There may not be a dedicated playbook on how to handle tough conversations around race, but CNN’s forthcoming docuseries United Shades of America could be a close substitute. The Objective Productions-made series finds socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell (pictured) unpacking stereotypes and confronting prejudice around America. And whether he’s observing a cross-burning with Arkansas Klansmen in the season premiere, or interviewing Portland’s black community on the effects of gentrification, the Berkeley, California-based comedian says his go-to diffuser in a heated situation is a sense of humor.
Most recently seen on FX’s 2012 series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the comedian, who also serves as an American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for racial justice, was approached by CNN about the show, originally pitched to the broadcaster by All3Media.
It was Bell’s idea, however, to make the eye-opening trip to Harrison, Arkansas, simply because he “could do something that no other show could do.” For the remainder of the 8 x 60-minute season, premiering on April 24, Bell hangs out with “lifers” at California’s San Quentin State Prison, discusses immigration with East LA residents, and explores community policing models in Camden, New Jersey – one of the country’s most dangerous cities.
Given that your previous FX program was more of a comedy series, is this your first foray into reality?
I’d say it’s unscripted. I’m a big fan of the doc space, and I was happy to do something like this. Because it’s an hour long and because it’s CNN, we’re allowed to [go] deeper into the issues. There are some [things] on these shows that’s some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever done – it just comes through a different lens. On the FX show, we have to keep the humor quicker and faster, but I don’t think you get to as deep as the places you get to in [United Shades]. For me, it feels better to let more air go in there so everything doesn’t feel like it’s just grist for the joke, and actually, the humor is serving the story, not the other way around.
How did you get access to the KKK in Harrison?
We have a great team that [executive producer Jimmy Fox] put together, and Star Price was the showrunner on Showtime’s Penn & Teller: Bullshit! so he’s been reaching out to people who may not want to be talked to and convincing them to talk to us.
The funny thing is, the people who do talk to you, they think that’s how they can support their message. We look at it like, ‘Why would you talk to us?’ and they look at it like, ‘Oh good. I get to spread my message to the world and recruit new members.’ Because they believe in their side, and we believe their side is crazy.
Are you ever concerned people who tune in to the KKK episode might be doing so for the wrong reasons, and to reinforce their beliefs?
I think the most likely thing is that people who are like, ‘I don’t think racism is really a thing anymore’ are going to watch this show and go, ‘Oh my God, I was so wrong.’ Those are the people we’re going for: people who are really on the fence about it. People who are on the extreme end of the Klan? The most I hope for is that they watch it and [see] how we make fun of them and maybe they start to go, ‘Hmm, am I ridiculous?’ The show takes a side.
How do you think the unscripted world is doing in broaching conversations around race?
I think there’s a broadening out of what unscripted is. These shows like Morgan Spurlock Inside Man and Mike Rowe: Somebody’s Gotta Do It – these are [like] the shows that as a kid I used to watch on PBS. For me, it’s just like taking that version of the show I used to see on PBS where a guy walks around and talks to people, but putting a bigger, bolder perspective on it. And I’m trying to be funny, I’m not trying to be witty or charming. I may be those things, but I’m actually trying to make you sit at home and laugh. This, for me, feels more like reality than a lot of the stuff I see on TV that has that label.
- This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
- United Shades of America bows on CNN on April 24. Check out an exclusive clip of the series below: