Ask my family and they’ll tell you I’m the worst person to talk sports with, but even outside of the world of “sports ball” I know football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick became a symbol, of either courage or resentment depending on the political side, when he started kneeling during the national anthem at games, eventually being rejected or blackballed (again, views differ) by the NFL. Kaepernick has continued to thrive though and has taken a step towards telling his story through the six-episode limited Netflix series he co-created with Ava DuVernay, “Colin in Black and White.”
The series is a mix of autobiography, detailing Kaepernick’s life growing up as the Black adopted son in a white family living in Turlock, California, as well as social commentary discussing the history of racism within professional sports. This latter element is established immediately as Kaepernick, ensconced in a square room for the series, shows us footage of football players being selected and trained for teams before eventually transforming into a slave auction. Opening the series in this way makes a statement meant to be inflammatory. These are his experiences and he doesn’t care if you think they’re intense. Right away he acknowledges how he feels about the NFL and professional sports, a fact he continues to hit home in episodes devoted to “playing the game the white way.”
For Kaepernick, the goal of the series isn’t just to tell audiences about his own experiences, but how common they are, historically. He tells the story of Romare Bearden, the acclaimed artist, and how Bearden initially planned to be the first Black baseball player before Jackie Robinson. Unfortunately, Bearden was asked to pass as white, turning down the opportunity and finding a new medium — The New York Times wrote that he was “the nation’s foremost collagist” when he died in 1988 — that made him a legend. Kaepernick’s goal throughout the series is analogous. As he details in his own personal narrative, many assumed he was destined to play baseball. And while his love of football didn’t go the way he expected, he’s still found ways to be the person he wants to be.
The blending of historical past with Kaepernick’s personal past can leave the entire six episode affair feeling long, which is strange since the episodes average about 30 minutes. There’s a start-stop nature to the episodes where a particularly fascinating element of the past, like the Bearden story, feels like a small footnote. Or, if Kaepernick’s story is intriguing it can be frustrating to pull away from it. A sense of cohesion between the two elements is never fully achieved and just makes you wish the series had been divided in two.
It doesn’t help that Kaepernick, not being a professional actor, often has a hard time working with the material he’s given to read. In the historical segments he works because the stories are so straightforward. But during the reenactments he’s left to act as a “Wonder Years”-type narrator, remembering elements of his life, like the first time he got cornrows. His narration tends to sound the same, not having the sense of humor or pathos that would have come from a professional performer.
Kaepernick watches the events of his life play out and from there the true power of “Colin in Black and White” comes through, with a young Kaepernick (played wonderfully by Jaden Michael) going through the motions of being a high schooler. He’s a three-sport star at his high school and as he struggles to figure out how to make his football dreams happen, he also has to deal with being an outsider in a predominately white family and neighborhood. His parents, Teresa and Rick (Mary Louise-Parker and Nick Offerman, respectively) are kindhearted, but even they fall into the trap of being white parents who fail to see how their Black son is mistreated.
Michael is great and imbues Kaepernick with such humanity. This isn’t a sports legend in the making — though we are reminded of how talented Kaepernick was as a youth — but a boy who just wants to go to Homecoming with a girl he likes, or get a football scholarship. At every turn a grown Kaepernick reminds us of the white society he, and numerous other Black children, grow up in.
And at times it’s surprising how bare he’s willing to lay things out, even showcasing his parents’ own racism and ignorance. A routine traffic stop with young Colin at the wheel sees his mother jokingly tell him “you dodged a bullet,” failing to see the literalness of her words. The Homecoming dance, that sees Colin take a Black girl named Crystal (Klarke Pipkin) has his mother hide their photos because Crystal is referred to as “blue black.” These moments see young Colin try his hardest to brush off the situation, taking it not as an insult but as just another example of white privilege.
The question is who is this series for, though? If it’s for fans of Kaepernick it feels like a brief snippet of his life that could conceivably see more seasons if desired. But it has to battle out with bigger questions about racism that draws attention elsewhere. Again, if there are more seasons of “Colin in Black and White” it’ll be interesting to see if the two halves of this experiment find a way to gel.
“Colin in Black and White” can feel sentimental and blunt in a way that feels as disparate as those two terms are. But there’s something highly watchable about it, particularly in young Colin’s narrative. The cast within the storyline about Kaepernick’s life are great, even if Kaepernick himself isn’t the best host and narrator. Go in knowing that it tries hard to cast a wide net and won’t be able to catch everything or everyone.
“Colin in Black and White” premieres Friday, October 29 on Netflix.