The recent India-Pakistan tie did not quite make the news for the best of reasons. Winning and losing come with the turf but these days, one might be hard-pressed to convince anyone to treat both impostors just the same (sorry, Kipling). No, instead there were arrests made under draconian anti-terror laws of those ostensibly celebrating the winning side’s victory, as sports fans are wont to do. We also witnessed the deplorable partisan bullying of bowler Mohammed Shami by Indian trolls — no surprises there — and much less alarmingly, the customary breaking of television sets.
Forgotten amidst the cause célèbres, was an unexpected political exertion on the part of the Indian cricket team. In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, our men in blue, under instructions from their paymasters, kneeled on one knee in diligent unison before the clash. This could’ve been a powerful and affirming moment of genuine protest but Indian cricketers have a bad rap, perhaps not entirely unfairly, of being an ultra-privileged kowtowing bunch, rather than part-time activists given to political stance of any kind. The irony wasn’t really lost to many.
.Celebrities in India are no stranger to aligning themselves with ‘safe’ international causes like climate change, HIV research or BLM that might earn them internet points on credit, while avoiding the toxic opprobrium and political policing that comes their way when providing lip-service to increasingly polarising local issues.
Yet, there is certainly a residual power to the cricketers taking the knee that cannot be whittled away simply by the perceived tokenism behind it. It’s a globalised symbol of fighting racism that harks back to 2016, when American quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling on one knee during the national anthem at football games to silently but potently protest racial injustice in the United States. Similar protests were soon to become more widespread, but the backlash against the trailblazing Kaepernick was swift and sweeping, causing the frankly exceptional footballer to remain unsigned with any professional team in his absolute prime.
Rather than becoming a cautionary tale, this suffering in the public eye simply for defiantly standing up for what he believed in, and his continuing support for the marginalised and the oppressed, has contributed to Kaepernick’s burgeoning standing as a beacon of hope and resistance and a pop culture icon whose time has come.
Arriving as if by perfect timing, a new limited series on Netflix created by the multi-faceted filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Kaepernick himself, provides an invaluable opportunity to take a look at the man behind the aura, particularly his formative years. In the starkly titled Colin in Black and White, the charismatic young actor Jaden Michael steps into Kaepernick’s high-school cleats, with the football star keeping pace alongside as a dapper and omniscient narrator — his characteristic Afro almost a halo in the studio light — with a ring-side wide-screen view of his own childhood; he even writes a letter to his younger self. It’s story-telling with an occasional ‘young adult’ vibe, and veterans Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman are at hand to play his well-meaning white adoptive parents who raised him in an all-white neighbourhood in Turlock, California. With the remarkable Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us, DuVernay had brought to searing life the rites of passage of a falsely incarcerated Black man — activist Korey Wise — who spent 14 years in wrongful custody from the tender age of 17. And here, with another teen protagonist and a completely different set of circumstances, she forges on a white-hot anvil the tale of an equally fraught initiation that isn’t entirely cushioned by privilege and comfort.
The 1990s ethos captured by the series unveils the self-limiting cul-de-sac existence that proves to be, for the cloistered young Colin, a hotbed of racial tensions, going much beyond simply sticking out in a crowd. The colourless if amiable gentility of the Kaepernick household is contrasted with the hearty, bright and soulful snatches of Black culture that Colin is only occasionally exposed to. The six episodes create parallels with the lived experiences of Black people in a country still struggling with unresolved race dynamics decades after the civil rights movement — the series doesn’t shy away from the provocative, even likening football trials to slave markets given the powers still wrested with white ‘overlords’. This is not a comparison lightly made, and Parker’s exacting turn, as a football mother with more than her fair share of blind spots, provides a surrogate for the discomfort and unease of some that might not be completely allayed by the end credits.
The total erasure of his Black roots, the white privilege of his upbringing that can as easily be disregarded, the constant indignities associated with being racially characterised on the field and outside it, the overbearing codes of beauty and worthiness imposed by the insular white mainstream — all provide conflict and texture to Colin’s story, so wonderfully animated in Michael’s perky yet brooding turn. Of course, the central narrative focuses on his dogged ambition of becoming a quarterback, despite being much more sought after as a baseball player. It is a distinctively stubborn streak, combined with vulnerable masculinity, that actually foreshadows his ultimate place in contemporary history, and perhaps might even prompt a second season of the series to explore his football career even as it segues into pioneering activism.
For Indian audiences, for whom Black Lives Matter might seem like an alien concept, distant and almost beside the point despite the Z-list endorsements, Colin in Black and White is an absolute revelation, laying bare systems of oppression that the average Indian with a conscience would likely be very familiar with in many local contexts. There is, of course, a direct Indian reference — in a scene in which his mother likens him to a ‘thug’ for getting his hair painfully braided into cornrows, Kaepernick talks of the word’s origin in the purported nineteenth-century Indian practice of ‘thuggee’ — now considered by many historians as an invention of the British colonial regime — predictably illustrated with horrific visuals of Amrish Puri from Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an exotic and stereotypical representation that proved so difficult to live down for at least a generation or two. However, in every step of Colin’s journey, the fissures in our own social fabric, when it comes to religion, caste and gender, or inherited colonial mindsets, or our sheer obliviousness to the iniquities around us, becomes painfully apparent. Which is why, one can only hope that the cricket team’s borrowed gesture might actually have been a knowing nod to the concerns that sully our own social realities. That might be quite a reach, though.