Who is this co-opting of the activist athlete’s message for, exactly?
I wasn’t alive during the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, and Jim Brown’s stands against violent forms of discrimination. Therefore, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to back down from his principles despite obvious NFL blacklisting makes him the closest my generation has to a genuinely revolutionary athlete. In refusing to stand for the national anthem in the wake of racial discrimination and murder by the U.S. Government, Kaepernick demonstrated he is who certain athletes (I’m looking at you, Kyrie Irving) think they are.
Unfortunately, despite all risks and sacrifices, he found his message quickly co-opted by corporate interests. In short order, Nike started running sales campaigns in his name. Kneeling for the anthem became a hollow act for internet clout. Symbolism replaced action. It didn’t take long for white owners and politicians to realize there was no real threat.
America and capitalism have become so good at swallowing real movements whole and regurgitating them as colorless slogans. Hollywood, in particular, excels at this. Corporations like Disney and Netflix have run highly effective marketing campaigns that turn their entertainment products into culture war markers. They use POC and LGBT folks as mascots and checkboxes. All in the name of delivering hollow, flavorless, focus-grouped to hell products for the entertainment industry’s real audience: 18-35-year-old white liberals.
We see that played out yet again in Colin in Black & White. There’s plenty interesting about Kaepernick’s journey from scrappy high-school QB-wannabe to the Super Bowl-winning dual-threat star for the San Francisco 49ers to political activist firebrand. What we end with, though, feels like a hybrid teen-drama-TED Talk.
Kaepernick is our guide to his own life, introducing us to moments that shaped him. His narration and documentary-like recounting of the history of racism in sports mix with fictionalized teen-drama recreations of Kaepernick’s journey from high school to football star.
Teen Colin, played rather inertly by Jaden Michael, is as easily likable a protagonist as they come. He’s optimistic, self-confident, and constantly proving his white doubters wrong, including his extremely vanilla foster parents (Mary-Louise Parker & Nick Offerman). His jovial nature, however, is continuously put to the test. Instances of racism–micro-aggressions, false assumptions, and direct attacks from many white people he sees every day–grind him down. Several scenarios, such as when an umpire scolds him for bad language while his white teammates swear freely, reflect current and relevant issues in the wider sports world. The show, in a sense, aims to contextualize current racial issues in sports through events in Kaepernick’s life. The message is clear. Discrimination and hate have long been a part of sports.
It’s crucial then to question whether this show… isn’t yet another piece of entertainment in service to white liberals patting themselves on the back.
Theoretically, it could be considered an informative approach, but informative for who? Colin in Black and White presents itself in methodical point-by-point lessons. It feels like in an educational video your substitute teacher might put on for class, but with a bit more pizzazz. It makes it easy to engage in visualized as streaming content America’s favorite thing: to half-pay attention to something while looking at your phone.
All of this is well-meaning, perhaps, but the show disappoints in both its pursuits. First, as a standalone coming-of-age story, it doesn’t hold up. Hardly any scenes emotionally compel or resonant. Black and White wears life lessons on its sleeve while treating its Black protagonist as a crash-test dummy. While Kaepernick certainly faced singling out and rejection, the show’s scenes work like rote machinery from a narrative standpoint. Colin presents as happy and excited. He encounters a white person who puts him down. Dejection follows until his genuineness overcomes the discrimination. It’s a copy-paste job the rest of the way. By Episode 3, I’m not sure who wouldn’t get the point. If there is such a person, why are we wasting our time trying to convince them?
On the other hand, the historical review feels like a Sparknotes lesson on the subject of the day. Kaepernick provides bookends and footnotes on what specific terminologies or definitions mean, providing further context for the sports-industrial complex. That said, hearing him act as tour guide in a cheeky Adam McKay-esque tone is at least entertaining. He uses phrases like “Don’t believe me?” or “Think I’m lying?” highlighting how he must always be ready to convince his white doubters of the truth behind his words. Again though, if we consider ourselves true progressives, socially and economically liberal, and unwavering supporters of equity and liberation, we believed him before we even started Black and White.
It’s crucial then to question whether this show, despite being directed, produced, and created by Black creators, isn’t yet another piece of entertainment in service to white liberals patting themselves on the back. Is Black and White akin to those nicely stylized Instagram tiles all your liberal friends share on their Stories so you can become educated in the easiest and most effortless way possible? Take this six-episode crash course by Ava DuVernay and Kaepernick himself to cure you of your ignorance. Results may vary.
Kaepernick’s life, his stand, and what he did were meaningful because it seemed a launching pad to something greater than him. Now, though, we’re back to square one somehow. Worse, it’s square one as sponsored by Netflix. Perhaps, then, the best we can hope for is Colin in Black and White convinces viewers to turn it off and actually do the work.
Colin in Black and White is speaking out now on Netflix.