The athlete and anti-racism advocate, who as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, famously kneeled during the national anthem during NFL games to protest racism and police brutality in America, has brought his point of view to an allegorical, autobiographical Netflix series, "Colin in Black and White" (streaming Friday, ★★★ out of four).
Co-produced with "When They See Us" creator Ava DuVernay, "Colin" mixes fictionalized scenes from Kaepernick's young life as a teen athlete in California with bigger-picture parables and stories about the history of race and racism in America. Kaepernick, 33, appears as the narrator of the series and offers his perspective on significant events from his youth and from American history.
It's an unusual combination of fiction and nonfiction, personal memoir and cultural documentary. Few public figures could successfully pull off this kind of project, especially without seeming to talk down to the audience. He speaks directly to viewers on many occasions, but the writers make enough effort to weave the larger themes into the football player's personal story to make it more of an intimate conversation than a college lecture. It's a show that's educational, thought-provoking and entertaining, not easy to accomplish all at once.
It helps that the real story of Kaepernick's teen years is unique and compelling. Jaden Michael ("The Get Down"), a sweet, sincere actor who evokes his famous alter ego but also adds his own characterization, portrays him as a teen.
"Colin" opens boldly and brutally, as young Black athletes are literally sized up – weighed and measured – by prospective football coaches, in a parallel to a slave block auction. It's a clear bellwether for the tone of the series: unflinching, emotional and in your face.
It begins with young Colin as a high school freshman in the early 2000s, a hugely talented athlete with career prospects in both baseball and football who's desperate to get his hair done in cornrows like his hero, NBA star Allen Iverson. The series follows Colin through his senior year as he confronts racism as the biracial adopted son of white parents in a conservative Southern California town and navigates his status as an athlete.
The series spends a lot of time with Colin's parents Teresa (Mary-Louise Parker) and Rick (Nick Offerman), who are well-meaning but often clueless about race. Teresa tries to find a Black barber shop to give Colin the hairstyle he wants, but later tells him the cornrows make him look like a "thug." Rick pulls strings and drives Colin all over the country to help him secure a football scholarship, but laughs off an incident in which Colin is stopped by a police officer who almost pulls a gun on him. They are loving but flawed, and a consistent theme of the series is how much more comfortable Colin feels when he enters Black homes and spaces as opposed to his own.
Each episode takes on an issue, whether it's Colin's struggle to express himself through his hair, or the microaggressions he experiences traveling around California for his baseball tournaments. Some installments work better narratively than others, but overall the series is far more nuanced than many other pop cultural depictions of race and racism.
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There are times when "Colin" leaves all subtlety behind and makes its points and metaphors jarringly obvious. But where it might be clunky or unwelcome in another show, the message is more important than the story here.
Kaepernick's story has already been spun wildly out of control by the media, his critics and commentators. It's here, with DuVernay's help, that he gets to say exactly what he means.
He can't get much more black and white about it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Colin in Black and White' review: Colin Kaepernick gets raw and real