Ava DuVernay Tells Colin Kaepernick’s Life Story with a Mix of Documentary and Sitcom

As the binary nature of its title suggests, Colin in Black & White feels split down the middle. Though it’s a reference to the polarized discourse around football player Colin Kaepernick, it also feels indicative of the nearly irreconcilable divide between its two modes of presentation. One has Kaepernick onscreen as a serious presenter, delivering information about both American history and his own life; the other has performers reenact that life as a coming-of-age comedy. The show aims to tie personal experience to the bigger picture of racism in American sporting institutions — and not only in the NFL, which continues to ostracize Kaepernick for exercising his right to protest (he’s not played in a game since 2017).

From Colin in Black & White

In concept it’s a fascinating blend, but the execution under director Ava DuVernay is haphazard. It’s nothing short of surreal to have a show start with a montage which directly contrasts the weighing and studying of Black athletes’ bodies to a slave auction block, and then segue into the tone of sitcoms like Black-ish and Everybody Hates Chris (there are even record-scratch jokes). Colin in Black & White can feel at war with itself. The dramatized half takes elements of Kaepernick’s childhood and ties them to the kind of inequality he would protest as an adult. For instance, it casts a critical eye on the portrayal of Allen Iverson as a “thug” because of his braids, which Colin emulates as a teen. As the young Kaepernick, Jaden Michael is perhaps the series MVP, acutely and charmingly capturing various teenage anxieties and showing the weight of the increased scrutiny that comes with being the one Black kid in his team.

But every time the show begins to find an engaging rhythm, it’s interrupted by a shift to the real Kaepernick watching his life play out on screen before he asks a question like “But what is a thug?” directly to the camera. These PSA segments would be admirable for their confrontational nature if it weren’t for their heavy-handed direction, which undermines their perfectly valid points. It’s not just that it’s didactic; it feels gaudy and even sometimes embarrassing, oversteering so much it can make the truth feel like hyperbole. This becomes even more pronounced when the show swings right back into its sitcom mode. Some episodes, such as the fifth, “Crystal,” almost find a happy medium, but it never quite gets there. At its worst it’s downright baffling, throwing out the most relatable material for a comparatively trite story arc about Kaepernick’s decision to turn down a baseball scholarship.

From Colin in Black & White

Foregrounding Kaepernick as presenter makes sense in theory as a counter to the discourse around whether he has the right to protest or express complicated feelings about his profession. (And his willingness to double down on those beliefs is nothing short of admirable, especially as sports organizations continue to quell any kind of dissent or organized action.) But these moments end up leaning a little too hard on him as a dramatic performer, especially since he must give speeches while roaming the vacuum of an all-grey museum exhibit. Sometimes this space is used to a theatrical effect, with other actors and scenes staged in the background of his monologues, but DuVernay’s direction makes him feel contained. It’s frustrating that the show creates such tension between Kaepernick speaking and the show speaking for itself, ultimately undermining its key player.

Colin in Black & White is now streaming on Netflix.

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