There’s a moment early on in Colin in Black & White when the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who made headlines in 2016 for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality, and who has since become an activist for those causes, contemplates his younger self. “What you start out as,” he says to Jaden Michael, the 18-year-old actor who portrays Kaepernick’s younger self in Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix docudrama, “is not necessarily who you become.”
Michael, who grew up in New York City, has had many different starts. He started off doing children’s ads for Toys R Us. He’s given speeches to the United Nations for World Children’s Day and was part of the UNICEF Global Kids Council. But one thing has been a constant in his life: art.
“Art has always been around me,” he tells me from his home, in New York. Almost everyone in Michael’s family plays an instrument—his mother was a pianist, and his grandmother had a fascination with classical music and art. “I see my acting through music,” he says. “I use music to develop my characters.” (A good score certainly helps—the music in Colin in Black & White, with tracks ranging from rapper Missy Elliott’s “Work It” to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” gives the series an addictive pulse.)
Michael got his start in film on small projects. (His first feature role was in the science-fiction movie Found in Time.) It was also around then that he started attending film festivals, cultivating a love for movies, and differentiating between “sitting in front of the camera and smiling, and actually trying to create a character and feel something,” he says. He’s since celebrated five consecutive birthdays on various film sets and is now preparing to apply to college as he finishes his senior year of high school.
Michael, who has had parts in Wonderstruck and Paterson, likes to look for characters that bring him back to his roots. (His mother, a former financial analyst, is from the Dominican Republic, and his father is from Antigua.) It isn’t always easy. “The truth is, there aren’t enough Latinx projects for me to do,” he says.
His latest role sees him starring alongside Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker, who play Kaepernick’s parents in the fictional portions of the docudrama. The series stars Kaepernick himself, too—the activist also writes and produces—and tells the story of his growing up with adoptive parents in Northern California.
This was the first time Michael had taken on a real-life character. “At first it was a little daunting because I was afraid of not being Colin enough,” he says. “It was difficult trying to separate the legend I know and create this completely different character. By the end, I think the Colin I created was a sort of innocent, blank canvas, just waiting to be impressed by social injustice and other aggravations that he sees in the community and society.”
The series, now streaming in full on Netflix, isn’t meant to vindicate or glorify Kaepernick, nor is it meant to re-ignite the debate surrounding his actions, which some viewed as unpatriotic and others as worthy and necessary. In Michael’s eyes, the show’s goal is meant to inform.
While on set, a crew member admitted to Michael that he disagreed with Kaepernick’s politics and had considered leaving the project, but upon watching Michael portray Kaepernick, the crew member altered his stance. “You want the audience to feel something and feel change and feel motivated or moved,” Michael says. “That’s all I want.”
Colin in Black & White is available on Netflix
Jacob Robbins is an Associate Editor for Air Mail