Adored stand up comedian, come investigative documentarian, W.Kamau Bell, who has crossed a bridge one never considered. That was the opening act of his “United Shades of America” program airing on Sundays on CNN. The network has a new blockbuster on its hands, if Sunday’s premiere was any indication.
The series opener features Bell traipsing through the deep south bastions of Klan country, armed only, one presumes, with a winning smile, a camera crew, some Pepto, and some antacid tablets in his rucksack.
Television has long-trudged into unfathomable trenches for the lead. For compelling journalism, and high-quality entertainment. CNN has achieved this formula in grand fashion, with “Shades.”
Bell’s premise for the program is based on something daring, and unconventional. He said, “The idea behind the series is to send an African-American comedian to places that you wouldn't expect him to go, or to places where he absolutely shouldn't go.”
Evidently, Bell had input as to how to open the series, and remarked about starting off with the KKK: “I have always been curious about the Ku Klux Klan. Some of that is the natural curiosity that potential prey has for its most obvious and most identifiable predator. The Ku Klux Klan is America's original and homegrown terrorist group.
“And while many Americans spend time worrying about terrorist threats from outside of this country, America actually still houses people who align themselves, dress up as, and practice the traditions of the Ku Klu Klan.” He also said he favored opening the series with such a controversial topic because if the show tanked after the premiere, he’d have canned a butt-kicking show for all time, and “become a legend.” A legend is born.
Mr. Bell takes us on a journey into areas most people, especially black people, have no burning desire to view. As the host said, “Most black people who ever got to see a cross on fire, didn’t get to leave.” Sleepy town, after quaint “Mayberry-esque,” single traffic light, country corner, Bell with his imposing frame, strides into the belly of the proverbial beast, beginning with a covert meeting with a Klan leader, in the woods, at night, on a dark, rural, dirt road.
The discourse, while testy, and tense, was shockingly more courteous that this writer had contemplated. Based on the sizzle trailer, I was made sufficiently nervous about the outcome for the reporter. To my pleasure, the encounter ended with an ample sigh of relief, and a healthy measure of disbelief. What was I expecting to happen on camera, on a national television show? As a black man? You can only imagine.
As quietly as he arrived on the dirt road, he left. In one piece. Then onto the next meeting, this time, to some white people who were presumed to be racists, but, rather, turned out to be quite kind, civil, and welcoming souls. She said, as Bell approached, “It is so nice to have a person of color in our town”. She hugged Bell on the street corner, as he interviewed her about the tenor of racism in her small town. He showed different aspects of the local culture, and simply documented the truths as they were revealed to him.
That is the genius of the series. It takes a preconception and, rather than perpetuating, or enabling, the imagination’s musings--- and shines light upon the bare, real, facts of the thing. In this case Bell crosses borders, and lines in the sand, not only to seek the truth, dispel paranoic notions, and to share the story of what he finds, as he finds it.
In coming episodes, Mr. Bell will visit other places, and people, in surroundings which he feels he could be uncomfortable, and interested in seeking truths. He picked one hell of an opening topic. The pitch to audiences was perfect, intriguing, and disconcerting all at once. I had to be sure not to miss it.
There are thousands of programming hours on television, contrary to what the political news cycle demonstrates. I, for one, am thrilled that CNN has added yet another program which pings my mind and my heart. Their documentary programming is exemplary, and a, much needed, respite from the trumpeting of some.
As Bell ventures out to meet America, we get to see America. Our America--- and make our own decisions--- based on fact, not conjecture. On evidence, not fear. All this, with a good amount of humor artfully blended into the treat.
“United Shades of America”, on CNN (Sundays). Hosted by W. Kamau Bell. At long last, something to look forward to each week. #WhatToWatch.
Marcinho Savant is a classically-trained singer, vocal coach, conductor, professional singer, and stage performer.