'Colin in Black & White' review: Portrait of Kaepernick as a young Black man

Netflix series from Ava DuVernay charts Colin Kaepernick's road from athlete to activist.

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

The transformation kicks like a mule.

Black football players are being measured, judged, poked and prodded at NFL tryouts as they run, jump, lift weights.

Colin Kaepernick in "Colin in Black & White."

Then those same players are suddenly seen as slaves on the auction block, being measured, judged, poked and prodded by White slave owners.

“Colin in Black & White” has little interest in being subtle. It is a six-part series about Colin Kaepernick’s life as a young Black athlete growing up with White adoptive parents in a comparatively small California town. For the most part it’s about racial disparities, about forming identity and about blatant and subtle prejudices.

Created by director/producer/whirlwind Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “When They See Us,” “Queen Sugar”) and Kaepernick, the show is all sorts of innovative. The mostly black-clad (the dude can wear clothes) Kaepernick narrates and appears on screen as the show moves from dramatic reenactments of his life through history lessons and staged skits.

Although he became famous as a football player, Kaepernick was more successful in high school as a baseball pitcher with major league teams wanting to draft him right out of high school. But Kaepernick wanted to be a quarterback and this serves as the series’ essential and not all that interesting tension. Far more affecting is his gradual awakening to racial oppression.

The young Colin is played by Jaden Michael, with his well-meaning and supportive if square parents played by Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman. When the dramatic scenes work, especially in the opening episode directed by Duvernay, there’s a real family feel. But later episodes can come off too earnest and scripted, veering toward the afterschool special feel of yore.

Things can be jagged — suddenly Colin has a brother and sister in the final episode, and his dad has a job involving… cheese? — but this series is about spirit and perseverance and cultural chasms and race. It’s the sort of thing that should be shown in schools and probably will be, to the benefit of all.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

'Colin in Black & White'