We warmly welcome back W. Kamau Bell to the smallscreen, as our host brings his open mind and curious nature to explore every damned thing going on and going wrong in the United States of America on this new CNN Original Series “United Shades of America” which premieres on Sunday, April 24, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
The eight-part series follows Kamau using a stand-up comedy club audience to frame the subject of the show, interspersed with footage of him in the trenches reporting and interviewing subjects. It’s a good premise and works well for this series.
The premiere kicks off with a look at the “new” KKK and a real fiery cross burning, as Kamau puts on a brave face and ventures into the sticks of mostly Arkansas (what is up with Arkansas?) fat belly of the KKK target-rich south.
Subsequent shows will have Kamau visit with some railroaded and rehabilitated prisoners in San Quentin, talk to the-the Latino population in LA, work alongside the stressed out police officers in Camden, N.J., find some hipsters (who hate the word, FYI) in Portland, Ore., and ask the Inuit of Barrow, Alaska, if they can see Sarah Palin from their backyard. He really does!
He also talks to some people living off the grid in Asheville, N.C. (why?) and parties down with the spring breakers and those Viagra nation randy retirees in Florida.
Each hour-long episode highlights Bell’s affable and intelligent approach to real problems and issues. Make sure to put the “United Shades of America” on your “must watch” list.
TV Critics April Neale and Ernie Estrella, who were diehard fans of his FX series (then moved to FXX) before it got whacked, discuss the first episode on the new KKK:
Ernie Estrella: April, ever since Totally Biased was unjustly canceled on FX, there have been so many current events in our country and the world where I thought, we really need W. Kamau Bell’s perspective on it. I like John Oliver, I like Jon Stewart, but I just think Kamau’s point of view and angle on satire is needed too.
As a fan of all of WKB’s work, I hope this is finally the platform that takes off for him and unlike the FXX experiment, I hope CNN supports his show and provides him with enough chances to penetrate the viewing consumer.
April Neale: I have been waiting for the right setting for Kamau’s talent to shine even brighter, his new series is a real eye opener and I think mind expander and heart opener too.
EE: Immediately, I like the hour-long format and focused agenda, tackling one subject. Totally biased tried to fit too many things in a 20-minute show. There were several comedians and writers to showcase. The United Shades of America starts out with Kamau trying to get a grasp at the new generation of the Klu Klux Klan. That puts Kamau immediately in the fire, no pun intended.
What did you think of the pitch here for Kamau to try and travel down the tobacco roads of the south and step foot on these Klan compounds?
AN: Kamau approaches this subject just right, he knows he is not going to change minds and hearts, but he does expose these people for who they are and they do their own negative PR without even realizing it.
The fear is so overwhelming, but his producers inserted him and as you say “pitched” him just right into these interviews – they did their homework, and he does a great job keeping it together in the middle of Cletusville. In a weird sense, it was like the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy exposes Oz for being just a big old windbag with a microphone and distractions to fool people. These people have no conception of how ignorant and foolish their arguments are.
EE: It’s not surprising to see people act this way but it is shocking to see personalities like Pastor Rob, his daughter and grandson be so flippant and proud of their desire to separate the world by their differences. People wonder why Donald Trump gains traction and how he has built steam and momentum, and it’s because folks like this are clinging onto his hateful words. They’re identifying with all of the hateful things that he says. So while Trump doesn’t speak for all KKK members, while he claims to not know David Duke, he has struck a nerve with the hate-loving people of this country.
The KKK may be less potent, but here is more evidence to show me how little we’ve progressed when there are so many people who want to put a divide between them and those that don’t agree with them. That doesn’t solve anything, it just creates more problems. And sadly, that is all too similar to a certain governing body of ours.
AN: I believe everyone has told a joke at someone else’s (not like them) expense at some point in their lives but this is a whole level of brainwashing and haterade I cannot comprehend. You nailed it, Trump unleashed a whole pile of racist grandpa monsters and gave voices to these people who live in the shadows and talk their smack amongst themselves, and he unabashedly courted this voter electorate.
Right now, Cruz is smoking Trump but the both of them give me the Def Con 5 warnings. There’s no shame in either of their game when it comes to pandering to idiots who think all our problems are restricting women’s and LGBT rights, and who want to chuck Mexicans out of the country.
EE: Guys wielding semi-automatic guns, wearing Klans robes in broad daylight, lighting crosses… ugh. You can’t deny their existence but how can you not watch this and shake your head or bite your lip. That was some f-ed up footage and makes you wonder about certain pockets of this country.
Look, I grew up around the Great Lakes, my family immigrated to this country in the 1970s and started our life here in a very poor urban neighborhood and my siblings went to private schools where you could count the whites and non-blacks on one hand, and they were good schools. Ten years later my parents moved out to the predominantly white suburbs where I was old enough to start my schooling. In both neighborhoods, we each had our run-ins with ignorance, racism, etc. but nothing to the extremes of these backroad po-dunk towns that exist–in today’s culture no less!
AN: Personal experiences for kids really stay with you. I grew up in coastal New England (Irish and Italian heavy) during the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and then truth be told I never spoke to a black person until my parents moved us all to Miami, Florida in the 70s! I was neither Irish nor Italian and I had run-ins for not being part of “our crowd” in my little hometown.
Gun culture also escapes me, period. I do not get the toting or open carry B.S. As a white person watching this show, it freaked me out! It was a total culture shock but I wasn’t raised with parents who instilled hatred for anyone. We didn’t live in fear. But I do remember the TV show “Hee Haw”- it was my portal into how white people outside of the Northeast acted, even in jest, and that kind of scared me too. Actually, it scared me a lot.
EE: Ah, Hee Haw, that was like watching a show from a foreign country as a kid. I think it’s important though that Kamau points out that it’s not just Harrison that thinks this way. One could argue that every city has a degree of racism and that he acknowledges he has racist relatives. But the Klansmen want the public to believe their point of view. They want people to think that the word racist is synonymous with white people but anyone who thinks that is making these guys look intelligent.
Getting people like that to talk openly without filters and not reacting to it with anger is where Kamau shines. That’s not easy to do.
AN: He is so approachable and genuinely funny and charismatic, and some of these Klansmen react to him as any normal person would then they are like- ‘whoa I need to stick to my racist talking points!’ Kamau – who I met at a few TCAs back – is a very open and kind person.
He knows that the Klansmen have a limited audience, and play to it, but you can see that some of the younger ones are more likely to eventually throw in their KKK membership card and go “this is bulls**t” when dues times comes round again.
EE: I was constantly amused at how every Klansmen extended their hand to shake. Also I did have to laugh though when he said, “I’m off to see the wizards.”
AN: There were a lot of funny lines but they were subtle, and well-timed. I loved what he said about his mom not liking this assignment of his, and how he describes the act of preparation for the cross burning or “lighting.” And all that crazy rhetoric to mask the fact they are burning a GD cross! And how he saved the cross burning part like the big finish in this mental slice of American pie.
EE: What Kamau eventually realizes by the end of the episode is that the Klan doesn’t have the oomph it used to and you can tell it’s like an attack dog without its teeth, but to know it still has an influence on youth and children, that there are people who are so proudly ignorant and spread their observations and slanted truths to justify their actions is a scary thing.
The internet is scary because it’s allowed all of these so called people a voice to comment, to tweet, and hide behind an avatar or alias and spread their pencil-head views of the world to leak through. It’s all still around us, I’m not sure if it’s better or worse than say, 30 years ago. Clearly, progress has been made, but sometimes you do wonder.
AN: Yes the troll brigades and the like-minded love them some anonymous Internet. For better or worse, the 24/7 access to online media has a lot of younger people also questioning things and thinking outside their smalltown borders. However – what I loved was the posse of older white people who were keeping tabs on the Thomas Robb haterade dynasty.
They were funny and to the point, even that one older white guy who starting bawling saying ‘why do people have to hate’ was poignant- really wonderful moment. I am sure when Kamau watched the raw footage that got him. Kamau’s kids are mixed and he has a white wife! There’s got to be all kinds of conflicting feelings.
In the end, I feel like showing something like this is akin to the Dr. Seuss Grinch story, the Grinch was such a dickhead and then one day, one little act made a difference and opened his grinchy eyes and his heart grew and grew. I think people CAN unlearn hate and hateful beliefs. Look at how the public is embracing the expanding of LGBT rights. Americans – I put faith in us as a collective, we come around.
EE: There’s a great deal of America who want to take it to the next step of evolution. Then there’s another great number that want to drag us backward. We’re in this constant tug-of-war of values, ideals, and level of humanity that will put a smile on your face one day, and weep the next.
The symbol of the burning cross is still powerful and anyone who would proudly stand before a cross enflamed, pounding their chest, haven’t bothered to think what seeing that means to people who experienced the terror and were murdered by the Klan. People were hung, whipped and experienced much worse with a burning cross present.
Then again, their opinion of anyone not “purely” white, whatever that is, pretty repulsive. So that was extremely brave of Kamau; I know I’m never stepping foot in Harrison, Arkansas or much of Kentucky if I can help it. I’m in mixed marriage and I’ll be sure to pay at the pump when driving through. I’m sure there are nice people all throughout the south, but I’m not gambling if I don’t have to.
I do feel for the good people living in these areas, standing up to the KKK in all of its forms is not easy. Hopefully this episode of the United Shades of America shows viewers out there to not let this kind of way of thinking grow in your community like a bad weed.
AN: Well said. Once the show premieres we will jump into our weekly discussions and the next one is so interesting, the prisoners of San Quentin. I feel so badly for many of them who did a stupid thing as teenagers and the damned book is thrown at the- now they are lifers…The curse of being poor in this country, it’s the common denominator. There’s got to be a better way than monetizing and privatizing incarceration.