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Review: ‘Colin in Black & White’ Finds Kaepernick Before He Took a Knee

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Even if you don’t watch football, you probably know Colin Kaepernick. You likely have seen images of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback kneeling through the national anthem, a protest against racism that spread among athletes in many sports. You may have seen him as a hot topic on cable news, a target in political rallies or an icon in Nike ads.

The season when Kaepernick began his protest, in 2016, was his last in the N.F.L. — he and others have accused the league of blackballing him — but he has become more famous in not playing the game than he ever did on the field.

So it might surprise you how little screen time that part of Kaepernick’s life takes up in “Colin in Black & White,” which arrives Friday on Netflix. A quick montage in the third episode shows the athlete being trashed by Fox News commentators and former President Donald Trump. (Kaepernick’s 2019 settlement with the N.F.L. included a confidentiality agreement.)

Instead, the “Colin” of the title is Kaepernick as a high school athlete, whose road to football and discovery of his identity are the main subjects of this earnest but breezy docudrama.

If you react to the word “docudrama” the way I do, this is where I should tell you to stick with this one. The genre conjures up memories of clunky Frankenfilms that shoehorn wooden, expository re-enactments into heavily voiced-over real-life footage. These works fail at the “-drama” part, taking the “docu-” down with it.

Kaepernick and his co-creator, Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), instead give us a fresh, entertaining take on the genre that emphasizes character and story as much as message. Most of the six-episode limited series is a scripted coming-of-age reminiscence about young Colin (Jaden Michael), growing up biracial with two white adoptive parents, Rick (Nick Offerman) and Teresa (Mary-Louise Parker), in small-town Turlock, Calif.

A talented multisport athlete, Colin has his pick of baseball scholarship offers but really wants to play football, though coaches worry that he’s too gangly and fragile. He also wants the stuff other teens want: popularity, friends, a date. But this typical tale is complicated by his dawning awareness of his difference in a milieu that a white friend calls “Whitey Whiteville.”

His co-star is the adult Kaepernick, who narrates vignettes that connect his young experience to America’s racial history. The first compares the N.F.L. “combine,” where would-be pros are prodded and assessed by coaches, with slave auctions, where human bodies were likewise inspected, measured and objectified. “They say they want you to be an animal out there,” he says. “And you want to give them that.”

DuVernay shoots the scene with piercing directness. Players appear to step out of a viewscreen and into a living diorama of an auction block. Kaepernick is suited in all black and gestures with a notebook, like an activist professor-deacon.

While Kaepernick’s later protest gets only a brief mention, it informs the whole narrative. “Colin in Black & White” speaks loudest in the distance between the young Colin’s dreams and the adult Kaepernick’s indignation.

The effect is less like documentary than a socially minded network-TV sitcom, in the mold of “black-ish” or the new “Wonder Years.” (Although whether this particular show could have aired on network TV is questionable, considering that ABC once shelved an episode of “black-ish” that touched on Kaepernick’s protests.)

Kaepernick, a creator and executive producer, also appears in the series.Credit…Netflix

The series can be sitcom-y to a fault, with its riffs on Teresa’s cooking and Rick’s fondness for Christian rock, though Offerman and Parker ground their characters well. But its treatment of race in family, school and sport is more nuanced.

Colin’s parents are fiercely supportive and protective of his ambitions, and they’re regularly reminded of how the world can view white parents with a biracial son. (On a baseball road trip, a stranger asks them what country Colin is from. He was born in Wisconsin.)

But they’re not entirely prepared for the specifics — the first episode involves finding a Black stylist to put Colin’s hair in cornrows — and they sometimes ignore or rationalize the double standards he increasingly encounters. When a coach demands that Colin cut his hair, citing a rule that does not seem to apply to white players, they defend the decision. “You look like a thug,” Teresa says.

Colin chafes against these slights with a teenager’s sense of injustice, though he shows little sign of being a budding protester so much as a competitor who wants his shot. He’s a composed, driven kid, good-natured and popular, who knows what he wants and learns to weather disappointment. Michael is a gem, giving the young Colin an easy charm and vulnerability that contrast with the media images of Kaepernick as either demonized or iconized.

Of course, as the adult Kaepernick’s presence reminds you, this is autobiography, not an outside assessment. It’s showing you its subject the way that he wants to present himself, and it has a definite thread of self-justification.

But in the end, its tone isn’t tendentious so much as encouraging, even sweet, and hopeful in a hard-earned way. It’s an argument, but not necessarily the kind you’d expect. It seems less to be aimed at persuading or refuting Kaepernick’s older critics than to be speaking to the next generation of kids like him. (Indeed, the generally wholesome tone is closer to that of a young-adults’ show than that of a gritty streaming series.)

That this message comes from someone whose football career seemingly ended after he put his own power to use is left unspoken in this open-eyed but optimistic series. “Colin in Black & White” may not be the story that you were expecting about Kaepernick’s protest. But it shows how much he loved the sport he risked being driven out of when he took a knee.

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