Comedian W. Kamau Bell gives a lot of credit to Chris Rock for taking a big chance on him in 2012 by executive-producing his first show, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, on FX. “He basically gave me my career,” Bell said to The Root. “He might say differently: ‘You would have made it some other way.’ But, yes, he definitely put some jet fuel under me.”
Recognizing that the San Francisco Bay Area-based comedian, whose work is politically infused, needed to go out and be among the people was probably one of Rock’s greatest gifts to Bell. His CNN series, United Shades of America, now in its second season, thrives on Bell’s engagement with others on myriad topics.
Last season, the theme was largely places where a black man wouldn’t necessarily go willingly. How many black men would choose to speak to the Ku Klux Klan or voluntarily check into a prison as notorious as San Quentin? This time around, headlines rule. “Immigration and Refugees” kicked off the second season April 30; “Chicago Gangs” followed it, along with “Native Americans,” in response to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and “Muslims in Small Town America,” in response to the Trump administration’s much-ballyhooed Muslim ban. There are eight episodes in all.
Bell admits that President Donald Trump has had a great impact on this season. “A lot of [this season] was informed by the election,” he explained. “Who is sort of being targeted? Who is being made fun of a lot? Or who is not really having their voice heard a lot? So that meant that we had to do one on Muslims. We had to do one on immigrants and refugees. We did one on Chicago.”
Trump’s presence in the Oval Office has also affected the reaction of the people with whom Bell interacts. “In the first season, all those issues were important and people were fired up about them, but [with Obama in office], there wasn’t a sense of ‘Uh-oh, we might be in trouble,’” Bell noted.
While Bell tackles largely unfamiliar territory in this season’s episodes, Chicago is the exception. “I graduated high school in Chicago,” Bell explained. “Chicago was always in the news as being America’s most violent city or gang-ridden, and I lived in Chicago for a long time, and yes, there are areas that are like that, but that’s not true for the whole city. And even what you’re saying about those areas [that are], you’re misrepresenting. And then Donald Trump went out of his way [to target] Chicago and then even targeted Dwyane Wade’s cousin, who was killed, and I was like, ‘We have to do Chicago.’”
For Bell, who spoke with current gang members, the solution to Chicago’s violence is no secret. “They all know what the solutions are to gang violence. They all know what the solutions are to crime,” he observed. “We need jobs. We need better schools. When you look at Chicago, they closed a bunch of the public schools and the schools are underfunded.
“[When] you walk on the South and West sides of Chicago, there’s miles and miles of undeveloped land that’s just sitting there,” he continued. “There’s not many tall buildings. There’s not a lot of businesses. There’s not a lot of places for people to go. There’s not a big population density. And when that happens, there’s no jobs.
“If you’re on the North Side, clearly people are investing in the North Side of Chicago, and those buildings are constantly going up and new businesses are constantly moving in,” he added. “The city of Chicago could certainly make it friendlier on people to invest on the South and West sides. ... Cities give tax breaks all the time for these things, but they’re not doing it.”
A lack of jobs and economic development is a recurring theme, whether Bell turns his attention to Chicago, indigenous people in South Dakota or white people in Appalachia. But with Charles Barkley’s series American Race recently launched on sister station TNT, it is curious that, when it comes to black people exploring race and other tensions in this country, television bets on the celebrity of a comedian and a former NBA player.
“Why can’t journalists do these similar shows? Why isn’t this being done by people who ostensibly have more clear qualifications?” Bell pondered before answering.
“I think one reason is that a lot of journalists, rightfully so, aren’t trying to be entertainers,” he said. “So they don’t want to put an entertaining spin on what they’re doing because that’s not really what journalism is about ultimately. And, two, many journalists still heel to the whole news thing of trying not to be biased. And so, if you’re not trying to be entertaining and you’re not letting people know what your opinion is, then there’s not the potential to pull a certain number of viewers,” he suggested.
“With me and Barkley’s show, you know who Barkley is before you sit down and watch the show, probably. I can’t imagine anybody’s like, ‘I want to watch this American Race show; who is this Charles Barkley fellow?’ Several times on [my] show, I let you know who I am and what I care about. So people appreciate that. Even if they don’t agree with either one of us, they know where you’re coming from when you’re delivering information.”
Bell knows that this approach helps him engage those he interviews. “If you sit down with a news reporter,” he explained, “you’re going to give them the answers the way they want to be given them. But if you sit down with me, we’re going to have a conversation, and we might have some fun and we might laugh and we might cry. You can sort of let your guard down a little bit with me. I haven’t seen American Race, so I can’t speak to that with [Barkley], but that’s what it is for me.”
Whatever the dynamic, Bell is earnest in his desire to contribute something useful to the dialogue. Although he knows there is even more room for growth, he is pleased with the progress he’s made with the second season of United Shades of America. “The first season was like the mixtape, and this is like the album,” he says.
Editor’s note: United Shades of America airs Sunday nights on CNN at 10 p.m. ET.