TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we invited comic W. Kamau Bell back to our show. He has a new stand-up comedy special on Netflix called "Private School Negro." One of the subjects he talks about in the special is raising his two biracial children in the Trump era. He and his wife just had their third child. Kamau has a CNN series called "United Shades Of America" in which he travels to communities around America, talking to people about the challenges they face. It's now in its third season. On the show's website, he has a three-part series about his Ancestry search. His memoir, "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell," will be published in paperback in August.
Kamau, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations. You just had your third baby 16 days ago. Whoa.
W KAMAU BELL: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So are you - are you, like, in another zone right now?
BELL: Yeah. I mean, you know, I'm always tired. I stay tired. Like Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, he's always angry; I stay tired.
BELL: So it's just a new level of tired in me and my wife. But now that this is the third daughter, we have a good system for how to do the - I basically stay up till about 3 or 4 in the morning, and then I'm allowed to sleep till about 10 in the morning. So we've got a good system. By that fourth kid - just kidding. That's not going to happen.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you ever expect you'd have three children?
BELL: No, no, no. I'm an only child and defiantly and proudly so. And so I - two kids kind of made sense, but three kids just seems - there's a part of it that just makes me laugh. And it just seems weird because it's just like I always looked at families with a lot of kids like how many different ways can you combine the DNA? (Laughter) Because it just seems like once you get two, isn't that about all it can do? So I'm sort of fascinated - I'm really fascinated with Asha (ph) to see what she ends up - how she ends up being different than her sisters.
GROSS: Oh, so were you at the hospital? Were you there when she was born?
BELL: Yeah, all three times.
GROSS: I'm saying hospital. It might have been at home. I have no idea where it was.
BELL: No, no, no. My wife doesn't roll that way. I'd have been happy to do it - I'd rather do it at home, but it's not really my choice it turns out, so it's none of my business. So - but yeah, we - in the hospital. And, you know, I was there. I always joke about, like, I wish I was a dad in the '50s where there would be a waiting room and cigars and a television and I'd watch "I Love Lucy," but that's not the case.
I was - I basically worked the birth. Like, I'm the only person in the room who's not getting paid (laughter). It's just like, I'm working. I have a job. My job is to - there's a - one of the - I think a midwife showed us there's a pressure point, like, between your thumb and your index finger - and your pointer finger that you can press on to help people sort of deal with intense pain because it distracts them from the intense pain. So my job is to press on that pressure point during contractions, which means about, like, an hour in I start to lose feeling in my hands (laughter). But that doesn't mean I can stop pressing on her pressure point.
GROSS: Do you think you were a calming presence or a source of anxiety?
BELL: Oh, I'm - I mean, generally, I'm a source of anxiety for my wife (laughter) so, like, I think that my job during child birth is to really try to diminish my source of anxiety because I am - I think generally I'm just a - you know, I got a lot going on in my head. And she's the only one who hears it come out of my mouth all the time. People see me as a very calm person, but my wife knows that's not true. So my job is to really shut up and just do what I'm told and really try to limit my external monologue, which is difficult for me, like an only child.
GROSS: Right (laughter) and a stand-up comic.
BELL: And a stand-up - yeah - well - because - yeah.
GROSS: Your job is to narrate things, yeah.
BELL: Exactly. My job is to point out things that I think are ridiculous. But when your wife's in the middle of giving birth, that's not a good time to sort of notice things. Did you ever notice? Not right now, Kamau, not right now.
GROSS: (Laughter) So this is a good time to talk about the genealogy series that you did since you have a new child now. So this is a kind of, like, adjunct to your CNN series. And in order to trace your genealogy, you brought your parents together. Your parents separated when you were a toddler. They were never married, and they hadn't seen each other for nine years since your wedding. What was it like for you to bring them together and to see them together? What's it like for you to see your parents who were so briefly together reunite because of this project?
BELL: I mean, you know, looking back, that's the best thing I got out of it was seeing my parents together in a situation that didn't cause them anxiety. Like, my wedding was kind of a nightmare for them (laughter). Like, I just think that, like, I don't know that they felt like it was a nightmare, but for me, it was, like, they really clearly had a hard time being in the same room together, which meant they were both late to everything. And so my wife's got this huge family, and I have two parents and she's got - my wife's got this huge family. And my two parents are late to everything. So it just - this was an opportunity for them to come together when they didn't have any anxiety. They were happy to see their grandkids because they were around for the shoot. And, you know, they both were just sort of, like, having fun being on camera, too. So, like, it was really beautiful.
GROSS: Can you picture them as a couple?
BELL: No (laughter). I mean, I can see in my dad the parts of him that my mom would have been attracted to, but those parts are pretty buried deep at this point. You know, my mom's a very, you know, academic, bohemian, activist, active Facebooker (ph) and my dad is a very - like, you know, he's the guy who spent, like, the most of his adult life in corporate America, and he came from nothing to get there, and so, you know, he's a very sort of buttoned-up person, and my mom is completely unbuttoned.
But the funny thing is is that when we filmed the Ancestry series, the first episode they're sitting together, and there was all this really funny rapport between the two of them. I could see them having, like, a back and forth as if they'd been a couple years ago. And, you know, I think my dad has sort of put my mom in her proper context in his head. He was super close to his mom. He understands that I'm super close to my mom like he was to his mom even if he's not my mom's best friend whereas my mom is - still sees my dad, I think, and is like, son of a (laughter) - like, is still a little bit (laughter) like fired up about some things. And I understand - understandably so about some of those things 'cause, you know. But it's just like - to see them together, it was - I mean, I'm - one of the hidden benefits of my career in the last few years is that I get a lot of my really important moments recorded and so I can actually go back and watch them.
GROSS: So getting back to your Ancestry search, your father and his family had made an assumption about a white man within the family tree. And this man was your father's great-grandfather, your great-great-grandfather. So he was a white man who fathered children with your great-great-grandmother. And the assumption was he was a slave owner - that he probably owned your great-great-grandmother and that's why she bore his children. But what did you actually find out happened?
BELL: What we found out was that according to Ancestry, there's no records of him ever owning anybody. He - which there would be records of that because it was, like, major property to own people. So there's no records of him ever owning anybody. He was listed at various points as a carpenter or as a farmer. He was also many years older than my great-great-grandmother and that they - all we know is that they had 13 kids together. They lived together at one point. But he was never - he never owned her, and their first kid was born while she was still enslaved. Like, there were still two more years before slavery ended. And so it's a very - we don't know any of the details, but all of my life, it's been like this slave owner had sex with his slave who's your - who was your great-great-grandmother. And that's where the Bell family tree starts.
And his last name is Dockery, and her last name was Bell. And I was like, why are their names different? And so now we're finding out that, like, she was probably owned by the Bell plantation, but he's just this dude Dockery who somehow comes across Francis and has a kid who is during slavery but then has 12 more kids after that. So they clearly had a relationship. They lived together at one point. And then at one point, they weren't living together, but they were apparently, according to Ancestry, living on adjacent plots of land, so maybe they were still technically living together. But after - but once, like, slavery ends and for a while things get a little bit better weirdly in the South, but then it gets worse that maybe they felt like they couldn't stay the same house.
GROSS: And they certainly couldn't have been married because it wouldn't have been legal.
BELL: No, no, no, no.
GROSS: So what was your father's reaction to this contradiction of family lore?
BELL: There was a Tiger Woods fist pump like when Tiger Woods used to win on a Sunday (laughter) which for my dad is a big deal. I mean, it really - I could just see it, like, melting away because this is the thing we've talked about. Like, you know, I remember when my grandmother was alive, his mom. And we'd sit around at, like, Thanksgiving, and there was a lot - there's always been a lot of talk on his side of the family about the family tree and about how far they could go back and what that meant. So for him, it was just to see him, like, sort of have to, like, recontextualize all of this. And also in some sense, think of this guy Dockery as - you know, it's hard to say a good guy but not a slave owner, you know? Like, there's a different - there's a different context for this person now. I mean, my dad is just sort of like - I think he's still sort of processing it. And I think he's probably processing it with other family members.
GROSS: And so what was it like for you to see that document?
BELL: I mean, the thing - the documents that really hit me were the ones where members of our family were being counted as property. And they were sort of tick marks on a piece of paper - not with their names attached but like we know through the records that this person owned your family members. And this tick mark here accounts for one of your - like your great-great grandmother.
That's the stuff that really shook me because they talk - they call it the African-American brick wall because once you get to - because you can't really get much further past slavery because nobody's names are attached to them. They're just, again, they're just property. And so for me, that's the stuff that really just sort of sickened my stomach. It's like, you know, my wife, who is white - and as I've talked about a lot - you know, can trace her heritage back as far to like the old countries like Italy and Portugal and, you know, Ireland and England. Whereas mine, for the most part, is going to end in the South. You know, we're not going to be able to get much further back than that other than the DNA telling you where your DNA comes from.
GROSS: What about the DNA? Did you find out your DNA and was it meaningful for you?
BELL: Yeah. For me, it's weird. For my dad and my mom, finding out the family stories was the stuff that they were really interested in because these are names they've had their whole lives and ideas of how people lived that have been formed in their head for a long time. But for me, the DNA was the fascinating stuff because it's just sort of like, on one level, I was always sort of weirdly afraid of finding out about the DNA because I feel like I'd seen so many black people like flip out when they found out they were more European than they expected they were, like, (laughter) you know, what does that mean?
And so for me, I was just like, I know I'm black. You know, the DNA can say I'm 100 percent Chinese, but it's not going to change my lived experience. But once I sat there and saw it and you see like a map of Africa and you see all the different places that your DNA pops up and then you also see something that says that 1 percent Scandinavian, you're like, what? Who? Like, where did that come from?
I just - it just feels - it's super interesting to me and, you know, also funny to me because apparently, most black people in the country are 75 percent, you know, from Africa. And according to my DNA, I'm like 73 percent from Africa. And it's funny to me because all my life I've been - I have felt like I wasn't black enough and been told by other black people that I wasn't black enough. And I'm like, I'm literally not black enough. I'm less black than most black people. So to me, that felt a little bit like, oh, that makes sense.
GROSS: No. I'm going to say it's the margin of error.
BELL: Yeah (laughter). I want to go with my not-black-enough theory. It sort of supports my whole narrative of life at this point.
GROSS: So on your mother's side there was something I thought was really interesting which is that your great-great uncle enlisted when he was 18 in 1864 to fight for the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War to fight to end slavery. That's an interesting fact.
BELL: Yeah. And this is something that there was no knowledge on my mom's side of the family about that. And so that was really interesting because, you know, we went to this church that my mom's mom had gone to as a kid. And it's in Kentucky. And we went to this church. And in the church, they had all these family records. And you could sort of see that the church for the African-American community is where basically the census records are kept because there we were always people, you know.
So there was like - there was like a piece of paper on the wall that sort of listed all the original members of the church. And we could see how many of those people were our family members. And so it really sort of struck me that like the black church has been basically the government for black people in this country because that's where you were a person. But we didn't know what these people did or what their jobs were. And so when Ancestry found this record that, you know, that he had enlisted to fight for the Union, you know, it makes you feel proud, you know.
I mean, you know, we like to think of ourselves and my family - especially my mom's side of the family - as people who are actively in the world trying to make the world a better place. And at that point in history, as an enslaved black man, that's how you were going to actively make the world a better place. And it just feels like, you know, again, that's not in your DNA but it feels like that's, again, part of our family DNA.
GROSS: So I think we should take a short break here and then talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new Netflix comedy special called "Private School Negro." His book "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell" will be coming out in paperback in August. And he has a CNN series which is called the "United Shades Of America." So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new Netflix comedy special called "Private School Negro." He also has his CNN series which is called "United Shades Of America." And his memoir, "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell," will be coming out in paperback in August.
So you're in your third season of the CNN series "United Shades Of America," a kind of travel show, as was Anthony Bourdain's series "Parts Unknown." Did you get to know him working on CNN?
BELL: Yeah. We - I mean, yes and no. And mostly no because there wasn't time. So the minute I got a job at CNN, people assumed that I was hanging out with everybody who worked at CNN. And I don't live in New York. Also, the show is a travel show. So I really had to - it took me time to get to know any of the people at CNN because I just wasn't there in New York where the most of them are. But also because I was following my show when my show first was about to premiere, Jeff Zucker said to me - there was a dinner with a bunch of people - and he's like, we've decided to put your show after Bourdain. And I knew that was a big slot. And I sort of took a gulp. I was like, whoa. And he's like, but if you don't want it, we don't have to because everybody wants that slow. I got that, by doing that, that Jeff Zucker was saying we believe in your show and we want to give it the best chance to succeed possible.
So from that point forward, me and Bourdain were linked together, and I'd never met him. It wasn't until the first - that we were nominated for our Emmy after Season 1 at the Emmys that I saw him across the room. And I didn't even know if he would know who I was just because I know - like, we're not all sitting around watching everybody on TV. And I saw him. And he looked over at me. And he made a beeline for me. And we talked. And he was just like, your show's great. We got to do something together some time.
And my wife took a picture of it that I've been sharing a lot recently of me and him in our suits. And I look like - I look excited because I was. And he looks like American James Bond. And he was just very welcoming to me. And so I would see him at like other various random CNM things like maybe once or twice in the interim. And he was always like, we should work together. And then in March, we ended up shooting an episode of "Parts Unknown" in Kenya together. And I was there in Kenya for 11 days. And so that was really the time I got to be around him. And when I got to Kenya, I was super nervous because I was like, maybe he wants to shoot the show together because he thinks it's good for the show but maybe he doesn't really - he's not interested in knowing me. I don't know. I also - I sort of understood him to be - and the legend around CNN was that Anthony is Anthony, and he either loves you or won't talk to you. And so I just sort of walked in very tentatively.
And from the first moment I saw him at breakfast in Nairobi, he looked at me and smiled and motioned me over to his table. He was sitting by himself. And we sat down and had coffee and, you know, just sort of talked. And the time we spent together in Kenya, even if he had not passed away, was like some of the greatest time of my life because it just showed me - like, there's sort of this sense in my career and we've talked about this - I'm not even supposed to be here. Like, nobody's supposed - a comedian's not supposed to have a show on CNN. I'm certainly not supposed to be that comedian. And yet here I am in Nairobi with Anthony Bourdain.
And so at one point, we are on safari. And we're sitting on the side of this hill in Africa looking at like zebras and giraffe and hippos running around. Like, it was just this surreal experience. And we're drinking gin and tonics. And we're ostensibly talking about what it's like for me to go to Africa and specifically because I'd never been to Africa before. So my first time I'm in Africa, I'm with Bourdain. It's another one of those experiences that I said earlier about like I'm having this major life experience and it's being taped so I'll be able to watch it again. And I just sort of took a moment and was like - to explain to him how surreal it was that I was sitting with him on the side of this mountain, this guy I had watched on TV on my girlfriend's couch - who's now my wife - going, I would like to have a show like that some day. And now I'm sitting here talking to this guy.
And I took the moment to tell him that even though I was like they're never going to use this in the show because this is not on theme, but I just felt like I was sort of overwhelmed and a little bit buzzed and just felt like I need to tell this man this. And we had a great time together. And at the end of the week, he gave me his phone number and was like, when you're in New York, text me. We'll go out to dinner. And I just felt like so like - he was just a great dude. He was just a great dude. And I felt so validated...
GROSS: By him.
BELL: ...By him and by his life force and by his - nobody is like him. And he did not suffer fools gladly. And so the fact that he would talk to me and give me his phone number and say look him up made me feel like I'm not a fool (laughter). You know, I mean, I'm a comedian but I'm not a fool. I'm somebody who's worth talking to. And he was like, when I was 44 years old, I was still dunking french fries. And now I've been doing this for the past 16 years. And I was like, man, and I'm 45. I'm like - and I sort of had this moment like, am I going to be doing this when I'm 61 like he is?
And a little bit I got scared by that because it just is - it was a crazy lifestyle. Like, he flew from some other shoot to Nairobi and then flew to some other shoot in West Texas. I flew from home, spent 11 days in Nairobi and immediately flew back home and felt bad about being away from home for 11 days. And he had an 11-year-old daughter and he loved her. And he loved his girlfriend. And he loved - even loved his ex-wife. He would call her his wife by accident. And it was just, you know, it's just - a very spectacular special experience that I will have forever. And I'm super sad that he's gone.
GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. The episode of Anthony Bourdain's series "Parts Unknown" that was shot in Kenya has not been shown, at least not yet. We'll talk more about Anthony Bourdain after a break. And we'll talk about comedians and the Me Too movement. Kamau's new Netflix comedy special is called "Private School Negro." Also, Justin Chang will review the new sequel to "Sicario." I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic W. Kamau Bell. His new Netflix standup special is called "Private School Negro." He also has a CNN series called "United Shades Of America." It's been shown right after Anthony Bourdain's series "Parts Unknown." They're both type of travel shows. It's through CNN that he got to know Anthony Bourdain. When we left off, Kamau was talking about feeling validated by Bourdain and how sad Bourdain's suicide has left him.
So you described Anthony Bourdain as a life force. Were you surprised that he took his life?
BELL: I was not a great friend of his. I feel like we were becoming friends. So I want to be clear about that. I don't want to speak on his internal life because I didn't know him that well. And there are many people who knew him better. But being around him, I could feel he was a heavy-hearted dude. And I have known heavy-hearted people my whole life. There's been times in my life where I've been heavy hearted. My best friend is a heavy-hearted dude. So I know that feeling.
So I - when I found out that he killed himself, as much as it didn't make any sense to me, I also had to recognize - and I said it to my wife - he was a heavy-hearted dude. He was carrying a lot. And the schedule he was keeping is ridiculous. And I know that as a person who travels a lot. It's super lonely to travel, even if you're having a good time and doing the work you want to do. And dark thoughts can get in there.
GROSS: How did you know he was heavy-hearted?
BELL: It's just - there's just some people, when you're around them, they're just a light energy - that when they come into the room, their energy sort of brings light to the room. And Bourdain could do that. But you could feel him turning it on. But when he walked into the room, his presence was super heavy. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean he was a - he felt like he had a lot going on. And he was sorting through it. And there's nothing wrong being heavy-hearted. Not all heavy-hearted people kill themselves. I want to be clear about that. But much like I was talking about me earlier, with, like, my wife knowing how anxious I am, he probably didn't let it all out all the time. So he was probably dealing with it himself.
GROSS: Did he ever give you any advice, about television or travel or anything else?
BELL: Yes (laughter). I mean, there was some stuff that was just, like, adorable - like when he was like - so we started shooting in late February. And then we came back early March. And he was like, yay, the movies on the plane will be different. (Laughter) It's just like a dude who travels a lot gets excited about new movies being uploaded onto the plane. So I just thought that was like - that he has the same feeling about that as I do. But he was just like - he said, you know, you could do every - you could go to every place I've gone on my show, and it would be a different episode. He's like, you should do that. You should just go to all the places I went because your take on it is going to be different.
But then he was also like - and it was clear he'd watch the show. He was like, you know, when you're doing VO, don't be so rehearsed. Just throw it away. Let the mistakes live in there. Just talk. And I often listen to my VO, and it sounds like I'm doing VO. And so for him, he was just like - he really was, like, trying to say get out of your own way. And just be yourself. Don't always be in the act of making a TV show. And, you know, so I've - since he's been gone, I've been watching his episodes a lot. And I'm really sort of like - I'm still taking notes. I'm still learning from him.
GROSS: And I should say VO is voice-over.
GROSS: We've talked before about a friend of yours who called you out for one of your jokes that she thought was just like, you know...
BELL: Sexist and dumb.
GROSS: Sexist and dumb, that's what I was looking for.
GROSS: And at first, you bristled. And then you changed the joke - or took it out, yeah.
BELL: Yeah, my friend Martha Rynberg who's actually got a consultant credit on my new Netflix special because that's how powerful she is.
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. So anyways, your thoughts on how the #MeToo movement and the insistence on a level of respect, you know, when it comes to what you say - you know, what a comic is saying and how they are living.
BELL: I think every comic has the right of freedom of speech to say whatever they want to say on stage. And then it's up to the audience to decide what they do with it. So first of all, I just want to say that. There's comics that I think are very funny who I would not vote for if they were running for mayor of my city. So I just want to be clear that that's one thing. It's funny. During filming of season 3 of "United Shades," me and Donny Jackson and my friend Dwayne Kennedy, who also has a consultant credit on my Netflix special - who's a comic, great guy - we would talk about this a lot. And there's was a lot of talk amongst - and we have women on the crew - but amongst the dudes because, like, there was - that was during the time where every day like two or three people - it seemed like two or three dudes were going down.
And me and Dwayne talked one time about it. We were just having - like, man, did read about this? Did you see this? And did you see this? And Dwayne would just go, they're coming for everybody. And he wasn't saying that in like some sort of a witch-hunt-y (ph) way, which I think some dudes are saying. He was just saying, like, all of our behavior is suspect. All of our - dudes, there's just a way in which we are raised and a way in which we are encouraged to be in the world. And I see it with little boys at the park - where we were just raised to, for the most part, take up a lot of space and just sort of play to our baser instincts. That's just how we were sort of encouraged to be.
I don't think - maybe some of it is some sort of biology thing. But I don't think - I think society encourages it - whatever it is when it starts out inside your biology. And the thing that sucks is even if you raise a dude who's not that way - like my mom wasn't trying to raise me that way - eventually I and other dudes who were raised to be sort of nicer people - or whatever you want to say - or more sensitive or are allowed to play into your sensitive states - you are around other dudes who aren't. And you sort of feel, like, invited into being like that - or feel pressured into being like that. And so you will find yourself in situations where you're like, I don't know why I said that, or I don't know. It's just - we're not doing - and I'm not taking responsibility off the dudes who were going down in the #MeToo movement. I'm just saying that there's a way in which men are raised - boys were raised into men that I think is not good and encourages the worst aspects of us.
And then you combine that with show business, where basically it's an industry of people who didn't want to get up early in the morning and who wanted to stay out all night and drink and smoke and sort of be - sort of, like, the late-night crowd who's doing things - that are saying things on stage that you shouldn't say. And I'm not even talking about lawbreaking things or sexual assault things. I'm just saying like there's an encouragement of sort of a high school level of behavior because we're all staying up late telling jokes on stage. And then we can drink for free. And so there is just this sort of like permanent state of adolescence that I think exists in a lot of stand-up comedy. And I'm not necessarily criticizing it. I just think that, like, that's the case - that you're allowed to sort of be outside of regular society. And we call people who aren't comedians civilians because we think we're really the - we're going to war. And so I think there's a lot of that that encourages bad behavior.
And then you also bring in stardom into that. So like the story of what - of Louis, you know, masturbating in front of the woman in Aspen. I knew that story. And I don't even - I've met Louie once, twice maybe. And I knew that story. But it was never told as assault. It was told as like this crazy thing that happened. And I didn't know the women who were involved in it. But I just was, like, this crazy - and I knew somebody who had heard it from - at the time, who had been in Aspen and heard the story and said it just went around like this crazy thing that Louis did. And so it wasn't ever framed as assault. And so I hear some men talk about like, "this is a witch hunt," quote, unquote - you know, basically sounding like our president. And I sort of feel like, yeah, and we're going to find some witches (laughter).
Like I just feel like - and none of our behavior is above reproach if we've been in this industry, and we've seen things. So we all have to be able to stand up to an audit. And it's going to take down some people who absolutely deserve to get take down. But it's also just going to take down some people who - we should have said more. We should have done something differently. And we weren't bad people, but we were just - we were in bad situations. And we didn't do the right things. And so I just think that there's going to be a generation of men who is properly taken down by this and a generation of men who are sort of caught up in the shrapnel by this. And it's just the way it's going to be. And hopefully, it'll mean that we raise the next generation of men and boys in a different way. But I say that as a guy who's got three daughters and looks at little boys right now, going it hasn't started yet.
GROSS: So why don't we take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell, who hosts the CNN series "United Shades Of America." That's in its third season. And he also has a new Netflix stand-up comedy special which is called "Private School Negro." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new Netflix stand-up comedy special which is called "Private School Negro." He also has his CNN series "United Shades Of America" which is now in its third season. And his memoir, "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell," will be coming out in paperback in August. So here's an uncomfortable question for you (laughter).
BELL: Sweet. Here we go.
GROSS: So Chris Rock is a comic who has helped you in your career. And he talked about in his Netflix comedy special about having been addicted to porn and how it contributed to the end of his marriage. And that's about all I really know about that.
GROSS: But I'm wondering if that's the kind of thing that you could talk to him about or if it changed your perception of him, and this might be too personal to even ask.
BELL: That's funny. I don't think it's too personal. Me and Chris have never had that conversation. I think my relationship with Chris - I do consider him to be a friend. But it's - but because of how we came together, it was always sort of a mentor-mentee relationship. And in some sense, it still is that. But I will say that there's - hearing him say he's addicted to porn, it's not surprising to me not 'cause it's about Chris but because of I know dudes (laughter). And I know my relationship to porn, and I know - and I believe there's been times in my life where I've suffered from it or maybe still am suffering from it.
So I understand that, and I'm really proud of him for putting it out there. And it's funny. As you say that, I was like, oh, yeah, I forgot about that part. I wish we were talking about it more because I think that that's probably an addiction that we need to really - that leads to a lot more destructive behavior than we realize. And I'm not talking about Chris specifically. I just mean with men. I think I'm excited for the Me Too movement because I feel like this - it starts a lot of conversations that need to happen. I'm also afraid of the Me Too movement properly as a man because it's like I have lived my life as a man for 45 years.
And I'm not saying all my behavior is above reproach either, and I'm supportive of the Me Too movement. I'll say that. It's just - it is hard to talk about because Morgan Spurlock is a man who - he directed my first special. We were working together on a bunch of projects. And he basically outed himself as a guy who had done some bad things. You know, he put it up on Twitter and said, here's some things I've done - that I'm no better than anybody else is basically what the thrust was. And Morgan's a dude who also was sort of a mentor to me but also was probably more of a friend to me than Chris was 'cause we just had more direct conversations. And I'm still friends with Morgan, and I believe in him. And I appreciate what he did while at the same time also understanding that the behavior was awful.
And I'm like hoping for him that he figures a way through this and that he can sort of figure out his life 'cause he's my friend. But I also understand that there are people out there who are like no. Any dude who does anything who gets caught up in the Me Too - we have to throw him away 'cause there are more - there are qualified women whose voices weren't heard for years because of the behavior of dudes. So I understand all that. It's just a super thick, complicated situation, and I want those of us who can heal and come into account to heal. And I'm including myself in that category, too.
GROSS: Have you felt the need to re-examine your material, or do you feel like you were already thinking about that kind of thing in writing your material?
BELL: I mean, I - really, it's not about my material. It's about my life. (Laughter) Like, it's about the...
GROSS: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
BELL: The Me Too thing is about, who are you as a man? And then it's about, like, well, what jokes do you want to write about that? So for me, it's like - it's about who I am as a man, what I've done in my life, what do I feel ashamed about? And, I mean, you know, I'm not even talking about, like, assault. I'm just talking about things about the way in which I was taught to be a man or raised as a man which feels a little feral sometimes.
GROSS: So your comedy special is on Netflix, and Netflix recently fired its public relations executive director because he used the N-word on several occasions. I don't know if that's something you can talk about or not - if you have a take on that.
BELL: (Laughter) No, I could talk about that. Yes.
GROSS: What are your thoughts on that?
BELL: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I was like, wait a minute, I used the N-word in my special. (Laughter) Is that OK? Can I use the N-word?
GROSS: I don't - I have no idea the context that he used it in.
BELL: That the executive did?
BELL: All I know is that I read that he was like - they were in a meeting talking about words that are hard to use in comedy. And he apparently thought that he would use that word as a word that is hard to use in comedy. And he apparently did it enough times - twice. And they were like, yeah, you're not supposed to use that word and also made people uncomfortable. The thing that I think is really noteworthy about that is how fast Netflix decided to let him go 'cause we all know that in corporate America people have been saying horrible, horrible things - racist things, sexist things, homophobic things, transphobic things. And sometimes people who are offended by it feel like they can't say anything because they're not in a position of power, or they don't want to lose their job. And so they just put their head down and just sort of hold it.
And I talk about this in the special - that if you have to hold the hate, you're not allowed to give it back. Whereas now - and I think this is sort of a subset of Me Too - is that we're examining all the behavior of men. (Laughter) And I think that, like, this is not the same as sexual assault by any means, but it's like men are allowed to take up too much space in society. And now we're at this point where it's like people have to go, no, we're not going to allow you to take up that space. So I don't know that 10 years ago that somebody would've been fired from a company for saying that. And I don't know if we would've known the story. But the fact is that Netflix worked very quickly to figure that out, and good for them. And I hope it's an example for other companies. And also I think every time something like that happens, it gives everybody more courage to stand up the next time somebody says something ignorant or hateful.
GROSS: So your new special is called "Private School Negro." Your previous special is called "Semi-Prominent Negro." Why do you like the word Negro?
BELL: It reminds me of a time when black people were - were, like, angry and doing something about it. It's like - for me, it takes me right back to the height of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X and, you know, all the people who were like those were Negroes (laughter). They were not African-Americans. They were the people who said stop calling us colored. Stop calling us nigger. We are Negro. It was like sort of the time that black people politically chose a word that was like, this is how we want to be called. And we're going to fight for it. So for me, it just feels like a very - I mean, some people may be offended by it. But to me, it just feels very, like, classically, importantly black.
GROSS: So at the risk of asking what may sound like an obvious question to a lot of people, why do you think it was appropriate for Netflix to fire the executive? He used the N-word twice at a meeting. And you think it's fine to use it on our show.
BELL: (Laughter) That's funny. I don't work for you, Terry (laughter). So I don't...
BELL: I don't know exactly what the policies are on your show, so I'm respectful. Like, there have been times I've been on TV when they give me a list of words I can and can't say. And I respect that and don't swear or don't say the N-word, if that's the case. But here, sitting here having a conversation with you, I'm actually OK with you - 'cause this isn't being broadcast live, if you decide to bleep it, that's up to you. I'm not going to then go on Twitter and go, Terry Gross bleeped me - blah, blah, blah. That's up to you. So I feel like we're - certainly, this is a different environment than a board meeting with a bunch of people who are - who he has power over. You know? Right now, the only person who has power over me is me.
So we often lose context in these discussions. And I think the context is very different from me talking to you and you being able to make a choice later about how it goes out. You can cut out the whole section, and I'm just going to have to live with it, you know? And I'll be OK with it. But it's very different from a man who's in a board meeting who wields power over the people in the room using the word in a cavalier way that we know made people in the room uncomfortable - and also feeling like if he still works here, it's going to make me uncomfortable when I'm in rooms with him 'cause who knows if he says it again or what else he might do? So I think it's a very different situation. We have to include context in these discussions or else all meaning is lost.
GROSS: Kamau, it's always great to talk with you. Thank you so much. And congratulations again on your new daughter.
BELL: Thank you, Terry. And thank you for having me on.
GROSS: W. Kamau Bell's new Netflix comedy special is called "Private School Negro." His CNN series is "United Shades Of America." And his memoir, "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell," will be published in paperback in August. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new sequel to "Sicario." This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The 2015 action thriller "Sicario," starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent, delved into the moral ambiguities of the U.S. government's war with the Mexican drug trade. Blunt doesn't appear in the sequel "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado," but Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles as two men working for the CIA to fight the cartels. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A movie that opens with American soldiers cracking down on migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border may be no one's idea of escapist entertainment these days. But then, "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado" never misses the chance to telegraph its own relevance. In this swaggeringly topical sequel to the more elegantly unnerving "Sicario," the war on drugs has gone from bad to worse. The Mexican cartels, no longer content just to send narcotics across the border, have expanded into the more lucrative business of human trafficking. The U.S. Defense Department suspects the cartels of smuggling terrorists onto American soil and decides there is only one solution, to fight one war by secretly starting another.
If you saw the first "Sicario," you'll recognize some of the key players here. Josh Brolin is back as Matt Graver, the cocky CIA man gleefully operating by his own playbook. Benicio Del Toro also returns as Matt's associate Alejandro Gillick, a grave haunted assassin motivated solely by the desire to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter who were murdered by a cartel boss years earlier. The most glaring absence is that of Emily Blunt, whose FBI agent served as a wide-eyed audience surrogate in the first film. This time, there's no pretense to moral indignation. As Matt tells Alejandro, the rules of engagement have gone out the window.
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JOSH BROLIN: (As Matt Graver) No rules this time. I'm turning you loose.
BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Alejandro) How loose?
BROLIN: (As Matt Graver) Carlos Reyes. How's that for loose? It's your chance to get even for your family. You are going to help us start a war.
DEL TORO: (As Alejandro) With who?
BROLIN: (As Matt Graver) Everyone.
CHANG: Their plan is to kidnap Isabel Reyes, the teenage daughter of the notorious kingpin Carlos Reyes, and frame a rival organization, triggering the sort of bloody internecine warfare that will keep the cartels from operating effectively. Naturally, the abduction plot goes violently awry. And before long, the U.S. government is forced to disavow the whole mission, leaving Matt and his fractured team in a perilous state of limbo.
Much of the story follows Alejandro as he tries to return the terrified young Isabel, played by the excellent Isabela Moner, to her home in Mexico City. It's a surprising act of conscience from someone who, as we saw in the previous film, had no trouble slaughtering innocent children in cold blood. The sicario, or hitman, has suddenly become a soldado, or soldier. But Del Toro sells Alejandro's attack of integrity the same way he sells everything - with a grimly persuasive stare and as few words as possible. Isabel isn't the only teenager caught up in the mayhem.
A parallel subplot follows a 14-year-old Mexican-American named Miguel Hernandez, played with eerie composure by Elijah Rodriguez, who was recruited by a cartel for some low-level smuggling work. His story will ultimately dovetail with that of Alejandro and Isabel in one of two big twists that strain plausibility to the breaking point. With his scripts for "Hell Or High Water," "Wind River" and the first "Sicario," the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has become American cinema's crime fiction specialist of the moment. But the seams in his storytelling are starting to show, and his knack for merging genre thrills and geopolitical commentary is wearing a little thin. The story doesn't engage the issues that it raises so much as bend them into an elaborate narrative pretzel.
As directed by Stefano Sollima, best known for the Italian mob series "Gomorrah," "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado" moves along at an absorbing clip and features a few gripping action sequences but sustained intimate tension seems beyond its abilities. The first movie, as directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot with scorching brilliance by Roger Deakins, may have been an art film in B-movie drag, but it also had a distinctive undertow of menace that's nowhere in evidence here. Everything about "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado" feels bigger and brasher. And what it gains in scale, it loses and precision.
The nods to terrorism, the refugee crisis and the bureaucratic logjam of U.S. politics feel opportunistic, even exploitative. And I don't entirely buy the attempt to reverse engineer Del Toro, compelling as he is, into the star of his own action franchise, one that will likely continue with a third "Sicario" down the line. After all, the international drug trade isn't the only business that follows the ruthless logic of supply and demand.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jonathan Blitzer, who covers immigration for The New Yorker and his reporting from El Paso, where he's spoken to women in detention who were separated from their children at the border. We'll talk about the immigration crisis, the one he says has been created by the Trump administration. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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