Review: ‘United Shades of America’

Courtesy of CNN

W. Kamau Bell is good company, and in his appealing new CNN documentary series, “United Shades of America,” his quick wit and earnest intelligence are used well.

In “United Shades,” Bell travels around the country and digs into the complexities of race and culture in America. Of the three installments sent for review (of eight in the first season), two are engagingly constructed, entertainingly educational and smartly paced. If the third installment is more bland and generic than the others, Bell’s lively presence remains a draw throughout. If you’re going to go on a road-trip with someone, the curious and dryly observant Bell is excellent company to have.

Each episode shows Bell traveling the country immersing himself in the histories and values of different groups and cultures, and contextual information is sometimes supplied via stand-up bits that are interspersed throughout. There are also witty voiceovers as well, which are used to excellent effect in the very strong first installment.

In a debut episode that smoothly transitions between dramatic, poignant and strangely comedic moments, Bell travels to the middle of the country to drop in on various adherents of the Ku Klux Klan. Early on in the episode, Bell travels down a dark country road to meet a Klansman wearing white robes. As Bell gets out of his car, his deadpan narration can be heard: “How come this can’t be happening during the day again?”

The running time of an hour gives Bell time to get to know various representatives of different strands of the KKK, including one member who shows Bell the proper method of dousing a cross with gasoline. “We call it Klansman cologne,” the man says nonchalantly.

Bell’s openness and quiet willingness to challenge these bigots through conversation is impressive to watch. He sits down at a coffee shop with one well-known advocate of the “progressive” and “new” version of the Klan to listen to talk about how the group has allegedly evolved. Some wear suits and ties instead of robes; one even has an online news program. But the robes are still a big part of it all, as Bell learns. At one point, Bell asks one Klan member what a new set of robes typically costs (about $125, as it happens).

Bell actually attends a cross burning, and though I won’t give away every aspect of how that heavy moment is delicately handled, at one point, he wonders if it’s “rude” for him not to help with preparations. (“One of the nicest times to do it is during a full moon,” Bell is told.) The close of the episode manages to acknowledge the abhorrent history of this ritual, and yet these scenes are still of a piece with all the strange and bittersweet moments that preceded it. 

Racist vitriol — which, of course, has never left the fabric of American life — has returned with full force of late, and it’d be easy to for Bell to supply a bunch of caricatured moments that wouldn’t advance our understanding of why people retreat into bigotry and hate. But in the town of Harrison, Ark., where a racist billboard has caused controversy, Bell finds a complex conversation going on, one that is not easily reduced to a hashtag but is well worth having.

Bell’s visit to a prison is similarly bracing. Mass incarceration has also received a great deal of attention in recent years, but the subject can become a bit dry and rote without memorable individual stories woven into the facts and figures. Bell finds a wealth of compelling individuals inside San Quentin, which has a thriving newspaper, baseball team and even a well-known investment advisor (avid investors may be common in minimum-security prisons, but San Quentin is not exactly Club Fed).

The country’s history with regard to men of color and incarceration is presented with skill and thorougness, and yet the hour manages to paint complex portraits of individuals as well. The empathy and insight that Bell displays with everyone he meets — inmates and guards alike — means that his visit behind bars is over much too soon. His time in San Quention, while sobering, is also far more entertaining — and realistic — than one might first expect.

Part of the appeal of “United Shades” is its devotion to tightly edited mini-segments within each episode; as Bell takes on a topic, he goes from person to person and place to place, and yet his treatment of the first two subjects has reasonable depth and a wealth of useful information. When paired with Bell’s affable, inquisitive presence, the smart pacing and editing allow the first two hours pass by quickly. If the third installment drags, it’s partly due to the fact that Bell didn’t manage to find an array of characters as memorable as those who populated the prison and Klan episodes.

All in all, “United Shades” is, like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” a generally thoughtful and well-crafted travelogue, one that isn’t the final word on a given subject but one that also never gets bogged down by a sense of self-importance. Given that Bell’s FX/FXX talk show didn’t quite take off, despite his ample talents, it’s good to see that he has rebounded with a laudable series that appears to cater to his many strengths as a writer, engaging improviser and thinker.

Review: 'United Shades of America'

Series; CNN, Sun. April 24, 10 p.m.


Produced by Objective Media Group America/All3Media America for CNN.


Executive producers, W. Kamau Bell, Jimmy Fox, Star Price, Layla Smith. 60 MIN.

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  1. DF says:

    Maybe Kamau will do a show on the “black” shade of America in Chicago. He can start with this fact: murders in Chicago since 2001 almost equal the U.S. death toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. Hmm! Wonder how he would spin that one during his comedy routine?

  2. jojo says:


  3. Thebunkis says:

    DF’s comment completely knocked it out of the park. This show is just another attack on white people, however subtle it may be. There’s always the insinuation that the white man is evil and everyone else is perfect.

    Even though many whites go out of their way to cater to the victimized mentality often expressed by minorities, fortunately many people are starting to wake up to the rampant “reverse racism” here in the US.

  4. DF says:

    United Shades of America is a program with an every week theme that white man is bad and everybody else is good.

  5. R. Rowe says:

    The first episode I saw of Arkansas I really liked it and what you said about seeing a cross burning and being blessed to be able to leave at the end really hit gone to me and thoroughly enjoyed it but your Portland episode proved you’re biased on the black side so you lost me I deleted recorded episodes and canceled future recordings…we have enough problems with racism in our country without your reigniting a decades old dying ember

  6. Monica says:

    I agree with Lisa. Kamau you are portraying reverse bigotry. You are no doubt encouraging racism when we need to stop the divide completely. The town I’ve lived in for 25+ of my adult years used to be almost 100% white, now our town is mostly black and latino but not one white person is complaining or moving. Again, like Lisa who commented before me, I am a white woman and now I am a minority in my town. It doesn’t bother me. We are a diverse nation with people of all cultures. You are trying to keep racism alive with your so called comedic banter. Just stop, it’s not funny. We all need to *just get along* and stop trying to play the victim. Shows such as yours are keeping bigotry alive and encouraging reverse discrimination, especially against whites. Discrimination and finger pointing against any group is wrong. I will not be watching your show again.

    • Robert Northcutt says:

      R Rowe-I agree 100% with your statement. I live near Portland and the show I saw was pure racism. He wants white people to feel bad for “running out” those that can’t afford to live in Portland, meaning the black folk. Look, there’s alot of places I can’t afford to live, like NYC, but I understand and accept that. He made it look like only black people were being priced out of the market and not anyone else. The show was completely focused on the black agenda, and like others have said, the guy is just too much into his own race and not all races and their struggles as well. We all have trouble making the rent, paying bills, raising kids etc., this is not some black thing like he wants viewers to feel. He actually ended the show by telling people to say hi to any old black people we see in Portland. Why not say hi to everyone? The guy has an agenda.

  7. Lisa says:

    I will never watch this show again. I thought the idea was to stop racism. Kamau made Portland look like a racist town and that blacks are victims. Im guessing that if blacks wanted to move to Portland they would be welcome and not looked at by their skin color. I would like to know what the people of Portland thought of this episode. I don’t respect you Kamau, and it has nothing to do with your skin color. You’re ignorant and incouraging racism, not trying to stop it. Why can’t you show something positive. I live in a town where people don’t care if you’re black, white, brown or lgbtq. Just be a good person. By the way, as a white woman, I’m a minority here. I’m sick of the media showing the worst of our country and encouraging it.

    • Mike says:

      I came searching for any reviews that highlighted what you just posted. I’m now 6 episodes in to watching this show and I feel like Kamau never really digs into what’s actually happening in society. Instead we just get tasteless jokes about white people mixed in with the message that black people are losing. This Portland episode has been the worst example of this yet. It doesn’t take long before Kamau starts the, “where’s all the black folk?” routine. Fine. Maybe there’s something interesting here. But all we get is a round table of black people literally crying about the overabundance of white people. In between interviews speaking of the white population growing, we have mini history lessons about racism being written into our constitution and hack stand up routines about white men colonizing America. I think the racism Kamau portrays in America is not accurate. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. I wish we could have a real honest show about racism, and every now and then Kamau gets it right; but most of the time the only takeaway we get from this show is that the white man is holding down the black man. I just don’t think it’s that simple. Why are less black people living in Portland? They say it right in the show. They can’t afford to live there. Is that a race issue or an economic issue? Should banks give more loans to lower income families because it would be racist if they didn’t? Sorry if this wasn’t written well. I’m not great at putting my thoughts into text.

  8. Tom G says:

    This is such a waste of time. It’s Tired !! Boring !! A Huge Yawn !! Who Cares !!

  9. Mannix says:

    CNN ripped off The Americans with Charlie LeDuff on Fox TV. They’ve been doing this for over 2 years with a smaller budgeted news formatted segment. Way better and smarter.

  10. Melanie Lee says:

    I love United Shades of America! I had the pleasure of reviewing Mr. Bell’s FringeNYC show seven years ago, and I’ve enjoyed his weekly forays into the corners and pockets of the crazy quilt that is the USA. He’s brave, attentive, gentle, and incisive. If the third installment was the East LA/Chicano segment I saw on the third airing, TV critic Ms. Ryan may have found it blander because a Latino neighborhood isn’t as dangerous or scary as the KKK or an infamous prison. Having grow up with Latino influences (I’m a multiethnic African-American), I found this segment the most comfortable and the least surprising, since some of it was stuff I knew or semi-knew. I look forward to the next episodes of Bell’s adventures in, as Bernie Sanders or Paul Simon would put it, looking for America.

    • Thebunkis says:

      A Latino neighborhood isn’t as dangerous as the KKK?

      Yeah because white people are so evil and Latinos aren’t racist at all and perfect angels, right?

    • DF says:

      Boyle Heights Ca, is the utopia for gangs, drugs, rapes, and murders. Issues Mr. Bell failed to mention.

      • Thebunkis says:

        A Latino neighborhood isn’t as dangerous as the KKK?

        Yeah because white people are so evil and Latinos aren’t racist at all and perfect angels, right?

  11. ThatOneGuyYouWentToElemenatrySchoolOrGradeSchoolWhateverYouWannaCallItWith says:

    lol There’s a typo in the penultimate paragraph. (finally, I get to use that word!)

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