Symbolism

Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow on Colin Kaepernick and Kaepernick & America

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Don Lemon in Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow’s compelling Kaepernick & America (a highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival) on Colin Kaepernick: “He takes the knee and becomes a symbol.”
Don Lemon in Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow’s compelling Kaepernick & America (a highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival) on Colin Kaepernick: “He takes the knee and becomes a symbol.”

Tommy Walker (producer of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s intimate and personal Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am) and Ross Hockrow’s compelling Kaepernick & America, executive produced by Don Lemon and John Battsek, produced by Gary Cohen, Bill Stephney, and Matt McDonald features on-camera interviews with April Dinwoodie (expert on transracial adoption), Steve Wyche (NFL Network reporter), Nate Boyer (former Green Beret), Pam Oliver (Fox NFL sideline reporter), DeRay Mckesson (activist and author of On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case For Hope), Hue Jackson (former NFL head coach), Jim Harbaugh (Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers head coach), and Don Lemon (CNN news journalist and host of Don Lemon Tonight), and explores the impact and complexity of Colin Kaepernick’s story and the state of America today.

Tommy Walker with Ross Hockrow and Anne-Katrin Titze: “There’s a lot that happened in that moment in time; one is the visceral reaction that a lot of Americans had to what Colin Kaepernick did.”
Tommy Walker with Ross Hockrow and Anne-Katrin Titze: “There’s a lot that happened in that moment in time; one is the visceral reaction that a lot of Americans had to what Colin Kaepernick did.”

When a star athlete in one of America’s favorite sports decides to take a stand by kneeling to bring attention to an all-important issue troubling the country, a hurricane of reactions is unleashed on social media and elsewhere. When Colin Kaepernick sat for the national anthem before a pre-season football game, a perceptive NFL Network reporter named Steve Wyche spotted a news story in the making, one that would only grow in momentousness. Kaepernick & America investigates the details, the twists and turns of the election year 2016, a time marked by the national exposure of police brutality and what Wyche calls “Kaepernick’s awakening to Black history.”

This is not a football film, it is the story of a courageous man who used his platform of fame to speak for those who cannot. It cost him his career in the NFL. The kidnapping of the narrative, the spectacle of self-righteous outrage, complete with bonfires of memorabilia of the once adored quarterback and videos of trampling on or using it for target practice - what is displayed more than anything is hatred stemming from a self-hatred so deep that it makes anyone shiver who watches.

The filmmakers look closely at the symbolism and how it was weaponized against the player and his supporters, before catapulting forward into the fledgling 2020s with the murder of George Floyd, who “sadly was the change agent,” as Don Lemon notes, and America’s precarious state of affairs right now. Hue Jackson sums it up perfectly: “He sacrificed himself for something bigger and he did it in a way that I think we all look at now and say that it shouldn’t have created the animosity that it did because he was trying to bring attention to something that was an issue.”

From Brooklyn, Tommy Walker and from Delaware, Ross Hockrow joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Kaepernick & America, a highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your film is as much about what is on one side of the ampersand as it is about the other. It’s as much about Colin Kaepernick as it is about America. How did you decide on the title?

Ross Hockrow: That’s how! It’s about both.

Tommy Walker: We wanted to capture his story because it’s such a unique story, shared by everybody. Everybody saw that, everybody who followed football or didn’t follow football and followed the news. How people reacted in America was the other half of what we wanted to capture as well beyond that.

Colin Kaepernick (7) takes a knee and is joined by Eli Harold (58) and Eric Reid (35)
Colin Kaepernick (7) takes a knee and is joined by Eli Harold (58) and Eric Reid (35)

AKT: I found it very interesting that you start with that other half. You begin with this guy who is cutting up a jersey and is setting it on fire on a barbecue. It’s very strong and immediately gets to the point. Was that always at the start?

RH: I felt like that captured both Kaepernick and America. People have really strong opinions about Kaepernick and what he did. Only in America would someone cut up a jersey and burn it as a statement. It really encapsulated the title. Like, this film is not about Colin Kaepernick necessarily but about us and the way we react to it.

TW: I was going to use the word encapsulate until Ross stole it from me, but he’s right. There’s a lot that happened in that moment in time; one is the visceral reaction that a lot of Americans had to what Colin Kaepernick did. It takes you right to the point of Colin Kaepernick’s actions, but the other thing is that it gives you an insight into how intoxicated people are with the NFL, with football.

AKT: Ross, you say this reaction could only happen in America, and I think you’re right. We are celebrating something around a barbecue and we are also barbecuing people who don’t fit in with whatever what is in their minds - it’s terrifying really.

April Dinwoodie: “The idea of finding your true identity based on being biracial in this country is so challenging …”
April Dinwoodie: “The idea of finding your true identity based on being biracial in this country is so challenging …”

RH: A lot of it is about the theme of the film which is about symbolism. What Keapernick did, ultimately he became like a symbol. Burning a jersey and statues are some form of symbolism. It’s not a coincidence that Don Lemon’s first line in the film is “there’s a power in symbolism.” Your symbols obviously have a lot of nuance behind them. Every side has some kind of symbolism going on.

AKT: I am happy that you explained how the kneeling came about. That it was the military appreciation night and that it was a Green Beret [Nate Boyer] making that suggestion. I did not know about that beforehand. And then of course there’s the symbolism of kneeling in general. Which is not an aggressive act and mainly connected to church. But then you have George Floyd and the symbolism becomes very very full.

TW: Just what you’re saying is an important part of the film. In large part because it allows us to look at Colin Kaepernick’s thoughtfulness about what he was about to do with this gesture. He was trying to figure out how he was going to demonstrate his protest. He did something very smart to say he wants to come to it from a fair point, so he speaks to someone from the military. That says something about him and what his course was.

Steve Wyche on Colin Kaepernick: “He was really educating himself on Black history and policing.”
Steve Wyche on Colin Kaepernick: “He was really educating himself on Black history and policing.”

AKT: The first time I really became aware of the extent of the protest, as someone who doesn’t watch much football, was through a student of mine. It was during my course at Hunter College on fairy tales and storytelling. I was talking about the Brothers Grimm, mainly known as fairy tale collecting brothers. Many people do not know anything about their political activism.

What happened to them in 1837, when they were professors at the university in Göttingen, was a new king. He wanted every professor, every civil servant to pledge an oath of allegiance to him in person. The Grimms refused, together with five others, hence they are known as the Göttinger Seven.

They were fired from the university and no other university took them on until 1841. The price they payed was enormous. And the student of mine said, oh, the Brothers Grimm, they are exactly like Colin Kaepernick! I thought the historical parallel was quite fascinating.

TW: Oh, it’s very fair. Colin Kaepernick is doing what he’s doing in a modern age but I think that’s a great symbolism for someone who is young and studying and learning, because they see what sacrifice is.

AKT: Are you or were you in touch with him?

Colin Kaepernick contacted Nate Boyer after reading his Army Times open letter to the athlete, commenting on his not standing for the national anthem.
Colin Kaepernick contacted Nate Boyer after reading his Army Times open letter to the athlete, commenting on his not standing for the national anthem.

TW: We reached out to Colin’s team and were made aware that he was going to produce his own documentary and tell his own story in his own way. So we were not able to engage him in the project in that way.

RH: More journalistic. He’s going to tell his story. Yes this is Kaepernick & America but I would say it’s way more about America. Kaepernick is more a window into understanding who we are and how we react to things.

AKT: And about the shifts in narrative. How suddenly the flag became the narrative. A frightening and all too common way to not deal with issues today.

TW: One of the things that we tend to want to talk about is the fact that most of the talk about the flag is to distract from the major issues dealing with race, the very reason why Colin Kaepernick knelt. So the flag takes you to another place that takes you away from the subject matter.

We continually do that in society. We are doing it today, right now, as it relates to the latest shooting that happened in schools. It’s a constant distraction away from what the story really is. We wanted to bring people back to the place.

A student of mine at Hunter College made the connection between the Brothers Grimm losing their positions in 1837 and Colin Kaepernick.
A student of mine at Hunter College made the connection between the Brothers Grimm losing their positions in 1837 and Colin Kaepernick.

RH: Kaepernick was never protesting the flag or the anthem or anything like that. That’s kind of what we do - we change the narrative and then pretend that that’s the narrative forever and we never go back. And that’s what happened, pretty obvious.

AKT: The obviousness makes it even scarier. I just watched a film that is also in Tribeca, called The YouTube Effect and it matches what you are saying. How blatant it is! You know that people don’t even believe their own narrative.

RH: It’s very much a function of where we are in time, in the Twitter, social media era. How quickly can I get the news? How can I do it in a tweet or a headline? Once I see that trending topic, I immediately have an opinion. Not only do I have an opinion, I will defend the opinion to my death essentially. I will dig in on that opinion because it lines up with my ideology. There is no room for nuance. No one reads articles or fact-checks things or looks at it from both sides.

There is no deep-dive. I’ll just go into my circles who mostly think like me and regurgitate my opinions and then people will validate them and so on and so forth. That’s the society we live in unfortunately. I think the film Tommy and I wanted to make was: let’s just stop and look at the nuance of this.

We forget that Trump was running for President while Kaepernick was doing his protest and there’s police murders happening all the time, at the same time. And we live in the tweet, the headline, the next one, and we never connect the dots. The film is about connecting the 2016 dots, if you will. That this is about the flag is a symptom of our society.

TW: Remember it took the murder of George Floyd to pull people back into understanding why Colin Kaepernick did what he did. It took something that kind of drastic to bring it back to a level of understanding and context.

AKT: And here again is the terrible symbolism of kneeling becoming doubled in a juxtaposition.

Pam Oliver on meeting Colin Kaepernick at the Fox production meetings: “He was dynamic!”
Pam Oliver on meeting Colin Kaepernick at the Fox production meetings: “He was dynamic!”

RH: Yeah!

AKT: Tommy, you’ve worked with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the wonderful Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and on the List series. Did Toni Morrison ever come into your head during this project?

TW: You know, she didn’t really specifically to Colin Kaepernick. That film came out in 2019 but so much of what she talks about is baked into how we wanted to commit to this project. She’s another shining light in the process of people who are willing to take stands that others don’t. I was fortunate to have that experience on a film project and carry it to the next one.

AKT: Ross, you brought up Don Lemon. The interview with him is very strong. How did he come on board?

RH: We wanted to take that journalistic approach. I wanted him to speak on Trump. I felt like he was such a voice during that time and he was also covering Kaepernick, it just felt natural. Again, we just have to remember that Trump and Kaepernick are kind of happening simultaneously. It’s a snapshot of how contradictory we are as a country. It’s one or the other but not both and Don was great on speaking to that idea.

TW: I would also add that it was important for us to have Black voices in this film, specific to how their own experiences are baked into how white society is reacting to some of Colin Kaepernick’s actions, in the way maybe a white journalist might not be able to do.

Kaepernick & America poster
Kaepernick & America poster

RH: Yeah, Don Lemon is a guy you can find on the ground at Ferguson and he’s covering the Trump election and Kaepernick - he’s immersed.

AKT: Just a few weeks ago I spoke with Jana Pareigis, who is the first female Black anchor on German prime time television. She was here, presenting a film of hers at Roosevelt House and what I found to be an interesting coincidence, is that she was also adopted into a white family. You decided in your film to have an expert speak on adoption.

TW: We were trying to figure out what’s our best course of action for telling the complexities of growing up, not just Black in America, but mixed-race in America and coming from an adopted family who did not reflect the colour of the skin you have.

And we found the perfect person. One of our producers, Gary Cohen, was able to connect us to April [Dinwoodie]. And she’s able to walk us through some very important topics. A lot of people don’t even know that Colin Kaepernick was adopted.

RH: Early on in the process we had learned of the term transracial adoption. It was a new term to me and I had a hunch that that would be a new term to 90% of the audience if not more. We needed, A: somebody who lived it and, B: who is an expert on it. Because if you lived it doesn’t mean you’re an expert on it. So April was the perfect person. I think you want to know that part of the origin story from a nuts-and-bolts fact standpoint.

How Colin felt, I’m sure his film will get into. We were trying to explain a new term and that is part of his origin story which might help inform some of his decision-making later, because a lot of that stuff surrounds identity. April talks in general terms about transracial adoptees and their search for identity. But America also is having a simultaneous search for identity. You know, who are we?

TW: I’ll just add one more thing to that, what’s interesting about the search for identity is that everybody has that. Some have it layered by other obstacles. As a Black person, I absolutely have gone through my own journey towards it.

DeRay Mckesson on Colin Kaepernick calling about his activism: "He wanted to talk about the work and he wanted to get plugged in to people that he thought could help challenge him ..."
DeRay Mckesson on Colin Kaepernick calling about his activism: "He wanted to talk about the work and he wanted to get plugged in to people that he thought could help challenge him ..."

And if you look at somebody who lives in a community that doesn’t reflect the way they look and with a family that doesn’t look the way they look, there’s going to be obstacles and challenges in everyday life that they internalise.

AKT: Just yesterday [May 24, the Uvalde elementary school shooting] and a short while ago in Buffalo [shooting at a market], the question is really who are we to let things like that happen?

TW: Right, yeah!

AKT: Thank you for a complex and powerful film! Hopefully lots of people will see it in Tribeca.

RH: Thank you!

TW: Happy you enjoyed it!

Kaepernick & America has a virtual screening at Tribeca on Thursday, June 9 starting at 6:00pm

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from June 8 through June 19.

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