A white South African teenage girl learns a few things about racial tolerance when she becomes an exchange student in the home of an African American Congressman in Disney Channel’s effective telepic “The Color of Friendship.” Since the film is based on actual events, Paris Qualles’ script and thesps’ overall work have stronger emotional resonance than the usual “A dream is a wish your heart makes”-type pics airing on the Mouse cabler.
Set in 1977, the storyline begins when Piper (Shadia Simmons), the young daughter of African American congressman Ron V. Dellums, urges her father to let her family host an African exchange student. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the white daughter of a South African cop is also hard at work to convince her parents to let her visit America on the exchange program.
Both girls get a rude awakening at the airport. The South African teen, Mahree (Lindsay Haun), is expecting a white family, while Piper and her family are excited about playing hosts to a black African. Thanks to helmer Kevin Hooks’ good instincts, the sting of prejudice and racial intolerance comes across strongly in initial scenes of conflict between the racist guest and her well-meaning American hosts.
Despite a rocky beginning, the two girls learn to enjoy each other’s company and to share some good times listening to disco LPs (this is 1977, after all) and shopping for groovy clothes at the mall. Piper accepts the fact that her new friend is a product of a society torn by apartheid, while Mahree discovers the truth about freedom fighter Steven Biko.
Among the pic’s strongest suits are seasoned thesps Carl Lumbly and Penny Johnson, who portray the congressman and his wife with natural ease and likability. Also top-notch are Haun and Simmons, who deliver nuanced performances as the two young protagonists. In a smaller role, Melanie Nichols-King brings much dignity and sad wisdom to her role of Mahree’s maid at home.
By the pic’s end, Mahree realizes that her American friend may never be able to pay her a return visit because of the color of her skin. Their poignant farewell scene is handled especially well by the director and the thesps, and one that teaches volumes about the real world to younger viewers.
Also noteworthy is “Friendship’s” smart usage of ’70s songs, including hits by L.T.D., Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, along with Arthur W. Herriot’s picture-perfect production design. Other tech credits are impressive.