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Ava DuVernay and the show’s directors reveal how they brought Colin Kaepernick’s untold story to Netflix.
THERE’S A SEQUENCE in the first episode of Colin Kaepernick’s new miniseries, Colin in Black & White, that shows the road to playing in the NFL. Before you can make it to the tryouts, there’s the Combine, where players—most of whom are Black—are assessed like cattle to determine if they have any defects that might alter their performance. Coaches and team owners bid for them: “I’ll take this one for five hundred”; “Six hundred”; “One thousand. I’m telling you what I want.” Sold. The owners shake on it, and the body—that Black body—is their property now.
Growing up, Kaepernick didn’t see the NFL as a modern-day slave auction. “As a kid, you’re not thinking that you’re being groomed for a system,” he says in the Netflix show. “You just love playing football. You’re just trying to make the team.”
But as he got older, Kaepernick learned how his identity fluctuated between the oppressive systems around him. Today, people know him as the American icon who lost his career for taking a knee. Colin in Black & White—co-created by Kaepernick and Emmy-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay—shows viewers the man behind the activism; it explores Kaepernick’s childhood, discovering his love of football while also navigating his identity as Black boy with white parents in a predominantly white town.
When I talked to DuVernay and the four other directors who made the miniseries—Sheldon Candis, Angel Kristi Williams, Robert Townsend, and Kenny Leon—we discussed how the media has historically portrayed Black men: as victims of police brutality; as emotionally unavailable partners; as sexual deviants; as thugs. Through their work, these filmmakers are showing that Black men are more than gunshot wounds—more than scars from the hangman’s knot, or welts from the white man’s whip.
First, you’ll hear from DuVernay; then, from Candis, Williams, Townsend, and Leon. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
A Conversation With Ava DuVernay
The co-creator of Colin in Black & White (and the powerhouse behind Selma, When They See Us, and A Wrinkle in Time) on the crucial questions at the heart of Kaepernick’s story.
Ava DuVernay: We’re on a continuum as Americans, in terms of the way we relate to and [deal] with race in this country. We don’t do it very well. And that hasn’t changed. There have been some events that have been catalysts for people becoming more aware. But it doesn’t change the fact that the premise—the institutions, the systems—have remained the same. I don’t feel like there’s been a lot of shifting [in developing the show].
DuVernay: Working to construct [all of the episodes], it was less about what each episode was going to teach or what it represented in terms of themes. It was more trying to take Colin’s life, the micro-aggressions he experienced as a kid, and trying to see how we could create political, cultural, social context around that. [Viewers] weren’t just watching an episode about the boy; they were watching an episode that [allowed] them to interrogate themselves in their own place in society and culture.
The ideas that we play within episode one have to do with hair. But really, we know that Black hair is not talking about Black hair. It’s as a proxy, to have conversations about social control, and the way that American society [has] ongoingly tried to control the Black body, even our hair. What dominant culture has been comfortable with and uncomfortable with our hair? At the early part of the last century, and in previous centuries, [formerly enslaved] Black men were encouraged not to—and sometimes outlawed to—have facial hair, because they felt so much like men. It felt aggressive to some people for them to have beards and goatees. So many Black women were not allowed to work in homes as domestics without having hair that was acceptable to their white bosses, which was straightened hair. So all of these things really, it’s not about the hair. It’s about the social aspects systems, hierarchies that put that in place so that our hair becomes political.
[The series is] a stew of ideas where we can analyze where we are as a society and as people within it.
DuVernay: When I’m making things, I’m trying to satisfy myself as a Black person, as a woman, [and] as a person of a certain age that wants to pass along education and insight and entertainment, to whoever watches it. So I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, what does the Latina woman get from it? And what does the white man get from it?’ I’m trying to make something that I think is beautiful and then offer it up.
I directed episode one, but then I also directed large parts of all of the episodes, and anything that had to do with Colin. It was just a thrill to be able to collaborate with all of the directors, because in essence, we were sharing space within the episodes.
DuVernay: I think so, but I also think we have seen shows about coming of age with young Black people. We have Wonder Years now. Look at Black-ish. That’s representation of kids growing up wrestling with race. We’re at a point right now where I even start to watch my own language where I say I’ve never seen it and like it’s never happened. There are artists before. What we’re doing is standing on the shoulders of that foundational work.
I feel like this [series] is a very specific kind of Black boyhood. It’s a Black boyhood and [the] isolation of Blackness. Can you be a Black boy when nothing else around you is Black? Right? When you [see] Colin, he [is] attracted to aspects of Black culture, Black music, Black lifestyle, Black hairstyle, Black aesthetic, Black people, [etc.]. I think one of the questions we asked here is: without proximity to Blackness, can Blackness still thrive? Can it still shine? Can it still be deeply felt [if] you’re not around it? Those are some of the questions the show invites people to think about.
DuVernay: It’s like choosing amongst your children. There’s no way to choose which [episode] resonates more, which one connects with me more. It all has to resonate with me in order to make it to air or it doesn’t make it there. In all of his stories, whether or not they were personally linked to me, it’s hard to understand what he went through. There’s emotion coming from and that gives you a feeling of someone who you root for. You’re watching a series and [you’re] hoping he makes it; you’re hoping that this kid gets everything he wants, because you see yourself in him. You see a good person [who’s] striving for more.
DuVernay: The hyper-masculinization of Black boys and Black girls. There’s studies, analysis, [and] legal cases that [show this] happens. With [his] parents and constructing the story, I really had to figure out how to regard the parents. They’re not villains. You can tell, if you watch the whole series, how much they love him and care about him. I had to understand that their challenge is that in order to love and care about him, they want him to be like them. They see him attracted to Blackness, and they know there’s danger over there. If you wear your hair that way, you will be in danger, people will think of you a certain way. When [the mother] says, ‘You look like a thug,’ What [she] means is: You are looking a way that is not pleasing to me. It’s gonna put you in danger. It looks like a criminal. It looks like something I’m afraid of. Don’t be that; be with us.
I think it’s easy to throw [the parents] away and kind of demonize them for the mistakes that they make. But at the core you had well-meaning people who were ill-equipped to deal with a young Black man living in their house. It’s different when he’s a little toddler, but when he [becomes] a Black man in front of your eyes, and he’s living with you. How do you deal with that when you don’t even know Black people? They have no context for how to help him or relate to him.
[In] episode three, the mother says, ‘You just got to talk to me. You got to tell me. There’s nothing I won’t do for you. But talk to me about it.’ [But] can’t talk to you about this—you’re not gonna get it. This helps you understand [the] man who became a singular American icon. This series is the origin story of a superhero, and we take you through the steps of how he got his powers.
DuVernay: The idea that he was writing a letter the whole time was something that [writer] Michael Starrbury and I really wrestled with. How do we do this? How do we string it all together? How do we make this? If you watch closely, Colin is holding a notebook most of the time when he’s talking. A small notebook in his hand was the time to note that all these stories [were] the letter that he was writing to himself to his younger self. [It] invites the question [of] what letter would we write to our younger selves.
DuVernay: In a way, you’re reviewing it through the eyes of someone who’s discovering [the Black identity] for the first time, which is kind of interesting. [When] he’s seasoning the food, trying to deal with his hair or [his] first time at a Black barber shop, not quite showing [or] knowing how it works. Even as we get into some of the more documentary animation elements, we analyze standards of beauty, and what Black standards of beauty are in Angel’s episode about [Colin’s crush, Crystal]. So in each of the episodes, there’s Colin’s story, [but] we try to go deeper into some of that. Hopefully by the end of [the show], you’re feeling what Blackness [is] to the individual, but then also [the collective].
DuVernay: With [episode 5], we want to get into these European standards of beauty. This is a set of rules that said very early on … blond hair, blue eyes, white skin is actually better, smarter, stronger, more worthy of life, more worthy of love than everything that the two of us are on this call. To break that down into the ways that [have] gotten into all of our bloodstream; it’s not just folks that aren’t Black. [It is in] everyone’s bloodstream because for generations, centuries, we’ve been told to lie. Whenever you break out of it, whenever you wear your hair the way we’re wearing it, whenever you rejoice in your Blackness, all of these assertions of our goodness, of our humanity, [are] radical acts. That’s what Crystal is to me. [Colin’s] saying, ‘I think this is beautiful, even though everyone around me is telling me even [it’s not]’. Even his Black friend [says], ‘Little dark, she’s a little darker than we like to go.’
Talking about beauty standards and that being something that we have to contend with as Black people, not just to who’s analyzing us, but [also] our analysis of ourselves was a big part of that episode for me.
How ‘Colin in Black & White Came’ Together
Four maverick directors describe the show’s evolution and the future of representation on-screen and behind the camera.
Ava and I are Sundance siblings—both of our first films premiered at Sundance at the same time. We’ve always had a filmmaker bond, and [also] a deeper level, culturally, [with Ava] being from South Crenshaw and me being from Baltimore, we have kindred spirits. She reached out in the beginning of the pandemic, and was like, ‘Hey, so about this thing, what do you think?’ Wow, Colin Kaepernick? I’m all in for [that]. So after doing Zoom with Ava and [Colin], it made me ride for him even harder. There’s somebody who stands so steadfast on [giving] a voice to the voiceless, and somebody that sacrifices so much
Ava called me and asked me personally. When Ava DuVernay calls and asks me, I don’t have to think long and hard about it.
We worked it out and she says, ‘I’m going [to] do the first episode and you do the last episode. So I open it up and you bring it home.’ I felt honored by that. And being a sports fan in addition to being a political science major at a historically black college—Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia—[and] a 35 year Laker fan, I just love sports. So I’m a fan of Colin Kaepernick, the athlete, and Colin Kaepernick the athlete taking a stand.
I’m so glad I was a part of telling a story that’s not the obvious part of Kaepernick’s journey. We got to tell his story from birth. And the first season will be from birth until he goes off to college. And so, as just a student of history and a student of storytelling, to really see his story from the beginning and introduce that to the world and to talk about his younger years and what shaped him to be the man and the person that he is, I think was huge for me. I’m excited to see what the world thinks about that.
Ava DuVernay had reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this project about the early years of Colin Kaepernick’s life.’ And let me say this: I have so much respect for him [for] taking a position for everybody. When he took that knee, the world changed; the whole world took a shift. So when she called and said, ‘Robert, would you be interested in directing a couple of episodes?’ I [said], ‘Yes, I don’t know the man’s story, but I want to know what it took for him to get to that place [where] he would take a knee and throw away his entire career for his beliefs.’ I just thought, wow, what a story, what a man. That’s when I said yes.
Angel Kristi Williams:
I got a call from Ava DuVernay on my cell phone. And she said, ‘I don’t know if you know, but I’m working on this series and there’s one episode that is based on Colin’s experience with a young girl that he went to high school with. It’s about beauty and how he sort of befriends and falls in love with this darker-skinned Black girl and ends up taking her to the dance.’ So she sent me the script, and I was just blown away [by] by the honesty in the pages, but also just the story. We’ve all been in high school and know what it’s like to be trying to figure out your identity, [and] wanting to make choices that you feel won’t necessarily be supported by friends or your family. [And], also [making] choices at that age [of] who you want to be. I thought that it was a really powerful story of his journey—becoming the man we all know him to be.
My son is 21, and we were having a conversation about the series. He experiences racism, but on a different level because he has a lot of friends that are white and of different races. He wasn’t raised like I was raised, in the hood. I think that this limited series allows us to explore what young men do go through and continue to go through. I just think that sometimes in life we look for answers through movies and television shows. We go, ‘How do you deal with it?’ I think [Kaepernick’s] life is an example of how you can take what is potentially negative and turn it into a positive—how you can find your voice. Even as a kid, he was finding his voice.
What’s so special about it is that it’s the story of a kid who not only is discovering football, but he’s discovering his Blackness. And, that’s the parallel thematics through that [make this story] so powerful. Then, [there’s] also the joy. I’m very mindful of Black trauma [and] pain. You know, as Baldwin says, ‘To be black in America is to constantly be in a rage.’ Well, I’m understanding as a servant, a storyteller, that I also have to push through joy. I [got to] remind us and I got to be putting out those stories [and] those feelings of the joy of being [Black]. As they say, you know, the hashtag BlackBoyJoy.
I was having very strong Karate Kid vibes when I was directing “Quarterback” and because there’s so much about Jaden and young Colin that feels very much like Daniel Russo when they leave Jersey and they end up somewhere in the valley of Los Angeles. The very innocence of them, and this idea of just a kid finding his way.
This is a very universal story, and much larger than it would have been if we just told a story about that one incredible act that he led and in sports and policies in our country and the sacrifices that he’s made. But it tells you, on some level, all Black men in this country have to go through that. Have to go through America to find out where the racism cracks are—you have to figure it out. Like my mother said, ‘If you’re going to be in entertainment baby, you’re gonna have to be a snake or a snake charmer.’ You still have to navigate how you go through this world and how you try and how to claim your full self.
So, this Netflix six-part series has [given] me a great sense of pride in a hard way because I know I’m not alone. Kaepernick’s journey is my journey, even though he’s an athlete, and I am a storyteller. My brother who’s an engineer in Tampa, I think [this is] his journey. And the guy who’s a sanitation worker, that’s his journey. And the guy who’s a doctor. Almost every Black man in America sees that and can use this whole story as fuel to raise our sons in a way that gives them the strength and the courage to do what we need to do to be further respected or more respected as an individual with a right to be on the planet. And to do [anything] that says, ‘Dammit, I am a human too. And no one [is] a greater human than I am.’ So, it’s a nurturing, loving story coming from a strong, Black male-centric place.
Angel Kristi Williams:
At the core of Colin in Black & White, the story is about Colin and learning his blackness in him. When you’re growing up right outside of the Black community, it’s like: What does being Black look like? What does the Black identity look like when you aren’t in an environment [where] people look like you and the people who are around don’t have that shared identity? I think at the core of the series, it’s about race. It’s about blackness. It’s about identity. It’s about beauty. It’s about politics. It’s about family.
I’m a kid from Baltimore, but I grew up down south in North Carolina with my grandparents, my mother, and my stepfather. And I’ll never forget my first day of high school in Statesville, North Carolina. My high school literally was a next-door neighbor to a dairy farm, so when you parked in the parking lot, there was an electric fence that kept the cows on the farm. I’m crossing the parking lot, and there’s a huge four by four truck with a gigantic rebel flag in the back. This was my first week of high school. When that happens to Colin in Turlock, which is Northern California, it’s interesting that you can be in Northern California, you can be in North Carolina, but a lot of the places in America can be the same place. That deeply, deeply stuck with me.
So many times in our country, we have to leave us behind. It’s like: I go in this room and I have to say this or behave this way if I want this job. But for me, trust your power. I’m gonna be Kenny Leon wherever the fuck I go. If I’m in a room with white executives, I’m the same person if I’m in a rehearsal room with my cast. I’m the same person regardless of the racial makeup, so [trusting] your power means you have a right to be here. As my friend August Wilson would say, you have to go through life. Write on a tree: boy Willie was here. Ava DuVernay was here. Colin Kaepernick [was here]. I was here. I mattered. I was here on my terms, no compromise[d] version of myself. Trust your power. And hopefully, when you start making those decisions that stand in that way, it’ll come back to reward you because that’ll be a gift in itself.
At the core of everything is a human experience. I feel, as a man of color, we all just want to have a human experience. We don’t want to be sexualized. We are human. We have all the same experiences. The reason I became a filmmaker was the lack of images that I saw and how they always portrayed the Black man as the tough street criminal thug. There [were] never colors of a relationship; there were never colors of a walk with God, faith, [or] intellect…I just think that humanity has always been missing.
Angel Kristi Williams:
I think that Colin’s story will both be empowering, but also eye-opening. The thing that I love about the series is that it’s bold in both directions. It shows beautiful moments, but also moments that are not so pretty. And all of those are a part of our stories.
One of the things that I love about [episode 5] is that moment when [Colin] goes to [Crystal’s] house to pick her up for the dance, and he walks into the house, and it’s the first time that he’s walking into a house that is full of Black family. He [walks] into this room, and he sees this spread of food that’s made with love. I know what that’s like because that was my experience growing up. But to know that he had never experienced such a thing, I really wanted that theme to feel magical. What is it like as a young Black boy who’s experiencing [Blackness] [when] so many of us Black girls and boys have experienced it our whole lives? What was it like to experience that for the first time?
I was fortunate enough to go to USC film school. I went there because many of my filmmaking heroes went there: George Lucas, Ron Howard, etc. But most importantly, it was John Singleton. And, it was what Boyz in the Hood did to me when I saw that on a screen in a movie theater, this idea of like, ‘Oh my god, I can go study the craft, and then apply that to furthering telling our stories.’ What I think is interesting [and] the reason why I referenced that is when I was in film school—[a] handful Black folks. When I first started going to the Sundance Film Festival—barely a handful of black folks. And nowadays when I go back to USC, and I speak to a class on race, class, and gender, or the Black identity within mass media, I’m seeing more Black faces in those classrooms and in those auditoriums. I’m seeing [more] young Black men. That makes me feel great because I do see progress for us.
There have been great stories by Black men and women for hundreds of years. The only difference is: are those stories where the artists are being paid? And are those stories getting introduced at venues that will support our stories in great financial ways? Or, are our audiences being invited to those plays? Not every play belongs on Broadway, for instance. But the balance of stories being told in America…it’s not even close. Even if I do the numbers and say, ‘Oh, we’re 12% of the population.’ Well, then I want to be 12% of the commercial productions. I want to be 12% of the feature films. I want to be 12% of the television. It’s like I said in the Tony speech: No disrespect to Ibsen, Chekhov, or Shaw, but the table got to be bigger, [with] enough room for everybody. If you give everybody an opportunity, we all are going to get richer; there’s enough food to feed everybody.
When you look at people of color in movies and television shows, sometimes they’re all painted with the same colors. I think as artists you want to paint on a canvas that really shares a [gamut] of colors and little touches. Colin in Black & White gives you kind of a glimpse into another world and is authentic.
When I think about Jordan Peele and Get Out, he knew how to craft that movie in a way to wink at you and say, ‘This is how crazy racism is.’ When I see movies and television shows like that, they’re painting with different colors, and I like those colors. So [it’s] not just I’m angry because white people treat me bad; it’s racism. I was reading [a] script the other day, and it was really funny because they were dealing with racism [during] a time when they would [say], ‘Black nigger, get in the back.’ Now you can go to an expensive store and they say, ‘Can I help you? Can I help you? What are you looking for? Maybe I can show it to you? I’ll walk with you.’ There’s certain energy; it’s the same thing, but it’s packaged a little differently.
In the series, we kind of explore [this] package, where we go: this is what happened, his parents are kind of oblivious [until] they finally [say], ‘Wait a minute. Maybe he’s got something here.’ But, they don’t really see it because they [don’t have Black] skin. I think there’s a lot of stuff in the series that will plant amazing seeds and a new generation of men.
Angel Kristi Williams:
I think that there are so many stories about Black people, or that have Black people at the center that we haven’t been afforded an opportunity to see. I think that there’s room for all the stories that we see other cultures and other races have the opportunity to tell on screen.I want to be a part of the canon of directors who [are] bringing those stories that either [haven’t] been told at all, or [haven’t] been told enough. Black people aren’t a monolith. We love, we breathe, we cry, we have emotions, we have triumphs, challenges, we have trauma. That means there’s room for everything. And, you know, I think that with stories like Colin in Black & White, you get to see the challenges of growing up in a society that doesn’t support you, but also specifically what it was like for a young Black man to come into his manhood without the sort of the foundation that even I got as a Black woman from my mother and my father.