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Every few years, a certain segment of America remembers racism. The news jerks them out of a fabricated post-racial stupor and inspires a bundle of emotions: guilt, anxiety, fury. What they do with these feelings often becomes more the subject of headlines and analysis than the precipitating event.
It’s a curious cycle, one that Tommy Walker (Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, God Grew Tired of Us) and Ross Hockrow try to make sense of in their elementary documentary Kaepernick & America. Their earnest efforts might turn off viewers already attuned to the cycles of America’s racial amnesia, but the doc works as a primer for the uninitiated.
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At this point, most people are familiar with the vague outlines of Colin Kaepernick’s story, but when the NFL quarterback began protesting police brutality in the summer of 2016, few noticed. It wasn’t until the fall of that year, when his then-teammate Eric Reid joined him, that the country paid attention. Kaepernick’s rationale was unambiguous: He refused to support a nation that brutalized and oppressed Black people. Some media outlets, NFL fans and elected officials took offense to Kaepernick’s actions. They labeled his activities “un-American” — a grave insult in a country obsessed with its innocence — and aggressively went after him.
The ferocious reaction to Kaepernick fascinates Walker and Hockrow; their documentary is an investigation into the conditions that led to such a response (although it’s easy to guess what they were). They start with a study of Kaepernick, the person. The documentary somewhat tediously runs through the athlete’s upbringing and his ascent to and within the NFL. The details presented will sound familiar to fans, casual spectators or anyone who has seen Netflix’s Colin in Black & White: Kaepernick is a biracial (half Black, half white) adoptee of a white family. He grew up in suburban California and played baseball, football and basketball, excelling in all three sports. His relationship to race developed slowly, a process that April Dinwoodie, a consultant and self-described transracial adoptee, contextualizes for viewers. Kaepernick himself does not appear in the doc.
Kaepernick & America frequently feels like a hagiography of a man whose name and likeness have become symbolic with protesting anti-Black violence — the kind of film Americans use to soothe their racial anxieties. Walker and Hockcrow go to great lengths to explain Kaepernick’s career, establishing for unfamiliar viewers just how popular he was before his protests. The doc takes a more interesting turn when the directors also examine the role of quarterbacks within the NFL — what players in this storied position represent in the league, and therefore the American imagination. Before Kaepernick took a knee, he was already undergoing extensive scrutiny as a promising Black quarterback. The coded language from excerpted news clips suggests a general skepticism toward his presence and skills.
With the help of a handful of commentators, Walker and Hockrow make a relatively smooth transition from biography to analysis. CNN anchor Don Lemon (one of the doc’s producers), coach Hugh Jackson, DeRay McKesson and the journalists Steve Wyche and Pam Oliver offer their takes on Kaepernick, his actions and his legacy. Wyche’s testimony is especially useful: He was one of the earliest reporters on Kaepernick’s protests, and helpfully places the quarterback’s actions within a history of athlete demonstrations.
Where the documentary falls flat is in its gratuitous use of footage of recent police murders. The sounds of bullets released from gun barrels and the screams of the Black victims form a deafening, unsettling and ultimately detracting soundtrack against which the film delivers its at times basic analysis.
At its best, Kaepernick & America affirms the illogic of white supremacy and testifies to the power of political education. News clips from the years before Kaepernick’s protests show NFL fans (usually white) enthusiastically brandishing the quarterback’s jersey and singing his praises. They appreciate his confidence and even celebrate the move in which he kisses his bicep after a touchdown. They call it Kaepernicking. There are a few detractors — commentators who struggled to, in their words, take Kaepernick seriously — but overall support for and confidence in him are high. After he starts taking the knee, they turn on him. A diner in his hometown of Turlock, California, discontinues a specialty sandwich in his name; former fans make videos punching puppet figures in his likeness.
The shift is swift and punishing, but Kaepernick is undeterred. In the backdrop of conversations about his protest, about its meaning, about its supposed disrespect, Kaepernick is undergoing a political education. The quarterback refuses to ignore America’s abuse of Black people. In early interviews with the press, he is clear and concise: “There’s people being murdered unjustly and people not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right.” He reiterates that he doesn’t care about approval, and he understands the implications of his actions. If we take a step back, we can see the faint outlines of another, more urgent, narrative thread in Kaepernick & America — one that encourages an all too rare kind of integrity and commitment to creating a more just world.
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