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‘We can all be heroes of our own lives’: Ava DuVernay on telling Colin Kaepernick’s story

Ava DuVernay has some advice for teenagers.

The filmmaker, who made history when she became the first black female director to make a movie nominated for the best picture Oscar with the historical drama Selma, has recently spent plenty of time with young people on sets.

In the last few years, DuVernay has made the big-budget Disney adaptation Wrinkle In Time, as well as When They See Us – a Netflix show based on the real Central Park jogger case which saw a group of young, black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman in New York.

Colin Kaepernick in Colin in Black & White. Pic: Netflix
Image: Sports star and activist Colin Kaepernick’s story is being told in Colin In Black And White. All pics: Netflix

Now, she’s turned her attention to the formative years of sports star and activist Colin Kaepernick, who inspired a movement when he refused to stand for the national anthem at an American Football game in 2016 – instead choosing to take the knee, in protest against police brutality and racial injustice.

DuVernay says that making Colin In Black And White has given her a fresh perspective on her own youth.

San Francisco 49ers Eric Reid (35) and Colin Kaepernick (7) take a knee during the National Anthem at an NFL football game in 2016
Image: San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid (left) take the knee during the US National Anthem at an NFL football game in 2016

“Making [the show] got me thinking about my own teenage years and how the things that I went through really shaped who I am now,” she told Sky News’ Backstage podcast. “You just wish you could tell kids, what you’re going through right now matters, it’s important, pay attention, don’t let go.

“So often they’re told that they’re not important, but those moments when you’re a teenager are the most important, they are so important. They are building who you become and how you respond to challenges and triumphs later in life.”

Jaden Michael plays a young Colin Kaepernick in Ava DuVernay's Colin In Black And White. Pic: Arturo Holmes/ Netflix
Image: Director and co-creator Ava DuVernay and Jaden Michael (also below), who plays the young Kaepernick in the series. Pic: Arturo Holmes/ Netflix
Jaden Michael plays a young Colin Kapernick in Colin In Black And White. Pic: Netflix

DuVernay admits she didn’t set out to make a show about Kaepernick’s younger years; it was in fact the former NFL player who brought the idea to her.

“So for me it was an opportunity to say, okay, we can do this if we can use it as a springboard to talk about much more. And so that’s why in the piece you’ll see I’ve directed him in kind of the gallery of his mind, where we go out, we see memories, we see bits of history, we see bits of cultural context on all of these stories of his childhood, so it’s this beautiful pastiche of forms within the show, which was really exciting as a filmmaker.”

The show is not easy to define, as the dramatised version of Kaepernick’s life story is mixed in with him as a narrator in vision making astute points about race and culture.

DuVernay says it’s far more than the tale of one child.

“It allowed us to take the childhood and expand it and to make sure that it had more context and contrast than this just telling a story of a kid – it’s the kid on his way to being the hero, right? And it basically says that we can all be the heroes of our own lives as long as we really pay attention to each step, because every step matters.”

In order to tell Kaepernick’s story, DuVernay set her sights on casting the perfect people to play his adoptive white parents.

Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman play Colin Kaepernick's adoptive parents Teresa and Rick in Colin In Black And White. Pic: Netflix
Image: Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman play Kaepernick’s adoptive parents Teresa and Rick

She hired Parks And Recreation actor Nick Offerman and Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker, an actress who could relate to Kaepernick’s mother on a personal level as she too has an adopted black child.

“They were the exact people that I wanted, I’ve been such a huge fan of both of them,” DuVernay said. “Nick Offerman, I think, is just a brilliant thinker, and it was really interesting because in the United States he has a very particular audience of people who feel connected to him, but don’t necessarily know his politics – he’s a very liberal man, he’s very radical in his view of equity and justice, and so I wanted to really speak to folks who are fans of his that need to hear something new.

“And then Mary-Louise is just really close to the subject matter… There was a beautiful connection there for her personally – the mother in the story handles things very differently than Mary-Louise did, but I think it was illuminating for her, and it was beautiful to have an actor who was that close to the subject matter.”

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While DuVernay directed the show, she says it really is Kaepernick’s baby – and that he was involved throughout every step.

“Colin was a part of the whole process, really kind of over my shoulder for most of it and [was] able to say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t quite like that and I would have done this this way’, which we welcomed all the way up to the end.

“So this is truly a collaboration – his story told in a way that is pleasing to me as an artist to be able to put my name on it, but really tells a story that he wanted to tell.”

Colin In Black And White is out on Netflix now. Hear our review in the latest episode of Backstage, the film and TV podcast from Sky News