Colin Kaepernick with American football players trying out in the background.

Colin Kaepernick: Birth of an Activist

Posted by Speakeasy News > Thursday 18 November 2021 > What's On

Colin in Black and White is a new Netflix mini-series directed by Ava Duvernay. It’s ostensibly the story of Kaepernick’s high- school years, before he became an NFL Star and started his “take a knee” protests. In fact it’s a sort of manifesto with the older Kaepernick using his younger self to illustrate how he came to hold his present views about systemic racism and chose to express them, at the risk of his career.

Unlike many of the African American players he would play professional football with, Kaepernick wasn’t from a big city or urban ghetto. He says in the first episode, “I was born in Wisconsin, a place known for dairy farming and a scarcity of black people. But I grew up in Turlock, California, a place also known for dairy farming and, you guessed it, a scarcity of black people.” That scarcity extended to his family: he had been adopted by a white couple who had lost two of their four children to congenital heart disease.

The series mixes significant scenes from Kaepernick’s teenage years (recreated with Jaden Michael playing Colin) with on- and off-camera commentary from Kaepernick and unconventional breaks in the fourth wall, where Kaepernick enters a scene or actors step out of the screen to join him.

For example, he connects selection for professional sport with slave markets in the past. The players being measured and tested for their physical prowess step into the studio with him and arrange themselves in shackles on slave-market podiums.

Comparing professional sports with slave markets.

Coming of Age
Kaepernick and Duvernay (Selma, As They See Us) created and wrote the series together. When Kaepernick originally discussed the idea, Duvernay assumed it would be covering his sporting trajectory and that career-changing moment in 2013 when he first “took the knee” during the national anthem before an NFL game, to protest against police brutality to African Americans. But Kaepernick wanted to focus the series on his coming of age, or as Duvernay puts it, "The foundational elements of becoming who you are, the making of a singular American icon, the making of a justice warrior – what are the things that make that up? And really it's the small things."

There are multiple examples of those small things, the microagressions that isolated him and made him feel different.

His parents are portrayed as torn between helping their son and following societal norms. In the first episode, the young Colin is desperate to connect with his heritage, and emulate his NBA hero Allen Iverson by getting his hair braided into cornrows. His mom finds probably the only hairdressers in town where it can be done, trying to hide her discomfort in a place where she doesn’t know the cues. But when his coaches insist he has his hair cut short, she and his father fall into line, saying the basis of sport is obeying coaches, even if what they’re asking is obviously unreasonable.

Mary-Louise Parker playing Kaepernick's mother, with Jaden Michael playing Colin.

When Colin believes he’s been overlooked for a place on his high-school varsity team through racism, his dad won’t challenge the school. But he manages to get Colin onto a prestigious summer coaching programme instead.

Jaden Michael playing the young Kaepernick getting his hair in cornrows for the first time.

Jaden Michael explains, "The story really isn't about, why did Colin take a knee? It's about, why would someone take a knee? What are the situations that would put a young person onto a path where they would be the rebel and leader to take a knee in the future?"

Kaepernick’s choice of his conscience over the dictates of a multi-million-dollar sports industry effectively ended his career. He has not played a professional game since the end of the 2016 season. But his gesture has been taken up by players and teams around the world. Kaepernick is involved in lots of youth work, encouraging kids from underprivileged backgrounds to fulfil their potential. He continues to train almost daily in the hope that one day he can resume his sports career. But if Colin in Black and White is anything to go by, with or without and NFL contract, Kaepernick finally feels comfortable in his skin.

Colin in Black and White
Available on Netflix


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