“When I was in high school, I felt a lot of emotions,” Colin Kaepernick explains late in the six-episode run of the new Netflix miniseries Colin in Black & White, in which the former NFL quarterback revisits his life as a teenager, where he’s played by actor Jaden Michael. The real Kaepernick, who serves as host for this autobiographical tale, continues, “It was a roller coaster: sometimes fun, sometimes scary. But you know what? I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything.”
This is the kind of sentiment you might expect to find in any TV coming-of-age story. And there are parts of Colin in Black & White that more or less play to the genre’s specifications. The first episode, for instance, revolves around young Colin’s desire to braid his hair like Allen Iverson. Rather than go to a barbershop, he pays the inexperienced friend of a friend to do it. When she runs out of hair grease midway through the job, he has to sit in a shopping mall parking lot with her kid brother — who’s wearing a clown nose as a punishment meted out by one of his parents — with half his hair flying wildly in every direction, the other half braided so tightly it feels like his scalp is on fire. “I was in a hot car with an angry clown,” the adult Kaepernick narrates, à la Dulé Hill in ABC’s very good The Wonder Years reboot.
But the extremely divisive nature of Colin Kaepernick’s story — he started at quarterback for the 49ers in the 2013 Super Bowl, then was blackballed by the NFL only a few years later due to his kneeling protests against police brutality during the playing of the National Anthem — all but demands something less straightforward and feel-good. And that is the goal Colin in Black & White — created by Kaepernick and Ava DuVernay, and run by Michael Starrbury — tries to meet, mostly succeeding along the way.
The miniseries follows young Colin from middle school through his senior year of high school, when only one college would offer him a football scholarship. Large swaths of the show are about his complicated relationship with his adoptive parents Teresa (Mary-Louise Parker) and Rick (Nick Offerman). They are on the one hand extremely loving and supportive, on the other oblivious to how the world treats their biracial son versus how it treats them or Colin’s white siblings.
When his parents give him a pep talk after he’s passed over for junior varsity quarterback in favor of a white classmate whom the coach describes as a “prototype,” Colin tearfully asks, “Why am I always the one who has to prove them wrong?” Teresa replies, “Because you’re the one who’s strong enough to do it,” convinced these are the magic words that will make her son feel better. Instead, he cries, “That doesn’t help at all!”
These scenes are often being observed by the real Kaepernick, who spends most of his time on a set that’s a cross between a museum exhibit and a Star Trek holodeck. He can see whatever the fictionalized Colin is going through, but also conjure up images of key Black historical figures whose struggles he considers relevant to his own story. And he can tweak the reality of what we’re seeing, often to place events in a starker context, like when he transforms a dramatization of the NFL draft combine into a slave auction.
Some of these flourishes weave through the narrative of Colin’s adolescence as nimbly as the adult Kaepernick scrambled through opposing defenses at the peak of his too-brief career. Others land as subtly as Kaep hitting the turf after a Paul Kruger sack in the Super Bowl. But then, the public response to Kaepernick — first as a flawed but frequently brilliant quarterback, and then especially as a peaceful protester whose message was taken wildly out of context — has never been nuanced. So the blunt force of some of the show’s messages feels both appropriate and necessary.
Kaepernick was, like many future pros, a multisport star as a teenager. Several episodes of Colin in Black & White are built around his exploits as an elite pitcher for the high school baseball team, and how he turned down scholarship offers and a chance at being a high MLB draft pick out of high school because he just wanted to play quarterback. (The story arc feels like a retort to all the Kaepernick detractors who insisted his protests proved that he didn’t care that much about football.) In this case, his wide-ranging athletic gifts are viewed as a hindrance rather than a help, both because everyone but Colin wants him to focus on baseball, and because football coaches blame his unorthodox throwing mechanics — which continued to be an issue for him in the NFL — on his time as a pitcher.
The challenges of multidisciplinary excellence are palpable at various points throughout the miniseries. There are moments — particularly in the DuVernay-directed premiere or the third episode, in which Colin endures a series of racist microaggressions while competing in a summer baseball tournament — where the dramatization of young Colin’s life is perfectly complemented by Kaepernick’s monologues and other stylistic conceits. And while Kaepernick is not a natural performer, he’s a striking on-camera presence. The device of showing him reacting to his younger self is often incredibly powerful. But there are also times when the main story and the Kaepernick interjections don’t mix well, each feeling effective on their own but like they belong on different show.
If the real Kaepernick is occasionally a bit stiff, the actor playing him gives a wonderful, vibrant performance. Constantly seeing the real, older version only underlines how well Jaden Michael has captured the spirit of the man he’s playing. Parker and Offerman are also excellent, albeit in more thankless roles that repeat the same couple of notes. Over and over, we see that Teresa and Rick are well-meaning but blind to the specific challenges their son faces, and that they are often among the biggest contributors to Colin’s painful, at times crippling, sense of otherness.
This dynamic is crucial to understanding our protagonist, but also presented in a fairly repetitive fashion with diminishing returns. Outside of a sequence that breaks down the walls between the two Colins, the finale feels like a rehash of arguments the show has long since convincingly made.
Perhaps Kaepernick, DuVernay, Starrbury, and company felt that if they hit certain points often enough and hard enough, the message of what Kaepernick has been through, and what he has tried to accomplish as a public figure, would cut through all the disingenuous political noise around it. The problem is that people have already dug too deeply into their diverging views on him as a football player, an activist, and a man. Colin in Black & White is unlikely to move either side from their position.
There were times with the 49ers where Colin Kaepernick looked like the new prototype for what coaches at all levels would want from their quarterbacks — as lethal on his feet as with his arm. And there were times, even before the protests, where he looked like his game still needed a lot of fine-tuning. Colin in Black & White is similarly inconsistent. It occasionally sometimes stumbles in trying to do too much. Yet the moments when the story and the sociopolitical commentary blend perfectly are fantastic — and suggest just as much possibility as Kaepernick’s QB play at his best.
All six episodes of Colin in Black & White will debut on Netflix on Oct. 29.
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