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Review: ‘United Shades of America’

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.

Production:

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

Crew:

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

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