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'Colin In Black & White' reclaims the Kaepernick narrative while rebuilding a brand : Pop Culture Happy Hour – NPR

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Former NFL player Colin Kaepernick has been a prominent activist and a Rorschach test in the culture wars. And he’s been widely reconsidered in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests. But he hasn’t really gotten to tell his own story until now. He co-created and stars in the Netflix series “Colin In Black & White,” a dramatization of his life as the biracial son of white adoptive parents.
I’m Stephen Thompson. And today we are talking about “Colin In Black & White” on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THOMPSON: Joining me today is the host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, Gene Demby. Hey, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: What’s good, Stephen?
THOMPSON: It is so good to talk to you. Also with us is Daisy Rosario. She’s an executive producer at Stitcher with the show “‚ÄéCelebrity Book Club With Chelsea Devantez.” It’s in its first season right now. Hey, Daisy.
DAISY ROSARIO: Hey, Stephen.
THOMPSON: It is great to have you. So in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became a lightning rod after he and other NFL players took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence in America. At the end of that season, he played his final game in the NFL. In the years since, Kaepernick has sued the NFL, alleging collusion to keep him out of the league. He’s also signed a sponsorship deal with Nike, become a civil rights leader, and now he has his own Netflix series that he co-created with filmmaker Ava DuVernay. In the first season of “Colin In Black & White,” Kaepernick presides over a retelling of his life. Throughout the first season, a teenaged Kaepernick, played by Jaden Michael, struggles to find himself as a three-sport athlete who stars in baseball but has dreams of playing quarterback in college. His parents are played by Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman.
ROSARIO: (Laughter).
THOMPSON: They mean well but are limited in their ability to guide him through the terrain of growing up Black in white spaces that could be extremely hostile. Along the way, the show is heavily punctuated with appearances by Colin Kaepernick himself. He’s there to guide the viewer through not only his own life story but also brief history lessons about everything from the Negro Leagues to the birth of hip-hop.
Daisy, I’m going to start with you. What did you think…
ROSARIO: Wow.
THOMPSON: …Of “Colin In Black & White”?
ROSARIO: In passing, before this show was released, before I was watching, you know, the press screener for it, I remember hearing, you know, like, oh, Colin Kaepernick is working with Ava DuVernay on something for youth. But then in the actual, like, marketing materials and everything I’ve seen since, they haven’t mentioned that it’s a show for youth. So that’s the only preface I want to give because that is a huge part of what I found jarring about the show from jump. Like, first scene, you’re like, what (laughter)? Like…
(LAUGHTER)
ROSARIO: And as somebody who really does pay a lot of attention to the types of issues that, you know, him and Ava are trying to bring forth with a series like this, you know, for me, it felt very rudimentary, which is why I was like, is this for young people because if it is, then that’s a horse of a different color in some ways? But overall, I think it’s a situation where I appreciate the goal, but I am confused at best about the execution.
(LAUGHTER)
ROSARIO: Yeah, let me pause there. I’ll go there.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Gene Demby, tell me what you think of this show.
DEMBY: So now that I know that it was targeted at young people – almost like I need to recalibrate my reactions to it ’cause we were watching it – my wife and my cousin-in-law were watching it – like, who is this for, right? Like, do people who are presumably the age that this is aimed at even know who Colin Kaepernick is, like, as an athlete? Like, he hasn’t played in the NFL for four or five years now, right?
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: He’s far removed from the pinnacle of his career when he took the Niners to the Super Bowl. So who is this for? Like, do they have any sense of who he was as a sort of sports figure? And if it’s for people who don’t have any real sense of who he was as an athlete, then so much of the sort of foreshadowing that is, like, winked at in this doesn’t make sense, right? There’s a scene in which you see him – young Colin Kaepernick – standing up as they play the national anthem at a high school baseball game. First of all, do they play the national anthem at high school baseball games? That was a very interesting scene. But clearly, that was sort of, like, a wink and a nod – right? – like, you know, because the thing he became famous for was not standing up during the national anthem as a professional athlete.
And Daisy sort of alluded to this. Like, the show is – in the first episode, toggles through so many different modes and forms. Like, I didn’t come into this knowing anything about it. I assumed it was going to be a documentary, but it’s also, like, a biopic. And it’s also kind of, like, part Hasan Minhaj, like, “Explainer”…
ROSARIO: Thank you.
DEMBY: …About things.
ROSARIO: Yes. Yes.
DEMBY: …With, like, graphics popping up behind Colin Kaepernick as he explains things that are only somewhat tangentially related to the plot points in the sort of dramatization of his childhood, which plays out like, you know, a C-plus Freeform teen drama. There’s so much happening in this show, and it takes a while for it to settle down into what it is going to be, which is a somewhat effective show about a transracial adoptee kid. But it is all over the place, and a lot of the stylistic flourishes, like, step on the stuff that works…
ROSARIO: Yeah.
DEMBY: …When it does work.
ROSARIO: Yes.
DEMBY: It’s a very weird, weird, like, hodgepodge of things.
THOMPSON: I definitely – I mean, I agree with you that it’s a hodgepodge. I agree also that it is a show, I think, really pitched primarily to teenagers. I think I disagree with Gene in that I think teenagers know who Colin Kaepernick is. I think Colin Kaepernick has remained in the kind of cultural fabric. You don’t have a lot of perspective on his actual NFL playing career other than the fact…
DEMBY: Right.
THOMPSON: …That he played in a Super Bowl.
ROSARIO: Yeah. Yeah.
THOMPSON: But I think people, including teenagers, know who he is, though I think a lot of what this show is trying to do is it’s an effort for him to kind of reclaim the narrative.
ROSARIO: Oh, definitely.
THOMPSON: It’s, you know, an opportunity, I think, to provide for young viewers some kind of key moments of Black history that he wants to impart. It is also – you know, let it be known, this is a brand extension. You know, this is a brand extension just as much as the Billie Eilish movie is or the Taylor Swift movie is…
ROSARIO: (Laughter).
THOMPSON: …Or any number of these kind of self-biographical documentaries that are very, very presided over by the figure being documented. I agree with you that it’s a muddle. I agree that it ultimately doesn’t ever really cohere. I do think, though, it’s very easy for us to view it through the lens of our own lives, as, like, people who know exactly who Colin Kaepernick is…
ROSARIO: Oh, definitely.
THOMPSON: …Who know who DJ Kool Herc is and don’t necessarily need…
(LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: …A brief aside to tell us the early history of hip-hop.
ROSARIO: Yeah.
THOMPSON: You know, as a retelling of his life, there are certainly moments of it that are interesting. I do think it’s operating under the assumption that it is for an audience who wants to grow up to be Colin Kaepernick.
ROSARIO: That’s interesting.
THOMPSON: I think for that audience, it’s interesting, but I don’t know if this is how I would have told Colin Kaepernick’s story.
DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, you could see why the experiences that he had as a teenager, a transracial adoptee – right? – like, why there were specific sort of anxieties he had, right? But some of those specific issues that he’s dealing with in a teenager that we see dramatized in the show don’t scale up to the kinds of asides, right? Like, he has these asides about, like, let me tell you about how hard it is to get a loan.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE”)
COLIN KAEPERNICK: In 2015, 27.4% of Black applicants were denied mortgages, more than twice that of white applicants. And when Black applicants were approved, they usually paid higher interest rates.
DEMBY: And it’s like, well, yes, but also…
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: …Why are we about to do a whole dramatization on the side, a sort of, like, breakout in which we see two Black women not being able to get a loan from this white bank officer?
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: And it’s like, what did that have to do with this cat going to homecoming? Like, you know, what I’m saying?
THOMPSON: (Laughter).
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: Like, it’s just very, like, all over the place.
ROSARIO: The connections are a little weak (laughter) in terms of how they got there at times. But I mean, that is the thing, is, like, it feels a little bit – especially at the beginning – of a bait-and-switch of kind of what the show is going to be, you know? I spent so much of the first episode not being sure of what kind of show it was going to be, in part because of the choices of how they introduce things. Like, eventually, I got used to these asides, right? But, I mean, literally the first episode, I played the first 10 minutes for my partner because I found it jarring, and I was like, is this jarring just ’cause I know this topic a lot or ’cause it’s not for me? And she totally came away also expecting, like, a Hasan Minhaj, John Oliver-type show, and I was like, no, the scenes that you saw of them in the middle school – that’s actually what the show is.
THOMPSON: Right.
DEMBY: (Laughter).
ROSARIO: You know, she was like, oh, I would never have guessed that, even from watching this part.
THOMPSON: Yeah, there is a sense watching it that is sort of like, well, it’s going to be a retelling of Colin Kaepernick’s life, but can we also make it the movie “13th”?
(LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: Like, can we also put in a bunch of Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the 13th Amendment, which actually employs some of the same visual tricks?
ROSARIO: Yes.
THOMPSON: Like, you feel Ava DuVernay’s stamp…
ROSARIO: Oh, absolutely.
THOMPSON: All over this show, and you kind of wonder where that decision was made to kind of cross-pollinate “13th” and a Freeform show.
(LAUGHTER)
ROSARIO: Right (laughter).
DEMBY: Right. One of the things that was, like, jarring immediately from jump – I actually don’t think I’ve heard Colin Kaepernick’s voice that much. Like, I don’t think I’d ever actually heard him speak before. I mean, I’ve heard him speak, but never, like, at length. He’s sort of famously, like, sort of reclusive, and he doesn’t do press.
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: So I realized, like, oh, this is what this cat sounds like.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE”)
KAEPERNICK: Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod and examine, searching for any defect that might affect your performance – no boundary respected, no dignity left intact.
DEMBY: One of the things that will jump out to you is, like, he is also not a natural presenter, right? Like, he’s very read-y (ph) as we say, right?
ROSARIO: Yes.
DEMBY: You can tell he’s reading off of a cue card – right? – or from a script about his own life, which is, like, even more disconcerting. But yeah, like, the documentary stuff happens in such dribs and drabs, and it’s really kinetic, right? And it, like, pops up on the screen, and then you see, like, all these references and things. And the references and things are in some cases so short…
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: …That it’s like, oh, you have to know a whole bunch of stuff already to understand why she is throwing up this picture of, I don’t know, Donald Trump here. You know what I mean? Like…
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: …One of the early relevant asides is, like – and it’s kind of relevant – is, like, he looked up to Allen Iverson.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE”)
KAEPERNICK: A young NBA superstar heard more criticism than kudos.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That’s the body language of a thug.
KAEPERNICK: He experienced more political policing than passionate praise. Why?
DEMBY: But then you, like, get this kind of jumbly (ph) story of who Allen Iverson is. Like, I know who Allen Iverson is ’cause he’s my hero.
ROSARIO: Right.
(LAUGHTER)
DEMBY: If you did not know who Allen Iverson was and Colin Kaepernick is having this four-minute digression about Allen Iverson, would you watch this Allen Iverson digression and come away with any sense of who Allen Iverson was, except for, like, a basketball player who made people mad? But, like…
ROSARIO: You’d probably actually come away thinking he was, like, a political prisoner.
DEMBY: Absolutely (laughter). Exactly.
ROSARIO: From the way that it’s talked about, like, it’s…
DEMBY: Exactly.
ROSARIO: It’s that switch between this kind of, like, Freeform-style show and then going hard into that stuff. And it’s not, I think, that I think that those things don’t fit near each other necessarily. But I think that the execution is weird in that, you know, that doesn’t give you enough time to think about it. You know, that’s something in the work that we do – right? – here as people who, you know, make stuff where we’re talking to you, lovely listener, right now. Like, when you’re writing stuff, you think, OK, I don’t want to make this part so confusing that people miss what comes next.
THOMPSON: Right.
ROSARIO: And that happens a lot in this show.
THOMPSON: Yeah. You want to keep the plot kind of enough on rails that people don’t wander off into digressions and get lost. Speaking about the narrative part of the show, I did want to get your thoughts. I mean, this is part a family drama, and they got Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman…
DEMBY: Yup.
ROSARIO: Yeah.
THOMPSON: …To play his doofy parents…
(LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: …Who have many, many, many lessons to learn. But they got, like, major, major actors to play them. What did you think of their work here?
ROSARIO: If I’m honest, my reaction was Nick Offerman was like – he knew what the assignment was, and he was trying to do it. And Mary-Louise Parker, I think, was like, yes, and then got there and was like, maybe no. Like, that’s…
(LAUGHTER)
ROSARIO: …The vibe I get from the two of them in this show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE”)
MARY-LOUISE PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) From now on, we want you to get your hair done by professionals, no more of this going rogue business. You don’t just go to someone’s house. They probably don’t even have a license.
NICK OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) Let me add, I think we should just get your hair cut low. That way, you won’t even have to think about it. I mean, one of the reasons Michael Jordan accomplished so much is because he’s bald.
PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) Mmm.
ROSARIO: I do think that the best moments of it come from those parts of the show. Like, I think that they’re well performed.
DEMBY: If you have these actors playing his parents, it feels almost like a waste because they’re not really doing a lot besides being, like, ostentatiously oblivious. Right? Like…
ROSARIO: Right.
(LAUGHTER)
DEMBY: Some really racist thing will happen to Colin – to young Colin Kaepernick. And then he’ll be like – basically turn to his parents like, uh, did see that? And they’ll be like son, stop making a big deal. And granted, we’ve had – we’ve done episodes on transracial adoptees. We know from our audience that, like, that’s a real experience – right? – is that…
ROSARIO: Yeah.
DEMBY: …Kids of color who were raised by white parents often had this experience where their parents sort of like wave away these instances of racism they experienced.
ROSARIO: Mmm hmm.
DEMBY: I think the kid who played Colin Kaepernick actually grew on me as the series went on. Like, I thought he was, like, too gawky. And I know – I mean, y’all are both sports fans. Like, the scrawniness of these kids kept messing with me a little bit. Like…
ROSARIO: (Laughter).
THOMPSON: Uh-huh. I thought that, too.
DEMBY: This kid has a…
THOMPSON: Too thin.
DEMBY: He has a rocket arm. I was like, word? ‘Cause, like, both him and the dude he’s going up against for this QB1 position, they’re both, like, 100 pounds soaking wet. Like, I don’t know, like…
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: …Where, they’re getting the torque (ph) to throw these balls. I was like – the younger actors grew on me as the show went on. And I actually think that was the stuff that worked the best.
ROSARIO: Yeah.
DEMBY: And it worked best when I wasn’t thinking about it as like, and this is part of the origin story…
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: …Of this, you know, future NFL luminary. Like, it almost worked better as just like a story about a kid trying to navigate these spaces. You know what I mean?
THOMPSON: Yeah.
ROSARIO: I appreciate the desire to give young Black but also brown kids a sense of maybe a history that they could be proud of. But just ’cause you throw all those good intentions in there, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to necessarily make a good product. And if they made more of it that leaned into the parts that I do think work, I would definitely be, you know, at least somewhat interested or open. I mean, I think of my younger nephews. And I’m like, I could see them having an interest in this at some point, for sure.
DEMBY: I’m curious about how y’all feel about the way it handles the racism, like, in the show. Like, all the racism in this series – and there’s a lot of it – is all, like, cartoonish. I mean, it’s like all, like, afterschool special. Like, everybody who’s a racist is obviously a racist, right? You’re one of the good ones. Like, it was just like – a whole lot of like these moments…
THOMPSON: Things that are presented as microaggressions that are really aggressions.
DEMBY: They’re just like aggressions-aggressions, yeah. It’s just like, yo, this cop almost shot your son.
ROSARIO: There is also an explanation of microaggressions. So…
DEMBY: It’s, like, not a microaggression when the cop pulls you over and, like, reaches for his gun.
ROSARIO: Right.
DEMBY: You know what I mean? But also, every time we saw his father drive down the road…
THOMPSON: Oh, my God.
DEMBY: …And the cop pulled out his radar gun, I was like, oh…
ROSARIO: Foreshadowing.
THOMPSON: I was like, should I fast-forward through the next 10 minutes and just pick this show up where it’s going to leave off?
DEMBY: Where – yeah, it was definitely going to the part where Colin Kaepernick gets pulled over by the cops driving the same car. Again – and I guess that’s like who it’s for ’cause – I don’t know – like, it feels like even teenagers who’ve been thinking about this stuff at all, like, have more nuanced experiences and understandings of how, like, racism happens. I don’t know.
ROSARIO: Yeah. On the one hand, I definitely could think of actual specific people in my family who probably need to see it that way to, like, take it in.
DEMBY: (Laughter).
THOMPSON: But are they going to watch “Colin In Black And White”?
DEMBY: Yeah, that’s the thing.
ROSARIO: That’s the question. And as someone who does watch a lot of stuff online – And by online, I mean, like TikTok and YouTube, not just the fact that everything is streaming – you are used to seeing these kinds of video essays and short things where people are, like, explaining an issue to you that are not just John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj. But I think in that sense, the way that he is talking to the camera and stuff, like, I think some people might be there for it. But I also am still just kind of a little lost of, like – if this is for 16-year-olds, I think there are a lot that are probably watching TikTok who would already know some of this.
DEMBY: Absolutely.
ROSARIO: And then if it is for 10-year-olds, I’m like, I think that the way that you explain that is probably confusing. Is it that you’re supposed to watch it with your mother and father and a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old? Maybe that’s what it is.
(LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: All right. Well, we want to know what you think about “Colin In Black And White.” Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to both of you for being here.
ROSARIO: (Laughter) Thank you.
DEMBY: Thank you, Stephen (laughter). This was a fun.
THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you’re so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow when we’ll be talking about the new Marvel film “Eternals.”
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