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W. Kamau Bell of ‘United Shades of America’ on Listening, Learning and Laughing in a Dark Time

On his adventurous and engaging CNN show, “United Shades of America,” which returns Sunday at 10 p.m., W. Kamau Bell laughs a lot. Even when he’s sitting with someone like Richard Spencer.

Spencer is one of the leaders of a loose coalition that calls itself the “alt right” but which really just shoves various long-standing racist and white supremacist movements into slightly slicker packaging. He’s odious, but his form of odiousness is, in some quarters, back in style.

The hallmark of Bell’s show is that he meets people where they are. He puts them at ease and lets them speak, without ever minimizing the fact that he may find their views off-putting or even reprehensible.

“It is sort of like being a host — not just being a TV host, but a host,” Bell tells Variety. His approach with interview subjects is about “really settling people down, starting a conversation before the cameras roll, so they can know you’re a person. Then letting them get the thing they want to get out.”

Bell, whose laidback and pointed standup segments begin each episode, excels at this — at putting across his views, and data that supports his beliefs, but also at listening to people, whoever they are and wherever they’re coming from. He’s honest and witty when the possibility of a meeting of the minds dies on the vine right in front of him, but he’s always willing to hear out the people he sits down with. In the eight-episode new season, he talks to Muslim Americans, residents of Appalachia, protestors at Standing Rock, and white supremacists, among others. 

“I try to run conversations the same way that I run them in real life. …The more it can be like a real conversation, the better it is,” Bell says. He admits that the media could do better in many ways — in his May 7 episode, which goes behind the numbers to provide valuable insights on the issue of violence in Chicago, he even dings CNN’s coverage of the city’s ills for being superficial. But his approach is built on the idea that, while taking aim at people and institutions for their missteps is valid and provides a valuable psychological outlet, it’s not the only way to create change.

“It’s not just about reading an article about what the media gets wrong. It’s about us as individuals going, ‘You know that guy in high school who posts on Facebook who I hate? What if I met him for coffee?’” Bell says. Whatever ails the country — and his show gracefully and systematically presents evidence of many of those problems — “it’s not going to be solved through thinkpieces or social-media status updates. That’s the thing with the show. It’s [the idea that it’s] more likely to be solved through real-life human interaction.”

Bell has an array of conversations — and makes real, human connections while throwing out references to Hot Pockets, Urkel and DMX — in that outstanding May 7 episode, in which he talks to members of gangs, a pastor, parents and other regular citizens in Chicago, all of whom provide history and context to the complicated problems of the city (many of the issues come back to schools, funding and investments in communities, not surprisingly). In those talks, as with the show in general, there’s never a sense that he’s rushing people, or steering them into a soundbite that will look good in a promo, and yet the show’s pace rarely lags. Now and then, there are moments of strong emotion and even discovery, which Bell allows to breathe.

“I know the energy in the room changes based on the conversations,” Bell says. “I know that happens. Sometimes you go in and it feels really tense, when you leave it feels really light. You know what I mean? But I can’t say what happens when they get home.”

Very little was likely to change in the Spencer home based on his chat with Bell, but that interview is a good example of the CNN host’s strategies in action. At first, I’d wished he’d confronted Spencer and his cohorts with some the statistics about immigrants’ social and economic contributions — information that he shares with viewers via charts and voiceovers. Perhaps the strongest refutations arrive during Bell’s chats with immigrants, many of whom are eagerly starting businesses, and during a talk with the white mayor of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who enthusiastically embraced the town’s status as the most diverse community in the country. 

But in the end, I came around to thinking it was a better idea not to roll out those numbers again; going over that ground twice might have felt repetitive. In his interview with Spencer, who was famously punched by a stranger in a viral clip that has made the rounds online for months, Bell often just lets him talk; he gives him the floor long enough to make his views look ridiculous.

And then he tells Spencer he’s going to home to write fan-fiction in which James Bond is a black man. Both of them laugh, but Spencer adds that he finds that idea “horrifying.” (Actually horrifying: A moment earlier in the day in which a speaker used the word “lynching” repeatedly in a particularly offensive way: Bell just looks at the camera. His response is silent, and yet says everything.)

Bell’s show is not only well-constructed, funny and obviously deeply felt, it often comes across as the show we need for these polarized times. He has a point of view, and yet, as is the case with many of the best scripted shows of the moment, he’s willing to consider other stances — up to a point. He’s got his own set of beliefs, but he’s curious, and that kind, wry curiosity is the throughline that gives the show an impressive consistency.

“Over the years, I’d hear Jon Stewart disavow being a journalist and say, ‘No, I’m a comedian.’” Bell said. “I’d be like, ‘Stop pretending. You know you’re a journalist.’”

But after he began making “United Shades,” he said he began to understand the distinction. It’s clear that Bell doesn’t want to set himself up as an expert or an authority. He just wants to talk to people, consider what he learns, and perhaps have his show be one of the vehicles that may allow audience members to examine and maybe even question their own beliefs.

“For me, it’s like, I’m supposed to have good, fun, interesting conversations with people and learn in real time, so that’s all I’m focused on,” Bell says. “Most people have the ability to turn their empathy engine back on, but there’s such a seductive burn to not being empathetic. The show is hopefully going, ‘Put that [smartphone] down and actually sit with these people for a little bit.’”

For the full conversation with Bell, check out this podcast

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