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New Netflix series on Kaepernick is a ‘springboard’ to conversations on race, privilege
Amna Nawaz: Well, the acclaimed film director Ava DuVernay, who's behind projects including "The 13th," "When They See Us," and "Selma," is now the force behind a powerful new series.
It's called "Colin in Black & White," available today on Netflix. And it tells the coming-of-age story of a young Colin Kaepernick, years before he became a quarterback in the NFL and a leader in the fight for racial justice.
I sat down with DuVernay and the show's young star this week to discuss what the series teaches us about Kaepernick and what it reveals about us as a society for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Colin Kaepernick, Former National Football League Player : Since the day I was born, my passion, my love was being in a quarterback.
Amna Nawaz: It's the story of a young Colin Kaepernick in his own words, the years before he went on to quarterback the University of Nevada team, before he led the San Francisco 49ers for six seasons, and before his historic sideline protests against racial injustice.
The real Kaepernick narrates looking back at young Colin, played by 18-year-old actor Jaden Michael.
Colin Kaepernick: What you start out as is not necessarily what you become.
Amna Nawaz: The idea to focus on his early years, and serve as guide of his own story, was Kaepernick's himself, DuVernay told me when we met up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this week.
2017, Colin Kaepernick comes to you and says, I want to tell my origin story. I want to tell the story of my adolescent years, of how I became to be the person I am today.
What does he say to you?
Ava DuVernay, Director/Screenwriter: It was a conversation amongst people who felt connected by certain issues that we both are in agreement with, issues of justice and dignity for all.
And so, really, I think what he was saying was that he wanted to express himself in a way that allowed people to enter into his story without -- outside the sphere of politics. Maybe the most innocent entry point is that of young people.
And so I thought that was wise. At the moment, I wasn't sure what he was trying to do, and I wasn't sure if I was the right person for it.
Amna Nawaz: Yet, as he told her about his early life, being a biracial kid who was adopted by two white parents...
Actor: You two good?
Nick Offerman, Actor: Fine, thanks.
Jaden Michael, Actor: Yes, I'm good too. Thanks.
Amna Nawaz: ... growing up in a primarily white town, and struggling with a place that didn't regard him as black, she decided:
Ava DuVernay: All those things became really interesting to me as a springboard into larger conversations about race, identity, respectability, privilege. So that's what we did.
Amna Nawaz: The unusual blend of documentary, narrative, a graphic sensibility was her call.
Ava DuVernay: The opportunity was to take the story and kind of scramble it up using different formats, different styles to activate something new.
Amna Nawaz: Part of that something new was taking a chance on casting Jaden Michael, unknown to most of the audience.
Nick Offerman: Mom said your baseball coach called.
Jaden Michael: About what?
Nick Offerman: They want you to cut your hair.
Jaden Michael: What?
Nick Offerman: You have to cut your hair if you're going to stay on the team.
Jaden Michael: You're joking, right?
Mary Lousie Parker, Actress: It's a team rule, Colin.
Jaden Michael: A team rule.
Nick Offerman: It makes sense. Truth be told, you do look unprofessional.
Jaden Michael: Unprofessional? Why am I supposed to look professional? I'm 14. I'm a kid.
Amna Nawaz: Why him? What was it about him that spoke to you?
Ava DuVernay: We needed someone who could be in every single scene of the series and have the chops to be able to hold the center of the frame.
And that's a tall order, a kid, three sports, and can act his patootie off. It was tough to find. And we got this tape from this kid in New York. Not just casting for talent here. We had cast him for spirit, gumption, some kind of gusto, something that the kid has that goes beyond a child actor just doing his job, but someone who's really going to immerse themselves in the characters, like an adult actor.
Amna Nawaz: Six auditions and self-tapes later and with his mom serving as his reader of the other characters' lines in the script, Michael dove into the part.
Jaden Michael: I had a callback via Zoom with Ava DuVernay, and they're on my laptop in my living room. It was...
Amna Nawaz: What is that like?
Jaden Michael: Oh, my God. I screamed into my pillow as soon as I finished it. I'm like, oh, my God. Ava DuVernay was on my computer.
Amna Nawaz: Michael got the gig and, with it, the chance to help tell the story of a sport superstar who changed the conversation on America's history and legacy of racism.
Was that intimidating in any way?
Jaden Michael: It was intimidating in a lot of facets. For me, it was intimidating from a creative perspective, because I knew, if you get him wrong, all of your mistakes are going to be highlighted, because not only is it a real person, but the real person is sharing the screen with you.
The polarizing issue here is right in your face. It's in the title. It was scary at first. I was afraid of what my family, what my friends, what the people around me might think of me, or -- but I realized, like, hey no, that's that's the reason why we should make this project.
It's so that we can have this conversation, and so that we can -- if I feel afraid to be who I am around the people around me, in my society, then I need to make this show.
That lady downstairs, she just rolls up on me and jabs me in the back. And for what? For nothing.
Mary Louise Parker: You're talking about the manager.
Nick Offerman: She thought you were a vagrant.
Mary Louise Parker: Is that really what's bothering you?
Jaden Michael: I don't know. Sometimes, I just feel uncomfortable?
Mary Louise Parker: I don't think anyone is trying to make you feel that way.
Amna Nawaz: Do you remember hearing about him protesting and what you thought about it at the time?
Jaden Michael: Oh, yes. I was watching it on TV.
I felt that how polarizing the subject was. I felt the feud amongst people in the streets and people in my family or the people around me.
There was something really powerful about risking your career for someone else that I found deeply respectable. I kind of fell in love with him from that day forward.
I'd known about his NFL career, because my family's huge sports people. It takes a lot of bravery to stand up for someone else and use your platform for change.
Amna Nawaz: One of the final scenes leaves young Colin behind and brings the audience to now.
Colin Kaepernick: Growing up with white parents, I moved through life with their audacity of whiteness. I assumed their privilege was mine. I was in for a rude awakening.
Man: The backlash is growing against Colin Kaepernick after the 49ers quarterback refused to stand during the national anthem at a game played last Friday.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News: Who knows what Kaepernick thinks, or why, or why he's so unhappy.
Man: Colin, here's my salute to you.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY): Not standing up for "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the wrong way to protest.
Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He's fired. He's fired!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Tucker Carlson: This is an attack on the country.
Woman: He's un-American, and he doesn't deserve to be in our country.
Man: All lives matter.
Amna Nawaz: He clearly loves to be a quarterback. He even has this -- a few lines when he says, I was born to do this.
And yet, there is this sport that is not allowing him a place. And I guess I wonder if you think we will ever see Colin Kaepernick in the NFL again.
Ava DuVernay Oh, it's up to the NFL.
This is a diseased, racist institution that has blackballed him. So the decision rests with them. There's no other assumptions or conversation that's really formative or constructive.
Amna Nawaz: The series is dedicated to -- quote -- "the underestimated, the overlooked, and the outcast. Trust your power."
Colin Kaepernick: I couldn't rebel because I didn't know how. But now?
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