Colin in Black & White review: A challenging portrait of the athlete as a young man
Colin in Black & White (TV series)
Long before he took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality — and subsequently sparked a global debate about the role of activism in professional sports — Colin Kaepernick lived a fraught, fascinating life. Netflix's Colin in Black & White, co-created by Kaepernick and Emmy-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, is an uneven but ultimately edifying portrayal of the young athlete's coming of age as a biracial boy growing up in a predominantly white world.
Black & White (premiering Oct. 29) takes an in-your-face approach from the first frame: The series begins with an extreme close-up of the real Colin Kaepernick, who serves as narrator and a sort of emcee throughout the series. He's talking about pro football tryouts, when teams "poke, prod, and examine you, searching for any defect that might affect your performance." On a screen behind Kaepernick, we see a line of Black athletes standing on a football field as a white coach evaluates them. As they stride off the field, those athletes transform into a row of Black men in chains, about to be sold at auction to waiting slaveholders. It's a provocative and jarring opener, no doubt by design. DuVernay, who directed the first episode, and her subject seem to be saying, "If you've already made up your mind about Kap, feel free to move along. Everyone else, let's do this."
The real story begins in Turlock, Calif., a conservative Central Valley city where Colin Kaepernick (Jaden Michael) is finishing up eighth grade. A good student and a gifted athlete, Colin gets along well with his parents, Rick (Nick Offerman) and Teresa (Mary-Louise Parker), a white couple who adopted him as an infant. But high school and adolescence loom, and each of the six episodes focuses on a pivotal period in Colin's growth from sheltered kid to young Black man in the world. Some of the most painful lessons are taught, inadvertently, by Rick and Teresa themselves. When 14-year-old Colin decides to get cornrows — inspired by his basketball idol, Allen Iverson — his parents insist that he cut his hair, telling their son that he looks "like a thug."
Whether choosing a hairstyle or deciding which sport to pursue in college, Colin finds himself bound by the preconceptions and misconceptions others have about who he is and should be. In addition to narrating the story of his younger self, present-day Kaepernick leads viewers through the educational interludes that pop up throughout each episode — including a primer on the concept of microaggressions, and a mini-biography of Black athlete-turned-artist Romare Bearden. At first, Black & White struggles to strike a clear balance between Colin's coming-of-age drama and these interstitial interruptions, which can feel didactic and sometimes disrupt the story's momentum.
But by the third episode — directed by actor-filmmaker Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle, B*A*P*S) — the limited series finds its equilibrium and its strength. "Road Trip" follows Colin and his parents over five weekends of away baseball games in Red Bluff, Bakersfield, Palmdale, and other small California cities where folks aren't used to seeing a Black boy walking around with his white parents. ("Is this man bothering you?" one typically obtuse hotel employee asks Teresa.) Every new town, every new hotel brings with it a new indignity, and young Colin slowly discovers that his parents' privilege — their "audacity of whiteness" — does not apply to him. The standout episode also features what may be the most upsetting moment in the entire series, when Colin, who has a learner's permit, is pulled over while driving the family to his next tournament. After a very tense encounter with the suspicious police officer, Colin is understandably shaken — but Teresa and Rick shrug the whole thing off. "You dodged a bullet!" chirps mom with a chuckle.
It's an excruciating scene — and it's one of many that showcases Rick and Teresa's hurtful ignorance. At first, I found the depiction of Colin's parents almost distractingly distressing, especially since the real Rick and Teresa are very much alive: Man, Thanksgiving is going to be really awkward this year. Parker (saddled with a straw-colored mom-bob wig) and Offerman are almost too effective at conveying a loving, well-meaning couple who are nonetheless woefully ill-equipped to help their son understand what he's going through. But over time, a realization sunk in: Colin in Black & White is not an attack on Kaepernick's parents, it's an honest depiction of the athlete's reality at the time. DuVernay and Kaepernick want to make viewers uncomfortable, because that's as close as many of us will ever get to understanding young Colin's experience.
As difficult as parts of this series are to watch, Michael's captivating performance as Colin is a consistent joy. The 18-year-old actor embodies both the cocky swagger of an athletic prodigy and the profound sensitivity of a boy on the cusp of young adulthood. Like the teenage athlete he portrays, this kid is destined to be a star. Grade: B
A limited series about the coming of age of Colin Kaepernick, before he became a pro football player and activist.