W. Kamau Bell’s new show “United Shades of America” claims to explore the “unique” parts of America.
The show’s premise is to follow Bell as he goes places where you would not expect him to go or where he should not go. The pilot definitely falls into the latter. He starts the show with a bang by going into the deep south to explore the remnants of the Ku Klux Klan. Bell joked that he did not even believe CNN would let him do it. Rather it was just an intentional absurd demand to negotiate down from.
His first encounter with a Klansman sets the tone for the entire show. In the middle of the night, driving down an abandoned country road to predetermined meeting spot we watch Bell muse on how terrible of an idea it all seems in that moment. Bell makes it such that you cannot help but laugh at the nervous tension.
Throughout the entire first episode Bell’s one liners, voice overs and dialogue with the camera regularly elicited out loud laughter from the screening audience. He regularly points out the absurdity of his situation with lines like “I’m a KKK VIP.”
Despite the frequent use of humor, it never seems like Bell is trying to shout down or demean the people he talks to. As he speaks to members and leaders of Klan organizations in the south, the conversation always remains civil and friendly. Bell said in a post screening interview that he did not want the show to devolve into daytime televisionesque gawking at crazy people acting crazy. Rather, he said he wanted to have real conversations with people and he does. In each backwoods camp, compound and clearing, we see Bell talking and joking with men (in full Klan regalia family) about everyday annoyances and common experiences. In the polite civility, it is occasionally easy to forget that he is talking to the Klan. Minus the vile racism, each Klan member Bell talks to, seems to be a decent human being and that is the frightening part.
Bell does not let you forget that he is in the deep south with the Klan. The audience gets to see speeches in which Klansmen unabashedly call for violence against non-whites. The history of lynching and terror against communities of color are not ignored by the show. The show neither allows you to perceive Klan members as caricatures of bigotry nor as members of long gone past. The show wants to force its audience to reckon with the fact that this awful relic of American history still exists and is being perpetuated by their fellow Americans.
The regular interludes of stand up however seem out of place in mostly strong show. With a topic Bell acknowledges could fill up all eight episodes, the stand-up interludes feel like they are taking up too much space in an already very cramped for time episode. A few of the interludes are well placed and give the audience some time to unpack a really intense scene. However most just feel like Bell is over explaining the previous scene. These interludes give off the sense that Bell does not have enough confidence in the audience to understand what he just showed them. Though funny, most of the stand up is telling the audience what was already shown.
The heavy subject matter makes this momentary loss of confidence understandable. Despite regular comedic moments, the show demands thought and attention from its viewer. As the credits roll, you are left with the heavy questions and moments you need to unpack with someone else.
CNN invited us to a Happy Hour and Special Screening of at the Edition Hotel.