Ava DuVernay is a trailblazer in more ways than one. In 2015, the director became the first Black woman to have helmed a film that received a best-picture Oscar nod: the heart-wrenching Selma, which starred David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. She followed it up with the Oscar-nominated 13th, an eye-opening documentary that draws a line between slavery and modern mass incarceration in the U.S.; became the first woman of color to make a $100 million movie with the fantasy epic A Wrinkle in Time; and had critics in raptures with her faultless limited series about the Central Park five, When They See Us.
Through it all, she’s been eager to open doors for those who’ll come after her, using her distribution company, Array, to support the work of women and people of color. Her impact on the industry has been so significant that in 2016, The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis coined the term “DuVernay Test” to describe a racial equivalent of the Bechdel test which films can pass if “African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than [serving] as scenery in white stories.”
The auteur’s latest project, the six-part Netflix series Colin in Black & White, fits perfectly into her formally inventive, mind-expanding oeuvre. It centers on and is co-created by Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who made global headlines in 2016 when he took a knee during the national anthem of a NFL game to protest racial injustice and police brutality. He inspired many, was scorned by others (in 2017, then-President Donald Trump called on protesting players to be fired) and after opting out of his contract, remained unsigned amidst speculation that he was being quietly blacklisted. He filed a grievance against the NFL, reached a settlement, and has since focused on his activism.
Instead of honing in on this recent chapter, the new show follows Kaepernick through his formative teenage years as the mixed-race adoptive child of white parents living in a small town with a scarcity of Black people. Played by the fresh-faced Jaden Michael, he’s a baseball, basketball, and football star, but struggles to care for his hair without any guidance, is looked upon with suspicion by white authority figures, and is tacitly discouraged from dating his Black crush. As we begin to understand how these experiences shaped his future, the real Kaepernick acts as the narrator, watching the events play out on a screen, providing a wider historical context, and honoring the Black pioneers who influenced him.
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