Talented director, writer, and film producer Ava DuVernay’s career has been on the rise at least since the release of Selma in 2014, continuing to impress with a diverse output including popular television series Queen Sugar, an adaptation of children’s novel A Wrinkle In Time, and the brilliant, timely, and hard-hitting documentary 13th.
DuVernay’s latest production is a television mini-series for Netflix which delves into the early life of athlete and controversial activist Colin Kaepernick, exploring the youthful experiences that contributed to his adult viewpoint and which led to his widely publicised football-field protests. A preview of the first three episodes was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. Unfortunately, on this occasion, DuVernay has failed to live up to her stellar reputation. The early episodes have a worthwhile message, but the delivery falls short. The series is co-produced with Kaepernick himself, directed by a team of five including DuVernay, and co-written by eight individuals sharing the episodes among themselves, including six episodes apiece for DuVernay and Kaepernick. Having the series assembled by a committee might be one reason the project seems vastly disjointed. It starts with the best of intentions and a fairly interesting concept, as well as some intriguing moments, but frequently seems to miss the target, or become plodding and repetitive.
The format of the series may be its most interesting feature. It is essentially a reality-based coming of age story, but one that allows insights and explanations from the child’s future, adult self. Dramatised re-enactments of events from Kaepernick’s youth (with child star Jaden Michael playing the young Colin Kaepernick) alternate with the real, present-day Kaepernick providing commentary on the scenes, or adding personal notes to events seen in the re-enactments, along with occasional animated sequences as embellishment. Kaepernick, on occasion, speaks to the camera, sometimes uses quotes, news footage, or brief demonstrations to make his point, all serving to enhance or explain the scenes from his past. While the commentary often nicely clarifies the point of the dramatisations; other times, it seems a little meandering and pointless.
The adolescent Kaepernick is a Black boy adopted by white parents, played in re-enactments of the past by Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker. The essential issue that plagues their otherwise warm relationship is summed up by Kaepernick in the third episode. Following an excellent, illustrated description of white privilege by W. E. B. Du Bois, Kaepernick comments that, as the son of white parents, he had “assumed that their privilege was his”, but that he was “in for a rude awakening”. The series depicts young Colin’s experiences as they contribute to that awakening.
Director Ava DuVernay introduced the series preview at TIFF by urging viewers to “reflect as you watch this series”, which she had hoped to produce in a way closer to the format of a film, using “cinematic principles and approach to the work” rather than the those of television. She remarked on what an unusual experience it was, due to the fact that the series “is working with a bunch of different forms”. The approach is original and attention-getting, providing needed impact, especially when the content begins to wander.
The first episode introduces the characters and the approach before presenting the first flashback of Kaepernick’s early life. The episode focuses on a seemingly trivial but evocative matter: young Colin Kaepernick’s hair. When teenaged athlete Colin wants his hair styled in the manner of a professional basketball player he admires, Alan Iverson, the film swerves into a side plot about Iverson and the fierce public criticism of his appearance, which was called ‘thuggish’ and ‘sloppy’ and perceived as an act of rebellion. With his parents’ reluctant approval, Colin seeks out a hairdresser who is able to deal with ‘Black hairstyles’, and has his hair braided. The event is played for light comedy, finding humour in the parents’ struggle to understand and accept the ‘urban culture’ that is becoming important to their son. When Colin eventually undoes his braids, his usually loving and accepting parents are vaguely uncomfortable with their adopted son’s hair when it is not very short and inconspicuous – something neither parents nor son associate with race, but the film makes clear what is beneath the surface. This part of the story is told with great sensitivity and depth, aided by digressions into the development of Black urban music and fashion, as well as a brief but insightful history of the use of the word ‘thug.’
The second episode deals with equal opportunity and how it is impacted by race; and the third, with white privilege in all its manifestations. Once again, Colin Kaepernick’s childhood provides background on how the youthful Colin, brought up with the lives and assumptions of white people, first became aware that his upbringing is atypical; that the rest of the world sometimes regards him with suspicion; that his actions are interpreted by different standards than those of his parents. The difference is especially dramatic when it involves new driver Colin being pulled over by a traffic cop for the first time. We see these things alternately through the eyes of a child, the perceptions of his adult self, and the interpretation of various experts, from psychologists to civil rights leaders, leading by the third episode to the matter of Kaepernick’s well-known football field protests. Young Jaden Michael does an excellent job of bringing across Colin’s confusion over identity, his gradual recognition that the world regards and treats him differently than his parents or schoolmates, and his eventual understanding of the reasons behind it all.
What does not come across as well, however, is the attitudes and intentions of his adoptive parents, and the overall family dynamic apart from race. Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker as the Kaepernicks are shown to be affectionate, well-intentioned parents, but are also comically oblivious to any specific concerns a Black child might have living in their mostly white circle, let alone any serious injustices he might face which they would not. Efforts are made to show the audience that they are a loving family, but in contrast to the more genuine and fully developed character of Colin, the parents seem not merely secondary, but a little cartoonish. Even some of the biographical material appears exaggerated. It is understandable that Colin would begin to seek out and emulate Black role models as he gets older, and his mother’s efforts to deal with totally unfamiliar people and places for her son’s sake is both funny and heartwarming; but in some areas, the gap between parents and child is presented as improbably wide. The story crosses the line, for example, when it has Colin chronically dissatisfied with his mother’s cooking over the years, only finding food that pleases him the first time he is given a meal cooked by a Black woman. The idea that there are inborn, race-related preferences for certain types of music or food, regardless of upbringing, was once used as absurdist comedy in films like The Jerk; but in this case, the filmmakers are perfectly serious, to the show’s detriment.
Overall, the series’ message and background data make it worthwhile and informative in spite of its flaws. Ava DuVernay commented at the show’s preview, stating: “I hope you see what we’re trying to say with this piece. Colin Kaepernick and [executive producer] Michael Starrbury and I, it was really important that we communicate what it takes to become who you are; that it’s important to count the steps, and remember the steps. That’s a big part of this show.”
She sums up the theme and intention by saying: “The show is about the making of a singular American icon. What Colin Kaepernick has done, in sacrificing his career to draw attention to police brutality and the oppression of African-American people, is something that can’t be overstated or over-celebrated. Within this piece, we do both. We state the facts of who this man is, and what it took to become who he is, from the earliest days. Because on the steps to becoming who we are, greatness is happening. We can be great in our own lives, in our own ways, and I hope that the show illuminates that for people as well.”
Although the show often falls flat, it also has moments of insight and clarity, and information worth sharing. In this case, good intentions do count for something.