Netflix's 'Colin in Black and White' shows a star athlete reaching toward Blackness

Oct 30, 2021
Originally published on October 29, 2021 4:56 pm

If you had any questions about where Colin Kaepernick's activist spirit originated, a look at Netflix's new limited series, Colin in Black and White, removes all doubt.

These days, Kaepernick is known as the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose decision to kneel during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice inspired others and kicked off years of conflicts. He became a free agent in 2017 and remains unsigned by an NFL team, a situation many analysts attributed to political blowback from the controversy sparked by his protest.

But Colin in Black and White makes the case that he's been fighting those kinds of battles since he was in middle school, facing down clueless coaches, oblivious friends and well-intentioned white parents who adopted a biracial kid but seemed to have little idea how to handle his desire to embrace Blackness.

Storytelling subtle as a sledgehammer

Created by Kaepernick with superstar director/executive producer Ava DuVernay, Colin in Black and White delivers its message with storytelling subtle as a sledgehammer.

Focused on scenes in the former NFL quarterback's life stretching from eighth grade to his last year of high school, the series is a scripted drama spiced by onscreen narration from the real-life Kaepernick, emphasizing his struggle to be the kind of athlete – and man – that he chooses to be.

Kaepernick sets the tone early, speaking ominously while visual images morph from Black professional athletes examined by white coaches and team doctors to slaves getting a once over from white men selling them at auction.

Colin Kaepernick provides narration for Netflix's 'Colin in Black and White.'
Courtesy of Netflix

"What's being established is a power dynamic," says Kaepernick, clad in all black, pacing through the frame. "Before they put you on the field, teams poke and prod and examine you. Searching for any defect...no boundary respected. No dignity left intact."

The show tends to make its points over and over, with Kaepernick's voiceovers explaining things that also play out in scripted scenes. It can make the show feels inconsistent; at times, the narration expands your understanding with exciting looks at Black history. In other moments, it just emphasizes something you already know. Ditto with Kaepernick's performances, which are sometimes passionate and emotional, other times stilted and a little heavy handed.

The series itself often feels like a not-so-passive aggressive swipe at the authority figures – all seemingly white – who doubted his goals and made it tougher for him to be himself, including his parents.

Played by Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker, Rick and Teresa Kaepernick are well-meaning white folk who listen to Christian rock on long car rides and dress like all their clothes came from T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. They adopted Colin as a baby in Wisconsin and moved to Turlock, California – another place, the former NFL star notes wryly, known for dairy farming and a scarcity of Black people.

Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman play Teresa and Rick Kaepernick in Netflix's 'Colin in Black and White.'
Courtesy of Netflix

Though they clearly love Kaepernick, his parents are also shown as clueless and a bit bewildered by his efforts to connect with Black people and Black culture — from trying to wear cornrows in his hair like his basketball hero Allen Iverson, to taking a Black girl to a formal dance in high school.

Their responses can be inconsistent. In the show's first episode, Teresa responds to her son's efforts to get his hair braided into cornrows by taking him to a barbershop recommended by her Black co-workers. But when they visit the stylist's home a few months later for a touch-up, Teresa gets unnerved by the neighborhood and her son's love for the soul food they share with him.

Eventually, a harsh, white baseball coach – and they all seem to be harsh, white coaches here – demands Kaepernick cut his hair to stay on the team. It's a position backed by his parents, who don't seem to understand or respect the obvious: his hairstyle choice is an example of a young man of color, reaching toward his Blackness.

"You look like a thug!" Teresa says to him, finally. Young Kaepernick is soon back at Supercuts, getting his Iverson-inspired locks unbraided and cut down. Actor Jaden Michael, who plays Kaepernick with a bright-eyed optimism that helps ease some of the series' heavy handedness, does a great job communicating his sense of suppressed confusion, betrayal and anger all at once.

"I knew it wasn't right," Kaepernick himself says in a voiceover, "but I didn't have the knowledge, wisdom or language to fight back."

In a more subtle show, the scene with Teresa would be enough to communicate the impact of that pejorative — thug – flung at a young Black man who just wanted to look like his hero. But Kaepernick also speaks on the history of the term as a coded racial epithet, re-explaining something in a way that feels a little on the nose.

There are other scenes which don't make his parents look great, including a moment when Teresa hides a photo of Kaepernick posing with a Black girl he took to the formal dance, while urging him to date the white daughter of a friend. It makes you wonder if they ever realized the impact of such actions on their young Black son, and why they don't seem to talk to him in-depth about race at a crucial moment in his life.

A character who chooses to be unapologetically Black

What I found most compelling about Colin in Black and White is something I wish the show had spent more time exploring: Kaepernick's decision to choose being Black.

After all, as the TV series depicts, he's in a situation where many people around him — coaches, friends and family — don't understand his thirst for Black culture. Other than friends at school, he doesn't seem to have any other Black people in his life. He could have easily chosen to reflect white culture more in his life choices.

Colin in Black and White seems to present this choice as a given – a natural thing for Kaepernick to look up to Black sports stars, seek to date Black women and embrace hip hop culture. But for him, and many biracial kids like him — including the former President of the United States – self-identifying as a Black man can be an affirmative choice.

And in today's increasingly multiracial society, it's a choice more young people are negotiating everyday.

There are moments in this series when his parents make it plain that they wish he would make a different decision. "How long do you think this is going to last?" Teresa asks her son in an exasperated tone as they arrive at the hairstylist's home. "The braids?" he asks, sounding confused.

"All of it," she says, clearly unnerved by the world her son is eager to step into.

For a show that emphasizes so many of its points about race so directly, it's odd that this isn't talked about more. Later episodes show Kaepernick asserting himself a different way; refusing a slew of opportunities to pursue a career in Major League Baseball to follow his dream of being a football quarterback.

Though the series details all the rejections he got from college football programs convinced he wasn't big enough for the position, the drama here wasn't quite so suspenseful. We know he eventually makes it to the NFL.

Overall, Colin in Black & White demonstrates why Kaepernick has become the principled man he is today. It's a very good series which humanizes a courageous athlete who has too often been belittled and misrepresented by ignorant ideologues.

But a little more subtlety and a slightly wider lens could have turned this very good program into a truly great one.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Former NFL star Colin Kaepernick's adolescence gets the "Wonder Years" treatment in a coming-of-age series out today on Netflix. It's called "Colin In Black And White," created by Kaepernick himself with star director executive producer Ava DuVernay. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series is revelatory but occasionally frustrating.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Colin In Black And White" sets its tone early, with the one-time quarterback explaining to viewers how the way professional football players are examined at tryouts can feel a bit like the way slaves are sized up at an auction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE")

COLIN KAEPERNICK: Before they put you on the field, teams poke and prod and examine, searching for any defect that might affect your performance - no boundary respected, no dignity left intact.

DEGGANS: As he speaks, addressing the camera directly, a line of Black athletes walks by, morphing into a line of slaves at auction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Come on, boy. Hurry up. Look at that shape there.

DEGGANS: Given how Kaepernick's career was derailed following his decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice, it makes sense that he might feel this way about the NFL. But "Colin In Black And White" doesn't spend much time relitigating his beefs with pro football. Instead, it focuses on his years growing up in Turlock, Calif., as the adopted biracial son of a white couple from Wisconsin. We see him as a sports prodigy, reaching toward his identity as a Black man in ways his coaches and family didn't often understand, like the moment in eighth grade when Kaepernick had his hair braided in cornrows like his hero, NBA star Allen Iverson. His father Rick Kaepernick, played by Nick Offerman, had an interesting reaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE")

NICK OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) I think you're wasting your brain energy on hairstyles.

KAEPERNICK: (As Colin Kaepernick) My brain energy?

OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) Yeah. You don't want to get decision fatigue because you're thinking about your hair or what to wear or anything like that. You need your brain to focus on more important things.

DEGGANS: Kaepernick's parents are shown as well-meaning people who are clueless about issues like white privilege, racial identity or microaggressions. So when one of Kaepernick's harsh white coaches - and they all seem to be harsh white coaches on this series - reacts badly to his cornrows...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What's up with Kaepernick?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's a nice arm on him, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm talking about the hair. What - are you looking at what I'm looking at? Something climbing out the back of his hat - that is not acceptable.

DEGGANS: ...His parents, played by Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker, insist he change his hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE")

MARY-LOUISE PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) You're cutting your hair, Colin.

JADEN MICHAEL: (As Colin Kaepernick) I don't want to.

PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) Too bad.

MICHAEL: (As Colin Kaepernick) Why?

OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) We told you it's a team rule.

MICHAEL: (As Colin Kaepernick) But why?

PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) Because you look like a thug.

MICHAEL: (As Colin Kaepernick) What?

DEGGANS: In a more subtle series, that scene might stand on its own. But here, the real-life Kaepernick also pops up to explain the origins of the word thug and how it became a coded racial epithet, revealing the show's troubling habit of saying the same thing several times over.

I also wish the series spent more time exploring Kaepernick's choice to assert his Blackness in the first place. It may seem like a natural decision, but for young Kaepernick and many biracial kids like him, including the former president of the United States, self-identifying as a Black man can be an affirmative choice.

Star Jaden Michael is spot on as a young Kaepernick, nailing the sports scenes while delivering an earnest performance that lightens the show's tough messages. And "Colin In Black And White" excels by showing how his early insistence on staying true to himself helped shape the athlete and activist he would become. But by repeating some things too often and leaving some ideas unexplored, they've also kept a good show from becoming a truly great series.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF B0NDS' "LAX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.