Colin Kaepernick. Just saying his name can invoke a lot of images within your head. The first image is probably him kneeling during the national anthem in September of 2016. Other images may be the throngs of people burning his jersey or the time he very nearly won the Super Bowl. It could even be of all the sponsorships he’s taken as part of being a civil rights activist. Kaepernick & America tries to take all of these images and explain the rationale and the reasoning for why Colin decided to kneel during the national anthem.
This story was huge back when it was playing out in 2016. Even as someone who famously has no idea how the rules of football work, I was aware of what was happening. It was a fulcrum for discussions about the state of how African Americans were treated in the United States and policing. Of all of the documentaries premiering during the Tribeca Film Festival this year, this one has the most publicity behind it. I just wished I liked it more than I did.
Kaepernick & America
Directors: Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow
Release Date: June 9, 2022 (Tribeca Film Festival)
The documentary begins with people burning Kaepernick’s jersey from the San Francisco 49’ers. The film lays it on thick at the very beginning with the hatred many people have towards him. We see dozens upon dozens of people showing animosity over Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. Some people are disappointed in him, some tackle dummies with his jersey on them, and some get into a firing line and rain hundreds of bullets on a scarecrow with an afro on it.
Kaepernick & America is interested in figuring out why Kap’s decision caused such a vocal outcry. We spend the first third of the documentary establishing the man and his upbringing, being a mixed child who was adopted into a white family, to playing in the Super Bowl. It depicts a man who was a rising star in the NFL and… kind of lost it all? I mean he’s still very relevant, wrote a kids’ book, and has a Netflix series, so he never really lost it all, but still.
The documentary spends most of its time turning Kaepernick into a symbol. There’s no denying that his actions were symbolic -because they are-, but the documentary seems to take several intentional decisions to ignore who he is as a person in favor of the message. The segments we have at the beginning showcasing his upbringing and time in the early NFL are the only time we get to see much about him as a human being. We’re only left to speculate on what went through his head at the time. It’s almost as if the documentary is acting like he’s dead. People who knew him talk about him with whistful nostalgia, but he’s very much alive and still very active.
Kaepernick & America frames a lot of the discourse surrounding his kneeling around the idea of white supremacy. People twisted the narrative surrounding Kap almost immediately from being one about raising awareness of police brutality to being about how he hates America and hates white people, which Kaepernick and the person who originally broke the story immediately decry as being false.
We see the documentary take a lot of time to really hammer that point home while also framing the criticism as inherently one of race. The outcry against his actions must be due to systemic racism because of Kaepernick’s heritage. It blankets a lot of the criticisms around Kaepernick as being “it’s just because they’re racist” which seems a bit too simple and convenient of an explanation. Sure, you can contribute a fair bit of it towards racism, but it’s more complicated than that.
I do appreciate how the documentary is able to bring in its experts to discuss him. Whenever a new person is introduced to offer their perspective, viewers are greeted with a brief montage of news articles, audio, video, and pictures of the expert that immediately conveys to you who they are and how they really are an expert in their field. Former coaches, sports reporters, and civil rights activists all appear and offer their two cents, including recounts of the events during the 2016 NFL season in vivid detail.
But at the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of holes in Kapernick & America on how they portrayed Kap. The points made about him were 100% correct. Kap will most likely go down in history as a symbol more than for his NFL deeds and history will ultimately view him as correct in the same way that most other civil rights activists have been. Sadly, the film labors that point repeatedly while making blanket statements about the criticism that skews towards an overtly simplified reading.
It may be a bit too soon to create a documentary surrounding Kap, but it was something that was worth watching. It showed that even six years later, Kap’s message is still powerful and will endure for generations to come.