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What is the movie color of friendship about?

The Color of Friendship is a 2000 television film directed by Kevin Hooks about the true story of the friendship between two girls; Mahree Bok, a white South African exchange student, and Piper Dellums, an African-American congressman’s daughter in 1977 Washington D.C. The film explores issues of racism and prejudice in 1970s America through the lens of the two protagonists’ unlikely friendship.

Plot Summary

In 1977, Mahree Bok is a 17-year-old girl from South Africa who wins a scholarship to travel to America as an exchange student. She is staying with the family of Congressman Ron Dellums. The Dellums family includes Ron’s wife Lita, and their children Piper and Julie. The Dellums are a progressive African-American family, while Mahree comes from a conservative Afrikaner background. She holds racist views typical of white South Africans at the time due to the apartheid system in her home country.

At first, Mahree and Piper clash over their differences. Mahree is uncomfortable with the Dellums’ embraced black identity. Meanwhile, Piper resents that a white South African is staying in their home considering the oppression of blacks in that country. Mahree also makes insensitive remarks about apartheid, offending the family.

However, Piper begins to sympathize with Mahree’s feelings of displacement and loneliness in America. She decides to reach out in friendship, helping Mahree adjust to her new surroundings. As the girls spend more time together, Mahree’s racist views slowly begin to change through her positive experiences with Piper and the Dellums family.

Through getting to know Piper, Mahree discovers that many of her prejudices about black people are wrong. She had not realized the full extent of the oppression and discrimination that blacks faced in the United States. Mahree also sees firsthand the damage that apartheid policies have done in South Africa by splitting people apart.

When Mahree’s mother unexpectedly visits, racial tensions flare up again. Mahree realizes her mother holds ignorant and demeaning views of blacks, making her ashamed. Mrs. Bok demands that Mahree return home, but she refuses to leave her new friends.

Mahree and Piper’s unlikely friendship illustrates how mutual understanding can cross boundaries of race and upbringing. The film highlights how personal relationships can break down prejudice, emphasizing the human capacity for change. While depicting stark injustices, it ultimately carries a hopeful message about equality and reconciliation.

Background on Apartheid in South Africa

The film is set against the backdrop of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid refers to the system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

Under apartheid, the races were separated in all aspects of life. Interracial marriages were banned. Facilities like schools, hospitals, public transport, and beaches were segregated. Blacks lived in designated townships or homelands, often lacking basic services and infrastructure.

A racial hierarchy existed with whites at the top holding full rights and privileges. Blacks were stripped of their citizenship and voting rights. They had to carry passbooks authorizing their presence in white areas. The apartheid system deliberately disempowered and oppressed the black majority population of South Africa.

Apartheid sparked significant international condemnation and protest. Many countries imposed economic and cultural boycotts on South Africa in opposition to apartheid policies. Inside the country, resistance grew with marches, strikes, and an anti-apartheid movement led by Nelson Mandela and others.

In the early 1990s, South Africa began dismantling apartheid under increasing domestic and global pressure. Democratic elections were held in 1994, marking the official end of apartheid rule. However, South Africa continued to grapple with its legacy of deep-rooted racial inequalities in the post-apartheid era.

Historical Context in 1970s America

The other key historical context is America in the late 1970s. While segregation had been outlawed in the United States since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, racism and inequality persisted.

Schools were integrating in the 1970s, but often still faced racial tensions, discrimination, and violence. Housing discrimination remained common, enforcing de facto segregation in many neighborhoods. Workplaces were integrating more slowly, with gaps in employment and wages between whites and blacks.

The Dellums family represents progressive African-Americans actively engaged in the ongoing fight for equality. Ron Dellums was involved in UC Berkeley’s Black Power movement before becoming a US Congressman. The family provides an insightful view into African-American life and activism in 1970s America through their interactions with Mahree.

The film highlights the continued need to address racial prejudices and injustices even after the civil rights milestones of the 1960s. Mahree and Piper’s journey reflects America’s ongoing struggles with racism and discrimination intertwined with hopes for change.

Cast and Characters

Here are the main cast members and characters in The Color of Friendship:

Actor Character
Lindsey Haun Mahree Bok, a white South African exchange student
Shadia Simmons Piper Dellums, an African-American teenager and Congressman’s daughter
Carl Lumbly Ron Dellums, an African-American US Congressman in 1970s
Penny Johnson Jerald Lita Dellums, African-American wife of Ron Dellums
Marianne Muellerleile Mrs. Bok, Mahree’s conservative mother from South Africa

Lindsey Haun and Shadia Simmons were both teen actresses who delivered breakout performances as the film’s leading roles of Mahree and Piper. The interplay between their characters drives the film’s narrative and overarching themes.

Veteran actor Carl Lumbly brought gravitas to the role of Ron Dellums within the Dellums family. Lumbly conveyed Dellums’ principled integrity and quiet authority as an influential congressman and civil rights advocate.

Themes and Messages

The Color of Friendship explores a number of thought-provoking themes around racism and human relationships through Mahree and Piper’s unlikely bond:

Overcoming prejudice

A major theme is overcoming prejudice. Mahree’s character arc involves her moving past ingrained racial prejudices through her friendship with Piper. She arrives blind to her biases, but confronting them transforms her worldview. Mahree and Piper discover common ground through mutual understanding.

The power of human connection

The film highlights how genuine human connection can overcome barriers of race, culture, and upbringing. Mahree and Piper bridge their differences through shared experiences. Their personal relationship exposes the flaws in racist ideology that tries to divide people.

Change is possible

Though attitudes may seem rigidly ingrained, hearts and minds can change. Mahree’s transformation represents how exposure to new perspectives allows people to re-examine their prejudices. Her story arc carries a hopeful message about the capacity for change within individuals and societies.

Racism’s far-reaching damage

The film emphasizes the extensive damage that racist systems like apartheid inflict upon both victims and perpetrators. Mahree’s distorted worldview resulting from apartheid oppression illustrates this insidious impact. The Dellums family must still confront ongoing racism in America as well.

Strength of character

Piper demonstrates strength of character in looking past her initial dislike for Mahree to befriend her across racial lines. Her open-heartedness allows Mahree to change. The film suggests overcoming prejudice requires courage, empathy and an unshakable moral compass.

Reception and Impact

The Color of Friendship garnered generally positive reviews when it premiered on television in 2000. Critics praised the film’s earnest handling of serious racial themes through the lens of a heartwarming cross-cultural coming-of-age story. Lindsey Haun and Shadia Simmons received particular acclaim for their moving lead performances.

Beyond reviews, the film had far-reaching cultural impact. It introduced many viewers to the little-known history of apartheid in South Africa, catalyzing important conversations around racism and privilege. Airings in schools used the film as an educational springboard to racial issues.

The Color of Friendship won a 2001 Emmy award for Outstanding Children’s Program. The film brought international attention to Haun and Simmons, spotlighting young talent. It remains one of the most high-profile films dramatizing race relations of its era even decades later.

Most significantly, it told an uplifting story of friendship conquering prejudice that resonated with many. The humanistic message of Mahree and Piper’s journey left an enduring mark. Millions found inspiration in the possibilities it poignantly evoked for acceptance, understanding and change.


The Color of Friendship delivered a thoughtful exploration of racism and friendship through the unlikely bond between two girls. Set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa and 1970s America, it illuminated the harms of racial discrimination. The film charted a hopeful path forward through Mahree’s journey of overcoming prejudice. Its themes, performances, and cultural impact made The Color of Friendship a memorable television film that shed light on injustice while offering an uplifting vision of human connection.