By Richard Ades
Kaepernick & America, a new documentary on blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, points up an ironic fact: When the then-San Francisco 49er began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, he saw it as a way of protesting America’s racial injustice without disrespecting its flag.
Earlier, Kaepernick had simply remained seated during the anthem to speak out against incidents of police violence against Black men. But then Nate Boyer—a 49ers fan who’d served as a Green Beret—sent Kaepernick an open letter saying he considered this a hurtful act. The two met, and Boyer suggested taking a knee as a more respectful way of getting his point across.
So Kaepernick began dropping to one knee, only to be booed by fans—and by a presidential candidate who never missed a chance to foment anger, particularly against people of color. The quarterback’s career soon came to an end.
Directors Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow interview several people who speak about Kaepernick on several levels: as a star quarterback who felt called upon to risk censure for the sake of his beliefs; as a person of mixed race and cultures, with all the additional pressures that entailed; and as the perfect foil for Donald Trump, who riled up supporters by saying team owners should fire any player who refused to stand for the flag.
Among the interviewees are CNN news anchor Don Lemon; Hue Jackson, one of the few Black men who’ve coached NFL teams; and DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist. Others include April Dinwoodie, an authority on transracial adoption, who theorizes about how Kaepernick might have been shaped by his personal history as a mixed-race child who was adopted and raised by White parents.
One person who isn’t interviewed is Kaepernick himself, who no longer seems interested in commenting on the controversy he inspired. It’s therefore understandable that he appears only in archival footage, but it’s also disappointing. His absence may leave viewers feeling they don’t really know the man who was willing to pay such a high price simply for exercising his right to free speech.
On the other hand, viewers will be all too familiar with the picture of America the film presents: one in which angry White men with guns use Kaepernick’s No. 7 jersey for target practice. We recognize this picture because it bears such a close resemblance to the America we still live in.
One commentator predicts that Kaepernick eventually will be seen as someone who—like the late Muhammad Ali—took an unpopular stance that ultimately was seen to be the right one. That note of optimism seems particularly justified following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, with its new and lethal twist on “taking a knee.”
If that reconciliation ever happens, it may be of some consolation to Kaepernick, but it still won’t bring back his career.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Kaepernick & America will be available through streaming outlets beginning Sept. 2.