You’re doing a documentary about quarterback turned social justice icon Colin Kaepernick. But Netflix has nailed him down (probably) with an “exclusive rights” deal of some sorts for their “Colin in Black and White” dramatic series, so an interview is hard to get.
That’s not a dealbreaker for the makers of “Kaepernick & America.” Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker focused their film on a timeline of Kaepernick’s journey from Super Bowl quarterback to someone who “took a knee” during the National Anthem before games and became a lightning rod for controversy, a singular protester against racist, trigger-happy policing and eventually a “former NFL quarterback.”
They limited their film’s focus to 2011 to roughly 2020, and interviewed sports figures and sports reporters, a TV anchor, an activist and a civil rights expert.
And they tapped into the vast archive of Kaepernick interviews, press conferences and public appearances, from his ever-smiling days during the glory years of his career, to his silent protest — unheralded until someone tipped reporter Steve Wyche that the San Francisco 49ers quarterback wasn’t standing during the “Star Spangled Banner” in pre-season games back in 2016.
Wyche, now an NFL Network reporter, recalls how he was nailing down that information in the middle of a game that summer, looking up the blowback that Muslim NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf faced for a just-similar-enough protest in the ’90s so that he could ask informed questions about “consequences” of Kaepernick. Which he did.
Kaepernick didn’t back down. Now that image of him taking a knee is cultural current. “There’s power in symbolism” one interviewee notes in the film, and that one professional athlete’s gesture resonated, for fans and haters.
As DeRay McKesson, who became an activist during the Ferguson, Missouri protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown and later befriended Kaepernick reminded him and us, “Once you’ve made someone’s life uncomfortable, expect your life to be uncomfortable.”
There’s a generous sampling of the uproar that broke down mostly on racial lines when all this happened, plainly not a banner moment in the history of American tolerance. And there’s a surprisingly touching interview with Green Beret and one-game long-snap NFLer Nate Boyer, who wrote an open letter questioning Kaepernick, one that led to a meeting and to CK taking Boyer’s advice that “taking a knee” was a more appropriate gesture “of respect” and protest.
That even got right wing sports talker Colin Cowherd’s grudging admiration.
But in our entrenched culture war positions, a single documentary that isn’t going to get in front of the most spittle-spewing red-faced raging eyeballs isn’t going to change a lot of minds.
Still, for a movie that doesn’t have an actual interview with the subject of the film, “Kaepernick & America” isn’t half bad, although the material they have to work with is so thin the co-directors had to pad out their movie with one of the strangest tricks I’ve ever seen in a documentary.
They give CNN anchor Don Lemon, Coaches Hue Jackson and Jim Harbaugh, this or that sports reporter — everybody they interviewed in their movie, this WWE-styled “hyped” “walk-on music” styled introduction — a montage of clips each subject being interviewed or appearing on TV that bolsters their “expertise,” or the fact that they’re media darlings.
It’s kind of ridiculous, but hey, you start doing that and damned if everybody you ask to interview doesn’t say “Yes.” Because if all the world’s a stage, everybody wants a hype man playing walk-music when they sit down.
Rating: unrated, some profanity — rednecks cussing about Colin Kaepernick.
Cast: Don Lemon, Pam Oliver, Steve Wyche, April , Hue Jackson, DeRay McKesson, Jim Harbaugh and Nate Boyer.
Running time: 1:22