As I write this, Colin in Black & White (Netflix) is not among the top 10 most-watched shows on the streaming service in Canada. That seems odd, since NFL games are popular here, often drawing close to one million viewers.
Perhaps that’s because in Canada we are naive about professional sports. Or we want to be naive about what we might as well call the sports-industrial complex. Even as the Chicago Blackhawks scandal is unfolding before our eyes, many of us don’t really want to know uncomfortable truths about the sports leagues we follow.
Colin in Black & White does not dawdle on its path to making its point. It’s Colin Kaepernick’s backstory, aiming to explain how and why the NFL quarterback became world famous when he took the knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem in protest against police violence and inequality in his country. A collaboration between Kaepernick and filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma and When They See Us), it opens with Kaepernick wondering aloud about how NFL players are chosen and hired by white coaches and owners. “What’s being established is a power dynamic,” he says. In minutes, there’s an enactment of a slave auction.
Blunt enough for you? In what is a curious hybrid of a show that mostly works well, we get the young Colin’s coming of age story. We meet him (played by Jaden Michael) as a young teen, biracial, devoted to sports and dealing with common or garden-variety teenage issues. He’s growing up in a white adoptive family, and his parents, Rick (Nick Offerman) and Theresa (Mary-Louise Parker), are sweet, well-meaning people, but flummoxed when Colin wants to be, well, more Black. There’s the hair issue, for a start. Colin admires NBA star Allen Iverson and wants to look like him. His mom has to rather awkwardly ask two Black colleagues at work where to get her son’s hair done.
This segment leads Kaepernick to roll the story along with a sidebar about Iverson’s hair, called a “thug” look. There’s footage of Donald Trump talking about “thugs,” and then of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Now, this may sound like a diatribe being inserted into the narrative about the teen years of a sports star, but it isn’t. Kaepernick is an activist and he’s being an activist, not a diatribe-spewing diva.
What’s clear is that he was a natural athlete and excelled in three sports. The series doesn’t boast about this and neither does the adult Kaepernick today. He’s more interested in pointing out that success came with “the white man’s stamp of approval” – and he does so with a certain amount of acid wit and a directness that is disarming. He’s not saying anything earth-shattering and wants you to know that.
The momentum of the six-part series (most episodes come in around 30 minutes) is young Colin’s shift toward football as a career. He could have signed a lucrative baseball contract, but his personal insistence was on football. The issue, however, was that many coaches didn’t see him as quarterback material, not because he wasn’t fast, strong and clever – but because many things about Kaepernick triggered something in coaches and owners. He was, you could say, too clever, articulate and self-aware. He didn’t talk in clichés; he was knowing and had a rare kind of mental energy.
The series is a new kind of TV production, one that could only exist in the streaming world and it’s done in a style that is an emanation from a polarized American society. It inverts the old adage “show, don’t tell,” but of necessity. Both Kaepernick and DuVernay see sports as having deep cultural significance – an arena that seethes with simmering anger while at it simultaneously teems with people delivering bromides and declining to understand anything more than scores and stats. Kaepernick hasn’t played an NFL game since he was informally blacklisted in 2017, and there is huge significance in that. He knows it too, but isn’t aiming to use a sledgehammer to make his point. When he’s blunt, he’s cheerfully blunt, and the coming-of-age drama at its core is rather charming.
If you are unnerved by Colin in Black & White, you are part of the problem. Sports fans, both here and in the U.S., like to see their favourite professional sport both as entertainment and as a handy set of life lessons. You know: Cheaters get caught and setbacks make you stronger. Fans tend to blur out racial, ethnic and other animosities that are part of the infrastructure of the sports-industrial complex. But there is a reckoning coming that can’t be blurred out, and Colin Kaepernick is just the messenger.