The athlete turned activist joins forces with Ava Duvernay for a bold and devastating docudrama mixing the story of his early life with shocking stats on racial inequality
Last modified on Fri 29 Oct 2021 17.09 BST
Colin Kaepernick became famous in the US as an NFL quarterback. He became famous around the world, and infamous in his own country, when he became a civil rights protester and – shortly after that – no longer an NFL quarterback. Kaepernick drew admiration and condemnation when he took the knee during the playing of the US national anthem at a preseason game in 2016, in protest against US police brutality and racial inequality after multiple police shootings of black people and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
His actions inspired many more players to join him in similar actions – then president Trump to recommend that such players should be fired. At the end of the season, the managers at his team, the San Francisco 49ers, told him they were going to release him – a move largely seen as politically rather than practically motivated, despite the 49ers’ claim that he didn’t fit in with their new coach’s plans. His activism has increased and he has remained unsigned since.
Colin in Black and White (Netflix) tells the story of his formative teenage years. The six-part collaboration between Kaepernick and Ava DuVernay (the director of Selma and the creator of the magnificent drama When They See Us, about the young black men falsely accused of the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park) is a bold creation, shaped and fuelled by anger, aimed at educating as much as – if not even more than – entertaining. It takes your breath away.
It is a mix of straightforward drama, showing the young Kaepernick (played brilliantly by Jaden Michael in his first major role), who is biracial, negotiating the complexities of growing up in a white adoptive family, and commentary by Kaepernick himself.
His parents, Rick and Theresa (Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker), are loving but limited in their understanding of what he needs and what he needs from them. Most of the first episode centres around the adolescent Kaepernick’s desire to get his hair braided like his basketball hero, Allen “The Answer” Iverson. (As with many professional athletes, Kaepernick was proficient at just about every sport high school threw at him.) It is a symbol of growing up, of embracing black culture and, perhaps, of rebelling. His parents vacillate between supporting him (Theresa asks black colleagues for help finding him a hairdresser) and siding with his coach and school when the new look is deemed “unprofessional”. It is a pattern that repeats: with them, with school, with coaches, with teams, with the wider world.
As he gets older and more involved with football, the racist microaggressions and not-so-microaggressions accumulate and injustices mount, as coaches promote less talented white student players ahead of him and refuse to recognise or reward his talents. One tells him he needs to stop being “overly ambitious” – as neat an encapsulation of the tyranny of low expectations as you will find.
The narrative drama (which includes traditional emotional beats such as the tough-but-fair coach his father finds for Colin, who is the first to truly believe in him) is frequently stopped and the fourth wall broken by commentary and presentations from Kaepernick. He is a commanding presence, setting out his activist stall and addressing the audience directly and uncompromisingly to note the wider impact, context and perspective. His underlying message is always the one stated explicitly in episode two: “Some will say the system is broken. I’m here to tell you it was intentionally built that way.”
The series also contains statistics (black mortgage applicants are declined at twice the rate of white applicants, for example) and news footage, such as photographs from 2011 of Kelley Williams-Bolar at her sentencing hearing for the crime of “boundary hopping” – using her children’s father’s address to allow them to qualify for attendance at a far better school – for which she served nine days in jail. There is even the occasional historic re-enactment, as when Kaepernick likens the NFL draft pick, during which players are literally weighed and measured by the almost uniformly white team owners and managers, as well as having their prowess on the field tested, to a slave auction.
There are moments when these different modes interrupt the flow to no greater end, but for the most part they work. Overall, they create a jaggedly compelling viewing experience whose form as well as content keeps us uncomfortable enough to stay alert without being alienated. Which is surely an activist’s goal.