Also read our interview with W. Kamau Bell on three things he learned about the Klan while making United Shades of America.
Early in the first episode of United Shades of America, comedian W. Kamau Bell, who is black, heads down a dark back road at night to meet with a representative from the Ku Klux Klan. It’s as tense as you’d probably imagine, with Bell and a CNN camera crew on the outskirts of a small, remote town in the South, waiting for a signal from a full-fledged member of the most notorious hate group in American history. The Klansmen exit their car in full Klan regalia, icily greeting the comic with a threatening tone on the verge of outright hostility. Bell, visibly shaken but clear-headed, talks with them briefly, and although the suspense never fully goes away, Bell’s able to deflate some of the fear and mystery through conversation. We quickly remember that inside those fearful robes and pointed hoods stand a group of small, ignorant, frightened men, blaming their own failure and confusion on the world around them. They’re still dangerous—Bell never lets his guard down, and seems relieved to get back in his car when the chat is done—but some of the power of their symbolism is drained away by Bell’s comedy. The entire first episode of Bell’s hour-long documentary comedy series, which premieres on CNN this Sunday night, is about the modern-day Klan; it’s funny and meaningful work, and unfortunately as timely today as it ever would have been.
You might remember Bell from Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, his smart topical comedy show that ran on FX and FXX for a little over a year in 2012 and 2013. Totally Biased generally followed the expected rhythms of a late-night comedy show, but United Shades of America, Bell’s first show for CNN, is something very different. It’s essentially a travel show focused on injustice, with Bell journeying throughout America to examine racism, institutional bias and other issues plaguing society, shining a spotlight on the worst parts of American culture and doing so with comedy and grace. He’s like Anthony Bourdain, only instead of food he’s looking for hate, so that he can demystify it through humor.
In Sunday’s premiere, Bell travels to Arkansas and Kentucky to meet with three different Klan groups. He even attends a cross-burning, which the Klan repeatedly reminds him should be called a cross-lighting. Two of the groups wear the full Klan kit, hiding their faces while explaining what they believe and why to a bemused Bell, who admirably is able to hide the contempt he must be feeling when talking to these racists.
Most strikingly, Bell visits the compound of Thomas Robb, a white supremacist who runs a Klan group and multimedia operation on the outskirts of Harrison, Arkansas. Robb’s followers don’t wear robes, preferring suits, khakis and polo shirts. They look like any crowd of people leaving a church on a Sunday morning, only Robb regularly preaches about a so-called “white genocide” and how whites and Christians are the most persecuted class in America. One of his assistants, who runs the youth program for Robb’s church and looks like an assistant manager at a car rental agency, is shown openly calling for the deaths of non-whites in home-recorded footage from a past white supremacy rally. These banal, smiling frauds, with their poorly produced online TV shows and hate-filled perversion of Christianity, are far more frightening than the robed Klansmen who light a cross with Bell at a trailer park in Kentucky.
Thankfully Robb isn’t entirely welcome in his own community. Bell meets with a task force in Harrison committed to countering Robb’s influence and defending the name and reputation of the town. The group’s almost entirely white and angrily denounces the hate preached by Robb. Bell also walks around Harrison’s small downtown, and his interactions with the people he meets are sympathetic, understanding and, at times, poignant.
Clearly Bell isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues on his new show—after meeting the Klan this week, he moves on to examining the institutional racism of the American prison system in the second episode. When asked what he wouldn’t be comfortable trying to find humor in, he says he’d “only feel uncomfortable if I felt like I wasn’t being supported with the right resources. I’m not going to go in and do a show about a topic that I don’t know enough about or where I don’t have people on the show represented who can explain it to me.”
With CNN’s backing, Bell shouldn’t have any problem with resources or finding the right people to help him approach an issue. After working with an entertainment network on a nightly show with Totally Biased, he now has the support of an international news organization to make a show that’s as much a series of documentaries as it is a comedy show. It’s a far cry from Totally Biased, which was unceremoniously moved from FX to the fledgling FXX spin-off network and then quietly cancelled after ratings cratered on the new, unknown channel. “The greatest thing about CNN was they were like ‘we like you because you’re funny and smart and we want you to be funny and smart,’” Bell says. “There’s never a sense of having to punch something up or making it funnier than I want it to be. Because this is a news network, I get by with what I want to have and they support that. It’s great to feel like I don’t have to play to the cheap seats.
“When you’re in that late-night comedy world, which I was in for a little bit, you want every four minute clip to go viral,” he continues. “I was not a fan of that. I’m not good at that, some people are super good at that and should be doing it, but that’s not what I should be doing it. For me it’s about making an hour of TV that is relevant and good that maybe initiates conversation, that people talk about—that’s where I actually live. That’s the great thing about working at CNN.”
That conversation can cut both ways, though. It’s reasonable to think that some people will see the first episode of United Shades as basically giving the Klan and Thomas Robb a platform from which to broadcast their abhorrent views. Yes, Bell makes fun of these targets, and expects his audience to be disgusted by their beliefs, but he’s already started to face criticism over his approach.
“I’ve already dealt with this on Twitter,” he laughs, when asked about such complaints . “You don’t get smarter by not learning stuff. 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. I have friends who for months now are like ‘I’m not even going to say Donald Trump’s name because I don’t want to give him the power.’ Is that really going to stop him, not saying his name? Is he like Beetlejuice, if you don’t say his name he doesn’t have power? With the Klan, a lot of people who watch the show would have never known that the Klan [still exists], they won’t know the level of organization of Thomas Robb. They also get to enjoy me demystifying them and making fun out of and making fun of it and that’s a worthy project. But if that’s not for you, Game of Thrones also premieres on Sunday.”
United Shades of America premieres on CNN on Sunday, April 24, at 10 PM ET/PT.
Bell’s next stand-up special, W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro, which was directed by Morgan Spurlock, premieres on Showtime on Friday, April 29, at 10 PM ET/PT.
Garret Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.