CNN’s Emmy Award-winning United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell is back on air for its third season. For all the show’s many strengths, one of them just might be this: It’s a master class in having “uncomfortable conversations.”
The eight-part docuseries follows the comedian/social critic as he visits communities around the country, deftly deploying his unique brand of humor to explore what divides us: issues of race, history, policy, and the lived experiences of people who don’t typically make the news.
But even during moments that could have been profoundly confrontational – or even just plain awkward – Bell has consistently delivered more light than heat.
Expect more of the same this season.
“I think that Americans are tired of manufactured conflict,” he tells raceAhead. “This is not going to be a season of my sitting down with an evil villain or ‘bait and switches’,” the kind of drama television likes to provide. “This is going to be me talking to interesting people whose voices aren’t heard enough.”
There were some potentially villainous moments even in the first season, which began airing in 2016.
The series opened with “The New KKK,” in which Bell met with actual Klan members in full hooded regalia by the side of a dark, country road. He even attended a “cross-lighting.” In addition to being gutsy, it established Bell’s ability to manage substantive conversations with people who believe horrific things without flinching or pandering.
But it was a different time.
“We didn’t realize how lucky we were that [season one] happened during the last year of Obama,” he said, a time when white supremacy felt less like an active threat. “We could really pick and choose what we wanted to talk about then,” he says.
By the time that season two rolled around, it felt like the country was on fire.
“With Trump offending so many people and saying so many outrageous racist, sexist and ableist things, it was like the news was handing out homework assignments,” he said.
Bell talked to immigrants, refugees and advocates, explored Chicago gang violence, visited Muslims in small town America, even headed to coal country. All vital stuff, but still a laundry list of Trumpian talking points. At some point, he says, “it got exhausting trying to keep up with the news.”
Bell, who may be best known for his comedy, has excelled in the real world, as he stepped away from the relative detachment of the stand-up stage to meet people where they are and as they are, in the middle of their sometimes messy lives.
It’s a transition that many who speak from a position of authority struggle to achieve.
Bell’s secret is empathy. “I’ve learned that the more I can make it clear to people that I’m there for them, that I’m lucky to be there with them, it works,” he says,“and not that they’re lucky to be on TV with me – no, no, no.” The crew has become adept at making regular folks feel comfortable. “We don’t put the show before someone’s feelings and concerns.”
And, as a comic who specializes in sociopolitical content, he also comes prepared. “The show has taught me that I have a pretty good capacity to sit and listen,” a necessary first step to participating in a tough conversation. “Part of being a standup comic is being an active listener — reading the room and paying attention to everybody,” he says.
Click here for more on what to expect this season, and Bell’s best advice for surviving the stress of the relentless news cycle. (You’ll like it, I promise.)
Quick programming note!
I’m in Dallas today at the Conscious Capitalism annual confab, where I’ll be getting my business purpose on. I’ll also be interviewing former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick about his current role as Managing Director at Bain Capital – Patrick oversees the firm’s Double Impact investments, investing in companies that offer competitive and measurable financial, social, and environmental returns.
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