CNN's 'United Shades of America': Wildest, funniest, most notable lessons learned with W. Kamau Bell

CNN's 'United Shades of America': Wildest, funniest, most notable lessons learned with W. Kamau Bell
2016-05-24 02:03:04 UTC

Think of the last place on Earth you’d want to be. Now put that place in a worse place. Those are majority of the kinds of locations that comedian W. Kamau Bell goes to in the CNN series “United Shades of America.”

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In addition to being a black man approximately 6-foot-4 who stands out from first glance, going to the places he chooses to research could make an elephant in a ceramic store cringe. But in the middle of being terrified for him and learning a lot of information some viewers may have not known, admiration is about the best way to describe how this "Totally Biased" comedian earned his journalism stripes.

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                                (Photo credit: @wkamaubell/Twitter)

Check out where he’s been so far.


"The new KKK": It’s amazing that he got to Episode 2 after going down a dark road in Arkansas to meet the president of a Ku Klux Klan group, who refused to be filmed without full attire. How did W. Kamau Bell know it was him? The blinking headlights before he stepped out of the car in sheets. In addition to covering his entire body and only meeting at night, he wanted his voice disguised too. Sounds like someone who is super proud of being affiliated with a group, right? When W. Kamau Bell doesn't look perplexed or mildly scared, he also played detective about a mysterious sign in Harrison, Arkansas.

Most satisfying moment: The KKK member’s reaction to W. Kamau Bell saying he was married to a white woman.

Most notable GTHOH moment: W. Kamau Bell standing with an entire KKK group while they burned a cross.

Lesson learned: The Task Force fights back.

Funniest moment: “Funny” isn’t the right word. It was more like two “OMG shut up forever” moments. One klansman explained the rationale of wearing masks to “make them all equal” -- as though they were members of the Jabbawockeez. Then there was all the horrible unsolicited advertising for Home Depot, Skittles and Red Lobster.


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"Behind the Walls": By now the statistics of black men in prison have made the rounds (arguably one in three black men will go to prison at some point in their lives). However, up until this episode in San Francisco Bay, W. Kamau Bell had never been inside of a prison and he made a point of letting everybody know it. Repeatedly. But he went to San Quentin anyway.

Most satisfying moment: When asked why one prisoner decided to become a journalist, he said his voice was the “only thing still free.” (This would've been a great moment to cue the scene of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez wildly clapping. Journalists understand what he means.)

Most notable GTHOH moment: The “small management yard complex” was completely cleared out. Even with far more room than the prison cells, it had a zoo vibe that was extremely uncomfortable to observe just from a TV screen. Of course the glutton for punishment W. Kamau Bell walked right on into one.

Lesson learned: The transition from Level 4 to Level 2 in 1989 may not be well-known to most. The same can be said for the San Quentin News publication. But the part about the U.S. spending $70 billion a year on today’s prisons was sobering: 5.6 percent increased investment on higher education, 69 percent for kindergarten to high school, and 141 percent on prisons.

Funniest moment: W. Kamau Bell got clowned so bad for not knowing how to play Pinochle.


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"Latino, USA": At this point, viewers should’ve been relieved by an episode when W. Kamau Bell stopped walking a tightrope. Even the guy who said he watched W. Kamau Bell’s show in prison and used to get shot at was a lightweight compared to the first two episodes. This episode highlighted undocumented people living in Los Angeles.

Most satisfying moment: Hispanic, Chicano/a or Latino/a: Which one? One guy explains his take on the terms.

Most notable GTHOH moment: W. Kamau Bell trying to learn the Afro-Mexican band’s dance steps were awful. Oh well. He has comedy, nice glasses and journalism on his side. He can't be great at everything.

Lesson learned: Some may want to forget it, but there was that Mexican Cession in 1848. Some of what used to be Mexico is now the United States. Debate amongst yourselves about that wall Trump wants to build in spite of this history lesson.

Funniest moment: Although George Lopez’s TV Land “Lopez” show about quinceaneras was way funnier, it was amusing to see how the featured quinceanera stunted on CNN. Sweet sixteens are expensive.


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"Protect and Serve?": W. Kamau Bell spent a week learning about Camden, community policing and getting to know locals.

Most satisfying moment: Watching an extremely stiff Officer Jeffries listen to people speak about concerns they have within the community was interesting but frustrating. He had plenty of excuses, but at least W. Kamau Bell pointed out how “priorities" should work.

Most notable GTHOH moment: Run away from anybody who hops up and down, chases a black woman around and screams “This is my black friend.”

Lesson learned: W. Kamau Bell’s soft spot is definitely kids. One particular house arrest made him burst out into real tears, which may throw some viewers off considering he’s quick to crack a joke in some of the most uncomfortable situations in any other capacity. With kids? No jokes.

Funniest moment: None.


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"Off the Grid": This is the epitome of minimalism: tents, tiny houses, living rooms outside, guns, no cell phones and almonds that look like dirt. City living is not their thing at all, and W. Kamau Bell wanted to meet them.

Most satisfying moment: Whether viewers agree with them or not, listening to a wide assortment of people talk about how they live without everything from showers to stoves is fascinating. Neither W. Kamau Bell nor the interviewees were judgmental about either group's lifestyles.

Most notable GTHOH moment: The lady who owned the tiny home should’ve left W. Kamau Bell by himself once he started brainstorming on sex positions that would be possible in her bed. Cringeworthy. That was about as creepy as the guy who loaded an AR15 the way most people serve tea to guests.

Lesson learned: There is a such thing as canned bear meat and a canned bear meat "smell." Also, the statistic about how patriotic groups suddenly skyrocketed after a 2008 presidency was awfully coincidental.

Funniest moment: Watching the entire crew have to back out of the tiny house in order for the homeowner to serve W. Kamau Bell some tea was entertaining. That's a perfect way of getting rid of unwanted guests.


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"Gentrifying Portland: A tale of two cities": W. Kamau Bell goes to Portland to find out how hipsters feel about being called "hipsters" (some treat it as though it's an oddly controversial term) and how gentrification affects the city. 

Most satisfying moment: People who have never been the minority in a community may not understand the logic in "The Black Portlanders." Those who have lived in these kinds of towns before will get where Intisar Abioto is coming from immediately. 

Most notable GTHOH moment: As soon as Samantha Hess, the owner of Cuddle Up to Me, asked to touch W. Kamau Bell's hair, he should've bailed. On top of the idea that "touch must be given in a platonic way," the entire idea of no kissing and avoiding "swimsuit areas" removes about 50 percent of the fun of cuddling. For whatever odd reason, she asked to touch W. Kamau Bell's afro. He complied (and comically complained about it later), in addition to letting her lay on him full body upside down (head near butt-calf area). (Fun fact: The official website does include a black staff member named Ray.)

Lesson learned: The 1859 Oregon constitution was written up to exclude all black people, including biracial people, to be banned from moving there. From the Oregon Blue Book: "No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this Constitution shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein." That part was repealed in 1927.

However, judging from Ben Kaiser of Kaiser Group, Inc. saying homeowners would be "nuts not to take" an offer to move out of the neighborhood so developers can continue to build, that's a clear example of not comprehending the phrase "there's no place like home." That comment also contradicted his earlier statement that there is no "somebody" who is "orchestrating this outcome" for homeowners like Beverly to move. 

Funniest moment: Initially Pastor Donald T. Frazier Sr. of Genesis Community Fellowship may seem like he's joking about collard greens scones. But judging from this post, he may have been telling the truth. This video shows how unappetizing the end result is, whether the creator meant for it to be or not. The only thing that could top that was visiting the Cuddle Up to Me website and finding out that there's an upcoming Certified Cuddler program that people have to pay to earn.


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"The Last Frontier": Yes, there really are black people* living in Alaska. In addition to learning about the traditions from natives living all over Anchorage, W. Kamau Bell makes his way to the Arctic Circle in Barrow, Alaska to freeze his afro and find some polar bears.

Most satisfying moment: Although it's jarring to hear Fannie (Kuutuuq) Akpik from Inupiat Heritage Center talk about being stuffed into a garbage can for speaking her native language at a Christian boarding school, she didn't let that stop her from holding on to her language. 

Most notable GTHOH moment: The offer to eat raw (and frozen) skin and blubber of whales is not at all appetizing. Although he seemed to enjoy it more than almonds and bear meat (see above: "Off the Grid"), the look of it was far less cringeworthy than that uncomfortable homosexuality joke the comedian told. Ah, W. Kamau Bell, you definitely could've kept that one to yourself. 

Lesson learned: What are the odds that viewers will already know much about Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Yupik, Athabascans, Eyak, Tlincit, Haida, Tsimshian, Alutiiq, Aleut, Yup’ik or Cup’ik tribes or languages? Don’t refer to them all as Eskimos.

Funniest moment: Watching a Californian in Alaska is entertaining enough, but watching him fall flat on his face climbing out of that igloo was worth a healthy chuckle.

(Editor's Note*: Not only are there black people in Alaska, but there is an interesting dance culture there, too. Check out Shamontiel's interview: "Krumping in Anchorage Alaska with Audio Movement").


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"The Fountain of Youth": On Sunday, June 12, W. Kamau Bell will take a trip to Daytona Beach, Florida to find out how out-of-towners and senior citizens party during spring break.

(Editor's Note: The episode did not release on June 12 due to the Orlando, Florida shooting that lead to the deaths of 50 people and more injured. This post will be updated when this episode finally airs.)