When Kaepernick Was a Kid

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick will surely go down in history as a profile in courage for daring to take a knee during the national anthem played before San Francisco 49er games in 2016, incurring the wrath of President Trump, team owners and bar stool patriots everywhere. Kaepernick’s gesture, which inspired players throughout the league to join him, was a way of calling attention to mounting acts of unchecked police violence against unarmed Blacks, a way of questioning whether the phrase “land of the free” in the anthem truly applied to all Americans. Images on the nightly news suggested otherwise.

For this entirely rational protest, Kaepernick was demonized by conservatives and blackballed by team owners after he became a free agent at the age of 30. As a result, he never played another down in the NFL despite having abilities many teams could have used. His name is likely to be included with U.S. track Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Muhammad Ali as Black athletes who used their status to call attention to the nation’s racial inequity, risking their careers in the process.

But Colin in Black and White, the new six-part docudrama on Netflix, does not tell this story, only references it while focusing on Kaepernick’s coming of age as an adopted bi-racial kid in a white supremacist Central Valley town in California. This will come as a disappointment to anyone hoping to get the full, ugly story of how an elite athlete with anti-establishment political views was run out of the NFL for exercising his right of free speech. Instead, the series aims to explain how Kaeperkick got woke from the get-go, struggling against racial prejudice in youth sports leagues, having to prove himself repeatedly to patronizing coaches and officials. That’s a story worth telling, too, but here in the docudrama created by Kaepernick and the esteemed director Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us), we get a Scholastic Magazine approach to drama, with narration by Kaepernick, who also steps in front of the camera as himself to provide instructional asides about the history of racism in America.

THE HISTORY is significant, as are the examples of discrimination in his own life, but the two are slapped together in what feels like a middle school lesson plan, with unsubtle storytelling making the same points over and over again, as if the writers were being paid by the page. The NFL “Combine” that inspects and evaluates prospects has been compared in the past to slave auctions, considering the number of Black players on display, but it may never have been caricatured as starkly as it is here in Kaepernick’s scenario.

Jaden Michael is winning as the young Colin if not entirely believable physically as a superstar high school pitcher and quarterback. Veteran thespians Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman get the thankless roles as Colin’s underwritten earnest white parents, whose inner lives and personalities remain well disguised under the knowing, caring expressions they must substitute for character development. By the way, Mom and Dad have two other children about whom we learn almost nothing.

A whole episode is devoted to his attending his first prom. There are complications, as he accepts a date with a white girl arranged by his parents after his Black crush gets tired of waiting for him to come back from travel tournaments and practices. More interesting and relevant is to learn that Kaepernick was heavily recruited by colleges to play baseball but judged unworthy for football until Nevada offered him a scholarship at the last minute. He had a golden arm but didn’t want to play baseball; he wanted to be a quarterback.

IT’S NOT A STRETCH to believe that so many of the coaches, umpires and other adults Kaepernick encountered in his formative years were jerks and bigots, but the obviousness of their villainy on screen sometimes strains credulity. Was there a director in the house? is a question this Netflix show raises. If so, it does not appear to be the same person who directed Selma. DuVernay only directed the first episode, but she served as executive producer, along with Kaepernick.

Colin in Black and White ends before he even gets to Reno, but we know he set multiple passing and rushing records in the Western Athletic Conference before being picked in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL draft by the 49ers. The football coaches at USC, UCLA, Wisconsin and other D I schools that failed to see his potential get some deserved shade thrown their way. And the series arrives at a happy ending, with Kaepernick reminding us it was his perseverance and unshakable belief in himself that delivered him finally to the promised land — or at least a place where he could be a college quarterback. The NFL would be another story.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other publications. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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