Kaepernick & America (Review): The Power of a Kneel
Kaepernick & America greatly captures the events before and after Kaepernick’s kneel and, more importantly, what they mean for the bigger picture of America.
Kaepernick & America is a documentary exploring the football player Colin Kaepernick and, more significantly, his famous/infamous kneel during the playing of the national anthem. I don’t think this event needs any introduction, but in 2016, Kaepernick got down on one knee instead of standing when the national anthem was sung before a game to protest police shootings of Black people and other racial injustices in America. This came after instances of him sitting down for the anthem, but then receiving feedback from veteran Nate Boyer that taking a knee would be more respectful… This turned out to not matter, as Kaepernick faced severe backlash for somehow disrespecting the American flag that essentially ended his football career. Featuring interviews from relevant figures like Hue Jackson (who broke the story during Kaepernick’s initial protests) and Boyer, we go through his upbringing, his early career, the surrounding events of America during that time, his decision, and how the American people reacted to it and exposed the worsening divisions and delusions of the country.
Believe it or not, the fact that I even wanted to watch Kaepernick & America at all shows an evolution in my outlook on this whole matter. When the controversy first happened and I caught wind of all the nuances to it, I had what may actually be the most unique reaction possible: indifference. I didn’t see how the gesture could wield any power or carry much meaning, which meant I wasn’t moved by it at all. But I certainly didn’t see it as a form of “disrespect” that was worthy of any form of ridicule, so I just kind of scratched my head in confusion at the wildly extreme reception and fallout it generated. Was one person not standing for the national anthem really such a big deal? Over time, however, especially in the past couple of years, I’ve come to have a much stronger opinion on the issue, largely because of various events and knowledge that followed it in the short and long term. Not only do I now understand why it was empowering to so many people, but my outlook on those who got angry over it went from mere confusion to outright fear at what it says about America.
I say all this to make the point that stances can change on any given issue or topic. In fact, many opinions may be similarly altered simply by watching this documentary. Kaepernick & America sums up everything about where Kaepernick comes from, what his career was like, and what led up to and followed his famous gesture, all in a way that feeds into the larger takeaways that the kneeling was trying to get across in the first place. Even before the protest and outcry, this documentary covers the difficulties that come with having a public career with Kaepernick’s background. I’ve always disliked the nature of celebrity and how media turns human beings into products, and I imagine the psychological toll that it takes to be severe. Now, add on top of that the extra public scrutiny that can come with being Black – even half-Black, in Kaepernick’s case – and his overall appearance, and then how he has to watch what’s happening in the world and feel the constant pressure to not say something that needs to be said… and you feel the frustration that led to his decision. Like a well-rounded character who makes a pivotal decision in a story, Kaepernick & America forms a fluid, fleshed-out narrative around this man, his beliefs, and the setting around him to make his choice feel not just warranted, but inevitable.
Sure enough, when Kaepernick did end up doing something as simple as taking a knee during the national anthem, so many people lost their minds and instantly turned on him. But while that was surprising to see at the time, the buildup to it in Kaepernick & America would have it come across as no surprise even if someone watching somehow knew nothing about the controversy. Because the documentary also lines it up perfectly with the other social and political events happening alongside it, particularly various police shootings and protests, the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, and the growing boldness and sense of empowerment that white supremacists and similar delusional people were feeling. As the documentary points out, that empowerment partially comes as a form of opposition to the attempts at great, meaningful change for a more equal America. One of the most profound statements of the film is that white supremacy is rooted in a worshipping of the past, which means that anything that tries to uproot the status quo is going to face severe backlash. So again, the hatred towards Kaepernick, while terrible, fits into place with that philosophy set up.
Even many who don’t care about racial issues still distort Kaepernick’s message as an attack on the American flag. So many people weren’t listening to what he was actually saying, or maybe even worse, they deliberately misconstrued it to further an agenda (though the fact that this method worked is still a sign of frightening mass ignorance). But the years following the event proved just how warranted Kaepernick’s gesture was, which again is pointed out by the documentary. Kaepernick & America perfectly illustrates how the Kaepernick kneel and its subsequent reactions are one giant microcosm of what’s wrong with America, why progress has been so slow, and in some ways, why it’s felt like it’s been going backwards. The controversy itself is nowhere near as interesting as what it says about the country on a much larger scale, especially when it comes to the difficulties in taking stands and what it takes to power through the subsequent pushback.
I’ve never been fond of strong patriotism. I feel grateful to live the life I do in a country that gives me freedom, but I’ve known for many years that the centuries of history that shaped America are not something to admire, that countless people don’t have the same luxuries even within America, and that national pride really means very little. There are few better examples as to why than the events that Kaepernick & America reminds us of. Many clips show levels of hatred that I never even realized, further illustrating how plagued this country is by nationalist cult members. Had the kneel been widely met with the same indifference that I initially felt towards it, many of us would likely still be ignorant to how bad these problems are, and documentaries like this wouldn’t even exist to spread that awareness … and I wouldn’t be waxing poetic like this to further the conversation. In a way, the drastic reactions of those who inadvertently or deliberately twist Kaepernick’s intentions only served to get more people like me to see what’s really going on. The strength of a symbol comes from how it’s perceived, and the strength of a movement often comes from the resistance against it.
You could potentiallycriticize Kaepernick & America for one major omission: Kaepernick himself is never interviewed. We of course see him in clips and recordings, but he never makes a direct contribution to the documentary. This does him a bit of disservice, admittedly, and it even raises potential concerns as to how much he approves of this documentary in the first place. But it also feels strangely fitting when the documentary points out how silent Kaepernick went after the kneel, even in the wake of the firestorm that followed. It reenforces, in a way, that him just taking a knee was all that he needed to do to set everyone off. His absence is a bit jarring and causes some potential to go unrealized, but it doesn’t dull the impact of the documentary as a whole or the power of its story.
Kaepernick & America ends with a comparison of Colin Kaepernick to legendary civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Muhammed Ali, and so on. Many may call this laughable hyperbole; I myself probably would have, years ago. But after seeing this story told in such a meaningful way, where every line, clip, and decision builds up to a vivid illustration of every implicit and explicit meaning behind a simple kneel… yeah, I can see Kaepernick being held up as a similar needed icon someday. If you already were completely on his side and always loved what he did, then Kaepernick & America will be a great source of vindication. If you’re mixed on or indifferent to the matter, I really hope you give this documentary a chance and at least understand why many found it so important. If you outright despise what Kaepernick did… I’m not sure what will change your mind at this point. But if anything stands a chance, it’s this. It just requires you to actually listen to it.
Kaepernick & America will be released on digital and on demand everywhere from Friday, September 2, 2022.