Former NFL quarterback turned professional lightning rod Colin Kaepernick has a story uniquely well-suited to being adapted for a deep-pocketed prestige streamer like Netflix. Rather than fade into obscurity in the five years since he was last invited to join an NFL franchise, Kaepernick has become an even more potent (and still unlikely) symbol of America’s roots-deep racial injustice. Especially since not much has changed — these days, county school boards are routinely harangued about critical race theory thanks to the same white fragility that fueled a backlash against Kaepernick’s silent, kneeling protests back in 2016.
Kaepernick’s saga sounds like an ingredient list for a spicy, topical docuseries to join what feels like a new golden age of sports documentaries. But Kaepernick wanted to tell his story as a scripted drama focused on the formative high school years when his athletic evolution dovetailed with the awakening of his Black identity. The result, “Colin in Black and White,” is a provocative, ambitious, and frequently messy execution of Kaepernick’s already unexpected pitch. As developed by Kaepernick, co-creator Ava DuVernay, and showrunner Michael Starrbury, “Colin” is at once a coming-of-age tale, an anti-racism polemic, and a flipbook of Black history memes.
That description might ring familiar to fans of Kenya Barris, who spun “Black-ish” off into its own constellation of sitcoms and later landed his own lucrative Netflix deal. “Colin” parallels “Black-ish,” often to the point of deliberate homage, up to and including elements of the score. Like Barris’ work, “Colin” explores race in America by braiding the political and the personal, using funny, human stories to better illustrate the causes and effects of our most durable quagmire. And Kaepernick has a unique perspective to offer to that conversation as a biracial kid born in Milwaukee, then raised by white adoptive parents in small-town California.
Kaepernick steps into the role of omniscient narrator in voiceovers that start out shouty and stilted but smooths out by the end of the limited series’ six half-hour installments. Also, like, “Black-ish” before it, “Colin” offers heaping helpings of documentary-style historical montage to connect Kaepernick’s current struggles to his past struggles, and more broadly to how Black people are treated in America. Kaepernick regularly interjects with tidbits of information like the etymology of the term “micro-aggression” and the history of the “doll test” invented to measure feelings of marginalization in Black children.
The framing device essentially makes Kaepernick the curator and tour guide of a museum about his life. He appears in each episode, dressed to the nines, to reflect on his life and Black oppression in a cavernous space resembling a Brutalist panopticon. And while it’s no fun to criticize such an earnest and deeply personal project, Kaepernick’s segments threaten to derail “Colin” before it reaches speed. For one thing, the brief historical lessons suggest that its creators don’t know who the show’s audience is. Someone interested enough in Colin Kaepernick circa 2021 to watch a series about him almost certainly knows what a micro-aggression is and doesn’t need a primer on structural racism.
At least, not a primer on structural racism from Kaepernick, who despite his legitimate quarrel with his treatment by the league (to say nothing of the former president), is still someone for whom justice represents an eight-or-nine-figure football contract. Kaepernick’s pivot to activism was based on protests in which he used his outsize platform to call attention to everyday Black people with a mortal fear of police interactions. He means to do the same thing here: One episode features a vignette on Kelley Williams-Bolar, a Black Ohioan who was sentenced to prison for fudging documents to get her kids into a better school district. But once the show pivots back to young Colin’s teenage trials, it feels like a less privileged person’s story being leveraged to add weight a more privileged person’s story.
Shame then that “Colin” works well at its least ambitious, when it’s just an attractively shot and well-acted biographical sitcom. Jaden Michael is excellent as a young Colin. He wrings all the pathos out of Colin’s adolescent wounds: discovering natural hairstyles only to be forced to comport to racist team rules; being profiled by hospitality staff while traveling for games; and struggling to relate to his happy-go-lucky white parents. Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman are typically solid as Teresa and Rick Kaepernick, and the show portrays them with a refreshing complexity. There’s never any doubt that Colin loves and appreciates his parents, or that their obliviousness to racism exacerbates his alienation.
Many of the acted scenes are frothy and funny but still nuanced, similar to the work of bio-com creations of Nahnatchka Khan (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Young Rock.”) But once “Colin” gets humming in those conventional scenes, Kaepernick scoots back in with a slide deck. Occasionally the high-concept approach works perfectly, as in the fourth episode, which invokes Romare Bearden, who excelled at football and baseball before becoming a celebrated visual artist. More often, the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts precisely because of an experimental streak that represents Kaepernick’s vision as much as that of DuVernay, who directs alongside such legends as Robert Townsend and Kenny Leon.
With that much talent on both sides of the camera, it’s worth sampling “Colin in Black and White,” for anyone interested in Kaepernick’s life or the thorny questions raised by his NFL exile. But “Colin” triggers that unscratchable itch that comes from a television show as easy to admire as it is hard to love. There’s still a great story to be told from Kaepernick’s life, but “Colin” feels like wasted potential.
“Colin in Black and White” premieres Friday, Oct. 29, on Netflix.