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W Kamau Bell checks out a KKK burning for CNN's 'United Shades of America'

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Friday, April 22, 2016

I am on vacation April 13-26 but I did my best to keep this blog populated while I was gone, at least a little bit. If you have any news or would like to read other entertainment news, please go to Jennifer Brett ( and her AJC Buzz blog and Melissa Ruggieri ( at AJC Music Scene.

The scene looks like it could be from a Marlon Wayons parody film or perhaps an old Chappelle skit. But it's no joke.

Black comedian W. Kamau Bell, in the opening episode of CNN's "United Shades of America" set to air Sunday, April 24, attends an actual cross burning on the land of a chapter of the KKK. At one point, he asks polite logistical questions about the type of wood they use that burns best and whether they purchased the wood at the local Home Depot.

"I actually feel lucky," Bell said on the show. "Unlike most of the black people in the story of this country who have been present for a cross burning, I get to leave."

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He did learn that many in the KKK believe they are good Christians: "You'd think someone burning a cross must hate Christians. But they love Christ. The problem is when they burn these crosses on the lawns of black homes, that symbolism gets lost."

Bell is not a man who shies away from tough racial commentary.

Four years ago, he nabbed a newsy weekly comedy show on FX, then a daily comedy on FXX in 2014 that crashed and burned.

"I wouldn't be talking to you if it weren't for FX, FXX and [executive producer] Chris Rock," he said. "It helped my career. But I was running on fumes. Our show didn't quite get going. Turning it into a daily show put a lot of pressure on me. I blame myself."

On the bright side, he added, "the show has built a legend in cancellation. Sometimes that's better. I get to be an African-American folk tale! America couldn't handle the truth bombs!"

A production company last year pitched CNN to Bell about a show to have a black man go to places frequented by whites. Bell was interested but felt he could broaden the scope beyond just white places "because it's not the '90s anymore. I wanted to visit a variety of races and cultures and identities. Else, after the fourth episode, we'd be back at the country club. This way, I can go to the country club and San Quentin prison and East L.A. We get more slices of the American apple."

The first season is eight episodes. "I feel great being on a network available everywhere and in airports!" he said.

Bell said CNN was going to air it earlier but the network decided to wait until now, which is to his advantage because ratings are higher in this elevated election year.

He decided to do his first episode about the KKK, taped long before Donald Trump struggled to disavow the group. "I wanted to pick a topic that is clearly distinguishes us from the other shows on CNN," he said. "I could see Lisa Ling do something on the KKK. But it would be different. She's not a black man!"

Bell said the cross burning, which the KKK dubbed a cross "lighting," was the first taping he did with his new crew. "It was our first day at work," he said. " 'Nice to meet you! Where's the coffee?' Oh, it's behind the cross!' "

Afterwards, he said he and the crew landed at an Outback Steakhouse. "I needed a gin and topic and big slabs of dead flesh," Bell said, as a cleanser.

Surprisingly, Bell said some of the Klansmen he interviewed may have liked him. "I got an email afterwards on Facebook from one of them who said he saw the commercials!"

He said they approached 100 Klan chapters found on the Web to see if they'd work with him on the news segment. Most rejected or ignored him. A handful said maybe. But when they found out it was CNN, several dropped out. Then when they found out he was black, the numbers dropped again. When told he was a comedian, they surprisingly had four chapters left.

In the end, three of them ended up being filmed.

Unlike the "Daily Show" type bits, Bell is less satirical and more bemused. "I'm not going to sandbag" the people he interviews. "To me, it's about having a productive conversation." The funniest moment he got was when one Klansman seriously said mixing races was like mixing Skittles. He prefers the stronger flavors when the Skittles are separated by color. And yes, he apparently separates his Skittles!

Another time, Bell gives pointers to KKK talk show hosts about how to better connect with their audience. "Invite us in," he suggests. "Smile with your eyes!"

While largely respectful to their faces, Bell does describe one blue-robed Klansman as a "Smurf." ("I'm not perfect," he admits.)

Other areas he went in other episodes include Camden, N.J. for community policing, spring break in Florida and Barrow, Alaska, where Native American culture is being subsumed by oil culture. "I got to try whale" in Alaska, Bell said. "It was frozen. It was like eating ice chips and blood!"  He was also amazed by the high prices in such an isolated place. "It's like pricing at an airport inside another airport inside a sports stadium," Bell cracked.

Bell is also hosting a Showtime special on April 29 called "Semi Prominent Negro" directed by fellow CNNer Morgan Spurlock.

The name is based on a joke in his act. "If something happens to Al Sharpton and Van Jones and Chris Rock are busy, I get the call to talk about black affairs," he said.


"United Shades of America" with W Kamau Bell, 10 p.m. Sundays, April 24, CNN

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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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