The title of Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow’s rousing, thought-provoking new documentary, Kaepernick & America, is sure to awaken vivid memories for anyone who pays attention to the cultural temperature of the country—how quickly it can reach the boiling point, and how it takes its time cooling off.
And more importantly, the way meaningful discussions about racial justice and truth can get swept aside in the heat of the moment when there’s a mass-media circle jerk in progress.
Football standout Colin Kaepernick—half-Black, half-white, adopted as a child by a white family from Turlock—went from being the star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers to a political punching bag in the middle of the stormy presidential year of 2016. It’s the type of story Americans never get tired of, because it’s about who “we” are, how we got that way and what, if anything, we’re going to do about it.
Co-directors Walker and Hockrow don’t spend much time on Kaepernick’s youth in the Central Valley, other than to note that his status as a “transracial adoption” didn’t bother admirers such as 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who staked his reputation on “Kap.” The scrambling quarterback took the Niners to the Super Bowl in 2013, and soon became the public face of luxury car maker Jaguar, as well as an NFL headline-grabber.
Like the similarly star-crossed football hero O.J Simpson—subject of the eight-hour ESPN Films biodoc, O.J.: Made in America, another must-see—Kaepernick attracted his share of haters. Rightwing TV frothers seemed especially aggrieved by Kap’s tattoos (“Must make the guys in San Quentin happy”). But after all, American sports history is full of Black athletes who upset white supremacists by their very existence. Kaepernick wasn’t satisfied. He didn’t know his place. He asked for more.
In common with every socially responsible person in the country, Kaepernick was alarmed and saddened by the never-ending police brutality against Black people. The 2014 murder of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, MO was the last straw. The Black Lives Matter movement came into being, and the national debate played out at top volume on TV and in the streets. Kaepernick brought the issue onto the playing field in 2016 when he remained seated during the national anthem at a preseason game in Levi’s Stadium. Some white fans took offense—just as they had when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their “Black fist” protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Then Kaepernick took a knee at a “Military Night” game in San Diego, and the shit really hit the fan.
Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, one of the doc’s well chosen talking heads—alongside Harbaugh, CNN’s Don Lemon, ex-Raiders-coach Hue Jackson and sports reporters Pam Oliver and Steve Wyche—frames the racist outrage at Kaepernick’s protest in ironic terms: “How dare this Black man do something that we did not give him permission to do?” Predictably, presidential candidate Donald Trump made a meal of the knee-taking, and the same sort of angry white men, who used to lynch uppity Blacks, got drunk and used Kaepernick jerseys for target practice. The 49ers followed suit and fired Kaepernick in 2017. He has essentially been blackballed ever since by NFL team owners, a very white group of conservative rich men indeed.
Colin Kaepernick fell into the gears of the profit-motive machinery, but at least he’s still alive. Many others did not survive the encounter. His sacrifice reminds us of the words of Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Or take this line from I, Tonya, a drama about the frustrations of former Olympic ice skater Tonya Harding: “America, you know, they want someone to love, and they want someone to hate, and they want it easy.” Best wishes to you, Kap.
Streaming, starting Sept. 2.