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Friday, February 4, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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AIR HEAD

Disney Channel brings world of prejudice to light

Seattle Times Staff columnist

Assumptions. They'll get you every time. Just when you thought you had old Mickey Mouse pegged as the guy who could give you a laugh or two without much else, here he comes with something challenging.

Disney Channel's latest movie, "The Color of Friendship," breaks the nauseatingly simple "after-school special" mold of most child-friendly teleflicks (i.e., smoking is bad. Divorce is not your fault.) Here, Disney explores the many layers and angles of prejudice. If this movie, premiering tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., can work that patented Disney magic on its audience, it'll help parents and children discuss race relations, a topic that might not come up otherwise.

"The Color of Friendship" is based on the true story of an American family's experiences with a white South African exchange student who came to live in their home for several months at the request of their young teenage daughter.

The hook is that the family, headed by Congressman Ron Dellums and his wife, Roscoe, is African American. What's more, at the time the story took place, in the late 1970s, Dellums was spearheading efforts to rally Americans to the cause of abolishing apartheid, making him an enemy of the South African government.

Pretty heavy stuff for Disney, especially when you consider the usual way kids channels handle race issues: by overlooking them. Now, Disney deserves credit for consistently including multicultural casts in its series and movies, but discussions of race interaction rarely come up. What children's programs should teach, at one time or another, is that though people are created equal, there are a few differences between cultures, and those differences should be celebrated. (Nickelodeon tends to do a better job of this.) This notion is what works with "The Color of Friendship." The exchange student, Mahree (Lindsey Haun), has to learn that lesson the hard way, by suddenly being dropped into a household of people she was raised to fear.

In the very scene where Mahree receives permission to visit America from her father - a white policeman who, in the film, helped capture legendary South African activist Steven Biko - she blithely looks on as a black busboy is cursed and kicked across the room by a white restaurant patron. Later, when Roscoe (Penny Johnson) and 13-year-old Piper (Shadia Simmons) meet Mahree at the airport, she mistakes her hosts for servants.

Mahree's not the only one with misperceptions; the Dellums thought they were getting a black South African student, and are visibly disappointed when Mahree shows up.

"We assumed African meant black African, she assumed congressman meant white politician. We both assumed wrong," Roscoe sighs when they see Mahree's reaction to their skin color.

Their learning process is a painful one, as Mahree starts out locking herself in her room before resigning herself to getting to know the Dellums. She slowly comes to understand the system of deceit and prejudice her country's government has instilled upon her.

Piper, on the other hand, has to nurture her own patience. She bears up as Mahree, unaware of the depth of her racism, expresses surprise at having to go to the same school as Piper and casually tosses off terms like bantu, colored and kaffir - all words for "black," the last one being derogatory. Congressman Dellums also suffers growing pains; he starts out believing Mahree should just be sent home, but ends up saving her from the South African embassy, who snatches her from her host family when protests of Biko's death heat up.

Their similarities, of course, facilitate the girls' relationship. They laugh when they discover their gifts for one another are the same bracelets. They both like K.C. and the Sunshine Band. They bond over a love of fashion. Yes, this is Disney, so the girls still find time out for shopping at the mall and going to the moviehouse to see "Freaky Friday."

Cutesy interludes don't diminish the movie's impact. "The Color of Friendship" is certainly one of the better films you'll see on the channel, and certainly worth setting aside family tube time. Talk about misperceptions - I would have never guessed there was real substance under those round ears.

Forget Disneyland. Melanie McFarland wants to head to Duff Gardens. She can be reached at 206-464-2256 or by e-mail at mmcfarland@seattletimes.com.

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Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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