Colin In Black And White follows the formative years of the American athlete and activist but includes important lessons for audiences everywhere.
While a new month signals a slew of new Netflix content, one series in particular is worth watching for its portrayal of one of America’s most important sports stars. Colin In Black And White follows the teenage years of professional American football player Colin Kaepernick while also simultaneously delivering hard-hitting messages on race and culture.
Colin Kaepernick became known worldwide after famously taking the knee during a preseason NFL game in 2016. In protest against police brutality in America at the time, as well as racial inequality, police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests, Kaepernick inspired a national movement among his fellow NFL players, who joined him in kneeling on the pitch during the national anthem.
At the time, President Donald Trump stated at a 2017 rally in Alabama that all players participating should be fired by the NFL and “taken off the field now”. At the end of the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers with no explicit mention as to the reasons why. Over the following five years, Kaepernick’s involvement in activism and campaigning against racism has increased, and he remains an unsigned athlete who no longer competes.
In the new Netflix series documenting his life, Kaepernick joined forces with co-creator Ava DuVernay, the inspiring filmmaker behind Oscar-nominated Selma and creator of poignant docu-drama When They See Us, which chronicled the heartbreaking story of the Central Park Five.
Trying to fit the series into a genre-confining box proves difficult with this new release as it is neither a traditional drama nor documentary. Instead, Colin In Black And White is mostly a dramatic retelling of Kaepernick’s formative years coupled with the real-life Kaepernick’s narration and factual intermissions.
The first episode, titled Cornrows, follows a simple premise but also paves the way for how this series perfectly captures the nuance of everyday prejudice.
We’re introduced to a teenage Kaepernick, played by The Get Down’s Jaden Michael, who is biracial but grows up in a white adopted family. The complexities of his living situation are made clear. In the simple act of choosing how to wear his hair, he’s met with regular criticism and ‘well-meaning’ comments from his parents. Similarly, in the way his mother pushes him to take a different girl to the prom, rather than the Black girl he’s chosen to date. The preferred date option for his parents would be the white girl they mention but things like this are never explicitly mentioned by his parents throughout the series – just alluded to and frowned upon.
Having only previously worn his hair brushed out in an afro, when Kaepernick has his hair braided for the first time, his father Rick (Parks And Recreation star Nick Offerman) says he’s “wasting brain energy on hairstyles”, in conversation over the dinner table.
The contrast between how Kaepernick is addressed in his own home and the home of the Black woman who braided his hair for him is stark.
Having his hair cornrowed also happens to be his first experience sitting in a Black woman’s home and it’s a warm one. It’s something his mother, Teresa (Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker), accompanies him to but ends up leaving after feeling uncomfortable at the explicit rap music playing and soul food being passed around.
The fourth wall is regularly broken for real-life Kaepernick to reach the viewer directly with startling statistics and facts. There are a few scenes where we see the word ‘thug’ thrown around by Kaepernick’s parents towards him. It soon becomes apparent to a young Kaepernick that people have started to feel wary of him because of his new look. Here, we cut to the real, adult Colin Kaepernick who breaks down the meaning of ‘thug’ and the historical connotations of the word. He explains that even though you could apply the same phrase to neo-Nazis, for example, it’s rare that these people are branded as ‘thugs’ because of their skin colour as they’re not typically identified as Black.
In the second episode which explores systemic racism and white ownership, the real Colin interrupts the narrative and tells viewers that “in 2015, 27.4% of Black applicants were denied mortgages … more than twice of white applicants”.
While such a statistic is shocking, you might assume it’d only directly affect you if you were looking to buy a home. Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Colin discusses how ‘white man approval’ is a systemic fact and regularly “our fate will be in the hands of those who may not think we qualify”.
The overall message of the series can be summarised in the comment he makes in this episode. He simply states:
“Some will say the system is broken. I’m here to tell you it was intentionally built that way.”
Throughout the series, Kaepernick continues to try and embrace his Blackness despite those around him – his school friends, coaches and parents – who demonise Black culture by making passive-aggressive comments about it or fail to understand the importance of it for Kaepernick.
As the episodes progress and the viewer is increasingly armed with saddening statistics, so too is a young Kaepernick, who is growing into a more conscious and outspoken man. Where once he shied away from conflict, we see him becoming more attuned to the racism around him.
In the third episode which chronicles his first baseball tournament, an excited Kaepernick is quickly deflated after a series of microaggressions. We see how tone policing and actions – like people referring to him as aggressive for no apparent reason – start to affect Colin, but his parents are blind to the way he’s being perceived. In one ludicrous scene, a woman rushes over to his mum and dad in their hotel lobby to ask if Colin is bothering them.
When told that actually, he is their adopted son, she marvels at Kaepernick and says: “I think about getting one all the time.” She gushes over his parents’ values and how great they are as people for adopting him.
Back in the hotel room they’re staying in for the tournament, Kaepernick is visibly exasperated and admits to his parents that “sometimes I just feel uncomfortable.” To which his mother replies: “I don’t think anyone’s trying to make you feel that way.”
Scenes like this make up a large part of the six-part series and show that although people like Kaepernick’s parents can be loving and well-meaning, their tolerance for racism is not actively anti-racist.
As he grows up, we see Kaepernick being passed over for team promotions, white coaches refusing to recognise his talent and the real Kaepernick reflecting on the NFL draft picking process and likening it to that of a slave auction.
Netflix’s official synopsis states: “You don’t know Kaepernick until you know Colin” and it’s true. When watching, you’re struck by the fact that his current activism is very much born out of what he had to endure throughout his sporting career and past.
The overall strength of this series, though, lies in the authority that Kaepernick commands as a narrator and fact-giver throughout. He seamlessly blends into scenes to provide crucial context but also adds personality to the scenes of his life.
There are times where the drama-documentary form can make the series feel unnecessarily punctuated, but generally, for the show to be as profound as its creators want it to be, the format is quite a genius thing.
The most important thing, though, is that each 30-minute episode will capture the attention of the viewer, compelling them to watch and learn more about Kaepernick’s early life, but also learn and question their own activism (or lack of) in the process too.
Colin In Black & White is available to stream on Netflix now.