This past Thursday, April 7th, I had the opportunity to attend the Rolling Out Chicago screening of comedian W. Kamau Bell’s new CNN series, “United Shades of America.” The scripted reality series features Bell placing himself in situations that the audience would not expect to find a Black person in. The première featured Bell meeting with modern-day members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The entire concept of a Black man meeting with KKK members in full regalia is sensational and attention grabbing to say the least. When the episode opened and Bell was forced to meet a Klansman on a dark deserted road, I did feel the pace of my heart speeding up as all of my childhood fears of the Klan were rekindled. The placement of the first commercial cliffhanger kept me in suspense for the first break. And that’s where the whole thing came apart for me.
I was already trying to figure out what self-respecting Klansmen would allow themselves to be interviewed by a Black comedian on camera? After the first interview, my suspicions were confirmed…these were not self-respecting Klansmen, but local trailer park dwellers looking for their shot at reality star fame, Bo0-Boo Kitty meets David Duke style. I found it hard to take a Klansmen visibly wearing shorts and flip-flops under the his robe seriously. I. JUST. COULDN’T.
The climax of the show was the ceremonial cross burning, the ultimate symbol of terrorism against Blacks in America, but somehow the show found a way to make it anti-climatic. In fact, instead of being terrified or angry, I thought it looked kind of cool in the night sky. So much for Black terror.
Immediately after the screening was a Q&A Session with Bell and Rolling Out Publisher Munson Steed. During the Q&A, I got a better understanding of Bell’s goal for the show, which was to have uncomfortable conversations, something that I like to do in my social media life as well, so that part of the show I appreciated. Where I think the episode missed the mark was the fact that the Klansmen came off as buffoons and non-threatening which I think could be dangerous in the long run.
There are real hate groups out there, who can cause real damage and harm in the Black community. We saw it with Dylan Ruth during the Charleston Massacre in South Carolina in which nine innocent Black people were killed. There are real hate groups out there, and they are neither cute nor funny, they are dangerous. I did not appreciate Bell making them seem funny and dimwitted. Oh wait, he’s a comedian, so perhaps that was the goal.
Nonetheless, in spite on my distaste for the first episode, I do look forward to future episodes that deal with more realistic issues. It’s hard to take a Black man interviewing the Klan seriously, it felt very Dave Chapelle-ish. I will give “United Shades of America” three episodes to get it together, because I really like the concept. My hope is that the show will get better as it takes on more realistic issues in future episodes.
United Shades of America gets 2 and 1/2 stars.