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W. Kamau Bell meets the KKK and lives to tell the tale on 'United Shades of America'

W. Kamau Bell, host and creator of the CNN docuseries,
W. Kamau Bell, host and creator of the CNN docuseries, "The United Shades of America."
John Nowak/CNN
W. Kamau Bell, host and creator of the CNN docuseries,
W. Kamau Bell and The Frame host, John Horn, at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
W. Kamau Bell, host and creator of the CNN docuseries,
Still photo from the Showtime special presentation, "W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro."
Courtesy of SHOWTIME

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In the coming days, sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell hits the small screen with two projects. On April 24, his long awaited documentary series, "United Shades of America,” launches on CNN. Then, on April 29, his stand-up comedy special, “W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro,” which was directed by Morgan Spurlock, will debut on Showtime. 

The CNN series made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which is where The Frame's John Horn sat down with Bell. The video below is from the pilot episode in which Bell meets with a hooded member of the KKK on the side of a deserted country road at night. The klansman tells the comedian, who somehow maintains his calm demeanor, that interracial marriage is an "abomination" and that on the hierarchy of sins, it's worse than murder.  By the way, Bell is married to a white woman. 

Later in the episode, Bell even witnesses an “igniting” of a cross. He told The Frame:

I know even though I got to sit here and talk with these people that not many black people get to walk away from this. In the history of America, not many black people got to walk away from an engagement with the Klan.

Bell's previous TV work includes the FX talk show, “Totally Biased," for which Chris Rock served as executive producer. In the interview highlights below, Bell talks about his hopes for "United Shades of America" and how he approached the episode with the KKK.

To hear the full interview hit the play button above.


How are you able to have a grown-up conversation with people who are so ignorant and so racist?

I think the thing I was trying to do is actually really ask engaged questions with them. Because I really am curious ... let's actually have a back-and-forth conversation: How can you defend that logic? How can you explain that logic? Why do you have this way of thinking? Because they do think that way. It's not a game. So my question is: I want to sit down with you and actually see if we can have a conversation back-and-forth. So that was the whole impetus: Can I have a conversation with a Klan member?

You're not going to change their mind though, are you?

It's not about changing their mind, 'cause it's a television show. It's about exploring their mind and letting other people witness the process.

What do you hope audiences take away from it?

I think there's a tendency for white people in this country to think that that kind of racism is from the past. Or that that kind of racism doesn't exist anymore. You know, we're airing on CNN. I don't know if you're aware of this — a lot of white people watch CNN. So the idea is that you will watch this thing and may [think], I didn't know it existed. Maybe this racism thing is worse than I thought. Which, as a black person or person of color in America, we all know that. And then for people of color to watch this show, it sort of helps support the idea that, Yeah we know this is out here. It's also fun to see this guy make humor out of it.

You are with a camera crew. You are not traveling alone. But you are clearly in what we will call very unfriendly territory. Are there moments when you're actually filming when you are aware of the predicament in which you are in? In fact, the very first person you meet is on a dark road in the middle of nowhere.

When we first started talking about the show, and then CNN agreed to do a pilot, there was a lot of ideas that got thrown around and I was the one who said, "Klan." So this was always my idea. I felt like, if we're going to do this show — because there are shows on CNN where people go to other places and meet other people — I felt like, for the pilot, we have to pick something that none of the other hosts can do. Especially can't, aren't going to do, and especially wouldn't do it the way that I would do it. They wouldn't have the same stake involved.

So I was aware of that from the moment I pitched it. We talked about it a lot. I talked to my mom about it. I talked to my wife about it. There were security concerns. And I was comforted by the fact that everybody took it seriously. Nobody was like, Oh that'll be fun. Everybody was like, What can we do? We had a security guard on the set with us. He's an ex-LAPD officer.

To protect you?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm sure he would've protected other people, but his primary concern was me. But the interesting thing is that, the part of the show that is me going to the cross lighting, was the very first day that we shot anything. And so I had just met [the guard]. I had just met the crew. I was new. So there was fear of like, this is my first day on the job. There was fear of like, Do these people take this as seriously as I do? There is the fear of like, I am the only black person on the thing. And we're in the middle of the forest. And we're with the Klan. 

So there was a lot of levels of fear and anxiety that I had to deal with. And I felt good about showing that on camera. Like there's a point when I get out of the car and I think you hear me say, Oh s**t, oh s**t, oh s**t. It's me feeling the weight of  — as I saw a phalanx of Ku Klux Klan members — this is a TV show, but it's not a game. You know what I mean? This is reality. They could have 100 guys in the woods and they could all come out right now and this [becomes] a different thing. So I certainly felt that weight. And it took me a while to calm down. It took me a while to get into the groove but, because I am a comedian, humor is how I calm down and get into the groove.

I'm just curious logistically how you actually track down the Klan. Do they have a Facebook page you have to like? Do they have a publicist? What are the logistics of finding these people?

The producers who had to do it started with like 100 different Ku Klux Klan cells. And I say cells because they are a terrorist group. So they started with like 100 different versions of the Klan. And they just sort of reached out. They all have Facebook pages. They all have Twitter [accounts]. They all have YouTube things. They are in the act of recruiting. They all have websites. You just go through them. Some are more famous than others.

And eventually it came down to [asking]: Do you want a reality show to come film your thing? So that cut out a bunch of people. It's from CNN. That cuts out a bunch of people. It's a black guy. That cuts out a bunch of people. He's a comedian. Ok, we've got three groups now. [laughs] It just eventually ended up [that] these are three different factions of the Klan who are also in a close enough geographical region that we could do this in one week.

If the Klan is setting the tone for the way in which the eight episodes are going to unfold, is there a consistent theme of what you're doing in that first episode that you hope will carry through, regardless of where you're going throughout the rest of the season?

There are other episodes where I am in jeopardy. It's not always physical jeopardy. Sometimes it's emotional jeopardy. I'm always engaging with people in the same way and I'm not always engaging with people I agree with. But I am always finding ways to create humor out of those situations.

What did you find out about yourself and about the country through the making of this show that surprised you?

You know, it's funny. We kept saying that every episode was basically about gentrification. Every episode was about one group's fear of another group pushing them out. And sometimes those fears are legitimate. Like we did this whole episode in Portland, about the side of Portland has all this influx of hipsters pushing out the black people of Portland. But the Klan is also afraid of the black people pushing them out of this country. That's not legitimate. But every episode ... we were in Barrow, Alaska which is 60 percent Native, which sounds good until you realize it was supposed to be 100 percent Native. And so they're afraid of people coming in there, getting oil jobs and pushing them out and telling them not to pay attention to their culture anymore.

So everywhere you go in America people have concerns that they might lose the things and culture that they've worked hard to build.

They're afraid. They're fearful.

I don't think I saw a lot of fear, but I did see a lot of people who were concerned about the future of this country. We were in East L.A. — historically a Latino neighborhood [that] is now being affected by gentrification and also being affected by the rhetoric of the right. But they are also working hard to, instead of just being afraid,  creating enough noise and art and culture to [say], We are not going anywhere.

So, to me. that's the other side of it. It's like, If they're going to come after us we're going to really create enough noise and stink and beautiful culture to show we're not going anywhere and we're not afraid of you.

"The United Shades of America" launches on CNN on April 24.

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