In the first season of his CNN documentary series United Shades of America, comedian W. Kamau Bell walks a line between discussing polarizing social issues like gentrification, the prison system, racism and even spring break without making fun of or belittling his sources. These experiences, as well as the time he’s spent touring the heartland as a stand-up comedian, has given him an insight into what makes our country tick that most liberal-minded coastal elites cannot fathom.
“As the profit Drake says, what a time to be alive,” laughs Bell, who wears a shirt that reads “Give all the damns,” while he and other stars of CNN’s documentary lineup visit journalists at the network’s Television Critics Association press day last Saturday in Pasadena, Calif. Ahead of both United Shades’ second season and the first years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Bell spoke about the importance of listening to each other.
1. Bell thinks people in the arts need to step up their game during the Trump presidency.
“A lot of my friends sort of say they wish they wished they lived through the ‘60s. Now’s your chance,” Bell says. “I think now there’s really a chance for the arts to do what the arts do best, which is deconstruct and try to explain what’s going on in the world. I was going to say that I was looking forward to [the inauguration], but that would be a lie.
2. He has heard from those who participated in last season’s KKK episode.
“I get emails from several of the guys—I couldn’t tell who was who because they had their hoods on [during filming]—and one guy was worried if his face was in the show how it would affect his son,” Bell says. “I thought what made you think about this now; how being in the Ku Klux Klax wasn’t a good look for your son?”
He says he and his show’s producers also made sure not to show the children who were at the “cross lighting” (which he was taught was the proper term).
3. United Shades’ intent is not to mock.
“My agenda … is to learn about people,” he says. “I’m not trying to take anyone down with what I do; they may take themselves down. But I try to put a human face on these people.”
As Bell told Paste last year, one of his goals with episodes like the Klan one is to raise awareness about how the current Klan operates. “You don’t get smarter by not learning stuff,” he said in 2016. “There is part of this that’s demystifying the Klan, that is investigating the Klan and that’s exposing them to people who need to be exposed to them.”
4. He’s not sure if the Klan episode changed any Klanspeoples’ minds
“In that moment [when I was filming,] I thought yeah I did,” Bell says. “I’m not going to claim any American History X experience where it’s like we all folded laundry together and now racism’s over. I know when I got there, this guy dressed in blue who I called Klanny Smurf was yelling at me about [the tragic shooting and subsequent riots in] Ferguson. And by the time it (the episode’s filming) was over … we were all laughing. That may have changed him at that moment, but I don’t know what happened after that moment. But I do know that if I had gone back every week for a year, I think we could have seen some profound change.”
5. Bell was not shocked by the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
“As a traveling comedian and someone who works on this show, I was not surprised,” Bell says. “As a comedian, you see all parts of the country because you play there. I live in Berkeley, where they were totally surprised. I kept saying ‘I was just in Kansas …’. Where we’re at, this is par for the course with America.”
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Esquire, Elle, Complex, Vulture, Marie Claire, Toronto Star and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and very photogenic cat.