject poverty. She assumes that Piper and her mom, Roscoe, are servants when they come to pick her up at the airport; when she asks for the congressman and is ushered into a room where most of the faces of these government movers and shakers are black, truth dawns.
Mahree plans an immediate exit, until pride kicks in. Aided by Mrs. Dellums (played warmly by Penny Johnson), who calls Mahree on her unthinking racism but sees the terrified child underneath, wariness eventually gives way to slowly deepening friendship.
The killing of South African dissident Steven Biko in police custody and anti-apartheid protests in front of the South African embassy spark a remarkable, sensitively played and directed scene between the congressman and Mahree. It marks a turning point in the dismantling of her lifelong belief system, and in the strengthening of the Dellums’ commitment to their own vision of equality.
* “The Color of Friendship” can be seen tonight at 7:30 on the Disney Channel and at various times through the month. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).