'Colin in Black and White': Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick's Series Simmers With Promise

Co-created by Ava DuVernay and former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who silently took a knee during the US national anthem in 2016 in protest of the racial inequality and indiscriminate killing of Black Americans by police — Colin in Black and White,” the limited docudrama series from Netflix, follows its subject as he looks back on his formative years as an adopted, biracial high school and college athlete with his eyes set on becoming a professional quarterback. Through a mixture of cinematic techniques, the duo has crafted a unique take on the coming-of-age genre that simmers with passion and reflection.

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The first episode begins with Kaepernick in direct address to the screen — he describes how potential professional football players are paraded in front of coaches and team owners looking for “warriors and killers and beasts”. This sequence segues into a dramatic reenactment of a slave auction, setting the tone and the thesis of their limited series. As Kendrick Lamar’s “D.N.A.” plays, Kaepernick shares that when he was a kid he just wanted to play football, but over time he would learn there was a system in place that fed Black talent into the capitalist machine. As the series unfolds, we see him come of age not just as a footballer but also into his own social consciousness.

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Kaepernick alternates between narrating the series and adding color commentary to scenes as they unfold, with the younger version of him played with raw vulnerability by Jaden Michael (“The Get Down”). Relocating from Wisconsin to Turlock, CA — both places known for dairy farming and a scarcity of Black people — Kaepernick’s racially illiterate adoptive white parents (Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman) often struggle to understand the specificity of his biracial identity. 

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The first episode tackles Kaepernick’s hair, a now-iconic element of his persona, as he gets it braided for the first time. At first, he finds freedom through the experience and a connection to a community that had long eluded him. But later a whole new set of racist obstacles emerge, from his own parents telling him the cornrows make him look like a thug to unfair rules set up for the high school football team that seems to only affect his specific kind of hair.

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Throughout the show, there are side-story vignettes that set up culture touchstones pertinent to Kaepernick’s life. Some take place as dramatic recreation; others use mixed media animation to tell the stories of men like trailblazing basketball player Allen Iverson or Clive Campbell — aka DJ Kool Herc — who is credited for originating hip-hop music in the Bronx. They also seamlessly weave video footage of white Karens calling the police on Black Americans for racial panic, as well as footage of racial inequality in court cases like Kelley Williams-Bolar, who spent 9 days in jail in 2011 for “boundary hopping” her daughter to a better school district.

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The best episode of the three, helmed by Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”), opens with contrasting footage of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — called the “wrong way to protest” by authorities — with footage of the January 6th raid on the Capital and Trump referring to them as “very nice people.”  While the contrast between white rage as freedom of speech and Black protest as violence is not a new idea, the way Townsend juxtaposes the footage serves as a stark reminder that our nation is built on this shaky foundation and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

Spending the summer driving around the worst parts of conservative California — Palmdale in the Inland Empire, Oroville in the Sacramento Valley, and Red Bluff in the North State — Kaepernick’s understanding of the microaggressions he faces as the only Black kid on his team ramps up as his parents remain oblivious. Having grown up in this kind of rural conservative California, it felt refreshing to finally see these parts of the so-called Golden State exposed for what it’s really like, where the part that’s silent elsewhere throughout the state is said out loud.

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In the most powerful moment of the series so far, both parents decide that the newly permitted Colin should drive to the next tournament, this time in Lancaster. Blaring Ludacris’s “Roll Out” as they pass by the same CHP officer in the same beige minivan his father had waved to many times before, Colin is pulled over. The officer — whose face is obscured by his helmet and large reflective glasses — is immediately aggressive towards Colin and protective towards his parents, asking them if they’re okay. They explain that he is their adoptive son, diffusing the situation. However, their obviousness to the danger their own son was in shows as the mother makes a joke that he just dodged a bullet, with his father chiming in he just got out of his first ticket. They laugh, as a traumatized Colin sits frozen in the driver’s seat, unsure how to feel or what to do next.

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The final three episodes were not screened as part of the festival, but the promise of the first three episodes has me waiting for more. DuVernay and Kaepernick have crafted a hybrid docudrama limited series that is both personal and universal, educational and raw. It gets at the heart of how the general and the specific, family and country, obstacles and accomplishments all work together as the soil in which a person grows into themselves. [A]

Follow along with our full coverage from the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival here.