TV Bell’s show a clash course in prob­ing cul­tural di­vides

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - POKER - By Fra­zier Moore

NEW YORK — “Amer­ica’s Best Big­ots” is not the name of W. Ka­mau Bell’s new CNN se­ries — “al­though that would be a great name for a show,” says the pop­u­lar black co­me­dian who hosts it.

Bell’s se­ries, pre­mier­ing Sun­day, is in­stead ti­tled “United Shades of Amer­ica,” and, while it will rou­tinely place him in a cul­ture clash with the week’s cho­sen groups or sub­cul­tures, the point is not to spot­light prej­u­dice.

Bell’s mis­sion is to build a bridge of un­der­stand­ing be­tween him and a racially, eth­ni­cally or oth­er­wise di­ver­gent sam­ple of his fel­low habi­tants in th­ese United States.

Fu­ture episodes of the eight-episode sea­son will fea­ture in­mates at San Quentin State Prison; hap­pily dis­con­nected folks who in a Snapchat age opt for liv­ing off the grid; re­tirees and col­lege kids who an­nu­ally col­lide in Day­tona Beach, Fla., for spring break; and a few of the hip­sters grav­i­tat­ing to Port­land, Ore., along with long­time res­i­dents who weather this as­sault.

To kick off the se­ries, Bell takes a big swing: He con­sorts with mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan.

“As a black per­son, it’s good to know who hates you,” he pro­poses. And while one might ar­gue that it would have been smarter to film this episode last, not to start with, “I fig­ured if it re­ally goes badly, we only shoot that one episode, and I be­come a leg­end.”

He’s jok­ing about that, but he makes a chill­ing point: “In his­tory, most black guys that get this close to the Klan don’t end up leav­ing.”

Bell’s se­cret is his dis­arm­ing man­ner. It’s the same cheery style that has helped es­tab­lish him as a stand-up comic who can defuse un­com­fort­able truths with in­sight and a smile.

“You’re al­ways us­ing jokes to ex­plain the world to your­self and then to the au­di­ence,” says Bell (whose on­stage act will be on dis­play in his first solo stand-up spe­cial, “W. Ka­mau Bell: Semi-Prom­i­nent Ne­gro,” pre­mier­ing Fri­day on Show­time).

Hu­mor is a big part of the for­mula on “United Shades of Amer­ica.”

“But I tried to be very clear, in each case, that we’re here to make fun out of this sit­u­a­tion, not to make fun of this sit­u­a­tion,” he says.

That’s true even with the Klan­ners, one of whom is asked about the in­fa­mous robes he’s wear­ing: “We were in Ken­tucky in the mid­dle of Au­gust, so I said, ‘It’s got to be hot un­der there.’ ”

Bell has no prob­lem be­ing called “a black comic,” an in­suf­fi­cient if lit­er­ally true la­bel, any more than he ob­jects to be­ing called a black man.

“I’m not try­ing to be post-racial; I’m not try­ing to be col­or­blind,” he says. “I think we should all be able to em­brace the parts of our iden­tity we want. Like many peo­ple of color, you ei­ther have to em­brace it or fight it your whole life.”

But there’s more to the pic­ture: His wife, Melissa Hud­son Bell, with whom he has two young daugh­ters, is white. She is also a multi-de­greed aca­demic, Bell says with ob­vi­ous pride, “and a lot of the work that I do has been af­fected by our con­ver­sa­tions. We have a racism­fem­i­nism think tank at home.”

That news doesn’t please a cer­tain im­pe­rial wizard in Arkansas, who ad­vises Bell that the Bi­ble con­demns in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage as “an abom­i­na­tion.”

“So, it’s worse than mur­der?” Bell in­quires.

“Yeah,” in­sists the Klans­man who, a mo­ment later, vows “the Klan will go on for­ever and evolve.”

“One way I hope it evolves,” Bell of­fers, is for the Klan’s hoods to add mouth holes, “cause some­times it’s hard to un­der­stand you.”

He re­ally does want to un­der­stand.

SCOTT GRIES/INVISION

To kick off his new se­ries — “United Shades of Amer­ica” — W. Ka­mau Bell meets with mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan.

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