W. Kamau Bell has won three Emmys for his CNN show United Shades of America, a documentary series in which he uses concise commentary and humor to explore complex social issues, particularly those relating to race and racism. His show is nominated again this year for Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special, but an industry giant stands in the way of taking home a fourth Emmy: Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah and her team are nominated for their much-discussed royal sit down, Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special (the category also includes David Letterman’s Netflix talk series, Showtime’s Vice and CNN series Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy).
DEADLINE: What will you say to Oprah when she comes to the Creative Arts Emmys?
’76 Days’ team on the arduous journey to the Emmy-nominated document: “We knew the film had to be made”
W. Kamau Bell after winning the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys
Courtesy Matthew Carey
W. KAMAU BELL: What do you say? “Thank you for everything”? Because in a way, a career like hers makes a career like mine possible. Someone who no one saw coming, someone who was black in an industry that was usually white and said, “I’ll do it my way.” And then now stands on the other side as the industry standard. I don’t think I’ll end up in the same place as Oprah, but I also know she pushed the door wide open so people like me could walk through.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Oprah, but do you have other people you would cite as influences or inspirations for your approach to hosting your show?
BELL: One of the things that made me feel like I could do a show on CNN was Anthony Bourdain’s show. I saw him on the Travel Channel, and I saw him on the Food Network, and then I saw him on CNN. And it didn’t seem like he got any less – he just got more “Anthony Bourdain” over time… It was like, “Well, if he can do that, maybe I can do what I want to do in this place. ”
I think I never saw myself hosting until I was nominated for a Host Emmy at some point. I thought, “Oh, am I a host?” I don’t think I’m hosting a show, but good conversation. The hosting part really comes into play for me before the cameras are on when I sit down with me [an interviewee] and said, “Hey, my name is Kamau. Thanks for being there. We really appreciate it. Do you need anything Can we get you some water? ”Make yourself comfortable.
DEADLINE: One of the things that you do very well is the narration. How talkative you are will suit your overall presentation. How did you find out the voiceover aspect of hosting?
BELL: Early [episodes] of the show, when I watch it on CNN I would say “Yikes”. I can hear myself doing the “voice over”. It’s also about learning when not to take notes from an episode director. You may say, “Say it like that.” Sometimes they know what they are talking about. They often do not know what they are talking about. And you think, “No, I’ll put it that way.”
Because of the weirdness of Covid, I’m now recording the voice-over in my wife’s closet. I’m literally in my wife’s closet, surrounded by her clothes, trying not to spill my coffee on her shoes. You know what I mean? The last couple of years have been a lot looser because I and some of the directors have conversations back and forth as we shoot and the result will be something like, “Oh, that’s how you say it.” I think that has improved over the past few years.
DEADLINE: The show takes up such challenging, intellectually demanding topics. How do you get under the surface of these issues and really examine them in a way that sheds new light on, for example, white supremacy or the reparation of slavery?
BELL: I think if you watch every episode of the show from the beginning till now, not to say it’s like The Sopranos or something, but you see a person growing – like inside me – from the first episode, where I spoke to the Klan about that episode we were nominated for [this year] on white supremacy. This guy has changed a lot, it’s not just his hair that is getting grayer. I think I learned to have more nuanced discussions as the show progressed. I also learned that you can have an academic discussion with an academic, a politician, or an activist. But you need someone who really wants to get to the heart of the matter.
[Note: the white supremacy episode, filmed partly in Pittsburgh, notes “Pittsburgh is a paradox. It is on many lists for being a great place to live and for being one of the most liberal places in America, but it also ranks as the worst place to live for Black people.”]
W. Kamau Bell is filming the “White Supremacy” episode of United Shades of America
I know people in Pittsburgh. So I went out and spoke to [writer] Damon Young and I spoke to her [rapper/activist] Jasiri X. And then found one of the producers [state representative] Summer Lee … She’s not your normal politician. We are always looking for people who have all the intellectual rigor, but also know that it is about winning people’s hearts and who can also pour out their hearts. So that’s the thing. When I’m facing this person, we can talk. If it’s someone who just wants to teach or give a presentation, it won’t be good television.
DEADLINE: The nature of white supremacy is that some people just stick their fingers in their ears and don’t get involved.
BELL: The big thing that I’ve come to understand more and more is that I’m not trying to reach out to everyone. In some people, the fingers are permanently anchored in the ears. You have to kind of say, “I’m not even going to try to get you. Most of all, I’m not going to try to get you first. You will be the last group I come to. ”There are many people, the fence sitters, who either think they know something because they don’t really care, but actually want to be on the right side of the story, or they are people who just hear all the noise and get overwhelmed and need someone to help them get through the noise. These are the people [I want to get to]. I would say that a significant part of this country is made up of people who sit on the fence or sit on the edge and say, “It’s too complicated” or “I’ll read something once, that’s enough for me to read”. To me, I think, “You are the one I try to talk to.”
CNN is a great home for this because people generally show up because they want to know something. They say, “I want to be smarter about something.”
DEADLINE: What do you think of the current excitement over Critical Race Theory?
BELL: I’m old enough to have seen the GOP run games like this one where they pick one thing and say, “That’s the thing, that’s all.” And usually there is nothing behind it. So this is no different from the Willie Horton commercial or anything else where they say, “This is the thing we should be scared of …” I think we need to understand that all of that stuff is a distraction.
And for that, I feel like I’m here to say, “Look, I’m going to define the Critical Race Theory for you because I feel like it’s my job to help you do that.” And then I’ll also tell you why you shouldn’t worry and why it’s a distraction. And then I will also say, “But don’t you want your children to learn the history of this country in elementary school, in high school? Wouldn’t it be helpful for them to know the genesis of this country, an accurate narration of the story? ”But at the end of the day, I think we need to stop letting the GOP dictate the terms of the debate as if they were in good shape Faith would do.
DEADLINE: You are now in your sixth season of United Shades of America. I wonder what reactions you get about the show, especially from black audiences. On the White Supremacy episode, you point out that there was pretty strong feedback on the “Klanisode” episode, the very first show you aired in 2016.
The clan-themed episode of United Shades of America
BELL: One of the themes of the show is that blacks are not a monolith. I heard about the Klan episode from different people. There were blacks [who said], “Why would you put the Klan on TV? How does that help us? ”And I hear that. I had to ask myself, “Why did I do this?” Looking back, I totally understand. [But], there were people, a lot of them know, who said, “Oh my god. I had no idea the Klan still existed. ”So I put the Klan on TV because there are people in this country, again mostly white, who thought the Klan was a relic of the past. Again, this is in 2016, before Trump invited all of these people to come back out into the light and wear their racist clothes in public.
When I think back to it, it was like it was a different time. If I did the same episode now, I would do it differently … A lot of the ways I framed them would be different. And then I was brand new too. That was the pilot for the show. So I didn’t even know what I was doing and I didn’t have the opportunity to make so many decisions.
When I’m out in the world and people come up to me when they say, “My favorite episode is …” they’ll generally say the Klan episode because that was the most shocking we’ve done. But the other thing I hear from people, especially in the last year, is, “These are important conversations that need to be held. Thank you for helping us have it. ”That doesn’t mean it will always be a fun conversation, but generally speaking, the mission is accomplished. If there are conversations that America has to have with itself that it is not having, I want to be able to encourage that. And that’s the main goal of the show right now.