Colin Kaepernick is a polarizing figure. In 2016, when the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback began peacefully protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at games, responses ranged from enraged to inspired. Some athletes joined in the protest; some former fans burned his jersey. I remember the condescending stare of a classmate as I explained why I supported Kaepernick’s demonstration. Through it all, Kaepernick has appeared unfazed, sticking to his convictions even when the cost included his NFL career. Netflix’s new limited series Colin in Black & White reveals that Kaepernick’s dedication to what he believes is nothing new.
The six-episode series available to stream on Oct. 29 is the co-creation of Kaepernick and celebrated director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th, When They See Us). The series tells the story of Kaepernick’s teen years, when he grew both as an athlete and an individual. Kaepernick must repeatedly decide if he’s going to be true to himself or to who others want him to be, whether it’s how he wears his hair or what sort of future he pursues. It’s a relatable coming-of-age story, but the racial dynamics that Kaepernick confronts make for a more complicated high school narrative. He grew up in the small and very white town of Turlock, Calif., as the adopted child of white parents, so the stakes are high for Kaepernick and the rules of engagement complex.
It’s an important story to tell, and while I applaud Netflix for taking the risk of telling it, I found myself frustrated by production decisions that impeded the storytelling. The series attempts to do too much outside the scope of the main story. At various points in each episode, a two-to-three minute, often highly stylized segment interrupts the action to delve into an influential Black figure or movement or break down ideologies and terms connected to racism. These vignettes combine video, images, animation, and audio in an attempt to robustly illustrate the topic at hand. While I imagine these insertions are intended to complement the main storyline, they disrupt the flow of the central narrative, making the episodes feel disjointed. The first episode alone includes four vignettes, making for an unappealing stop-and-go viewing experience. And while the information provided is excellent, it’s unnecessary: The challenges Kaepernick encounters are already packed full of lessons.
The series also tries to incorporate something akin to Rod Serling’s narration in The Twilight Zone, with Kaepernick providing voice-over and appearing in on-screen segments as a visible narrator. I rarely enjoy narration in narrative storytelling; it often bogs down stories with superfluous exposition or plot reveals that would be better shown than told. As such, I was not surprised when Kaepernick’s narration and stilted delivery only added to the muddled vibe of the series. And his on-screen narrator moments, which include cuts of Kaepernick watching himself in the series, further contributed to the series’ incongruous quality.
Despite all of this, there were bright points across the six episodes. Each episode is helmed by a Black director, with Robert Townsend, famed director of Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats, having the distinction of directing two episodes. The series also bears witness to Kaepernick’s tenacity as someone who consistently values and pursues his truth, regardless of public opinion. In the fifth episode, when a close friend repeatedly derides Kaepernick’s crush on a Black classmate (Crystal) by comparing her looks unfavorably to those of white girls, Kaepernick not only insists on Crystal’s beauty, he also openly pursues a relationship with her. Some may not see that as a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but for the many Black women, myself included, who regularly encounter messages about beauty that don’t include us, having our beauty unequivocally affirmed is significant.
While staying ready for a second stint in the NFL, Kaepernick continues to expand his activism. In 2019, Kaepernick founded Kaepernick Publishing, a space dedicated to promoting writers of all genres who bring diverse voices and perspectives. This month marks the release of the company’s first book, Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing & Prisons, a collection of essays on police abolition edited by Kaepernick. And next spring Kaepernick will release a children’s book he wrote on race and self-esteem, I Color Myself Different. Kaepernick is also providing a platform for content creators of color through his production company, RA Vision Media.
The heated discourse around Kaepernick’s protest has both magnified and minimized him, spotlighting one facet of who he is and leaving everything else out, making Kaepernick more symbol than man. This series mitigates such flattening by adding color and dimension to the Colin Kaepernick that we see today. He was a three-sport scholar athlete who competed at a high level in baseball, basketball, and football while maintaining a 4.0. GPA. I also learned that many considered baseball to be his best sport, and that his pursuit of football, the sport he loved most, was also the sport pursuit that came with the most obstacles. Actor Jaden Michael, tasked with capturing both Kaepernick’s boldness and self-described shyness, does so with ease, skillfully carrying the weight of the story on his “actually-looks-like-a-high-schooler” shoulders.
Notably, the series avoids the white savior archetype. It would have been an easy trap to fall into, as Kaepernick was adopted by white parents (think: The Blind Side), but instead the series opted to portray the complications that can occur in transracial adoptions. There’s never a doubt that Rick (Nick Offerman) and Teresa (Mary-Louise Parker) love their son, but there are gaps in their cultural understanding that prove problematic and potentially dangerous. In the third episode, Kaepernick is pulled over by the police, and it’s painfully apparent that his white parents never gave him the “how to interact with the police as a Black individual” talk. I was terrified for him, knowing that one wrong move could have dire consequences. The complexities of transracial adoptions are numerous and, while some of the series’ attempts to tackle this truth are more forced than others, I’m grateful to the show’s creative team for choosing to address this reality.
Learning more about what Kaepernick overcame to achieve his dream of being a starting NFL quarterback enabled me to better grasp the depth of Kaepernick’s loss when he was forced out of the league. And yet, Kaepernick hasn’t wavered in his commitment to what he believes or the work of amplifying the voices that need to be heard, earning him the support and respect of many, myself included. This series is far from perfect, but it does give audiences the opportunity to understand the source of Kaepernick’s resilience. It’s a character trait that has been honed over time and refined through struggle. Like any skill, it requires practice. And practice? Well, that’s something Kaepernick knows a thing or two about.