United Shades of America Visits San Quentin

CNN's new series, United Shades of America with comedian and social commentator W. Kamau Bell, airing on Sunday evenings is worth watching. Two episodes aired last night: one on the KKK and one on San Quentin.

In the KKK episode, Bell meets with a grand wizard of the KKK. Their conversation is quite awkward.

The second episode, where Bell goes behind the walls of San Quentin (but not death row) to interview the prisoners and staff and show the human side of the inmates, is very well done.

Props to both CNN, for commissioning a series that focuses on our over-reliance on prison, and to Bell. In the San Quentin episode, Bell skillfully uses humor to gain the confidence of the inmates, who otherwise I suspect would not be so have been so candid and cooperative in their interviews. [More...]

The interviews reminded me of the 2000 Benetton ad campaign against the death penalty, called "We On Death Row", which included interviews with 26 death row inmates. (They appeared in a magazine insert that accompanied an issue of the now-defunct Talk Magazine.) The point was not to argue their innocence, or that their legal cases were mishandled, but to show the public their human side. Like the lifers Bell interviews, many of them were remorseful. I described the Benetton interviews several years ago here this way:

They talk about their hopes, their fears, their lost dreams, their remorse, their nightmares. They talk about what it's like to know with certainty that the state is going to kill you, how they've messed up their lives, the things they miss, the people they've loved, their religion, their mothers, their children...and more.

Another similarity: the lack of presentation of an opposite point of view. How refreshing to have a show that unabashedly tells the story of a particular group in their own words, and shows the benefit of prison education and rehab programs, without feeling the need to muck it up with the views of prosecutors and crime victims. It's acknowledged at the beginning that these people did bad things. End of that topic. In the press release accompanying Benetton's ad, Benetton said:

Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral consideration, this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment, so that no one around the world, will consider the death penalty neither as a distant problem nor as news that occasionally appears on TV. Toscani's images aim at giving back a human face to the prisoners on death row, to remind those "respectable people (who) are always so sure they're right..."(1) that the debate concerns men and women in flesh and blood, not virtual characters eliminated or spared with a simple click as with a videogame.

... Benetton's campaigns have managed to tear down the wall of indifference contributing at raising the awareness of universal problems among world's citizens. At the same time, they have paved the way for innovative modes of corporate communication

In 2000, the Benetton campaign was met with outrage and public protest by crime victims. Sears Roebuck pulled all Benetton merchandise from its stores.

I think CNN's decision to support and air a series like Bell's shows we're making progress, even if it's at a snail's pace. On the plus side, it's better than going backwards. So I hope you'll watch. Good ratings will hopefully lead to networks commissioning more shows like this.

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    I didn't watch this but (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Militarytracy on Mon May 02, 2016 at 09:38:30 AM EST
    Josh watched the KKK episode. He was cutting up last night dinner because when the Wizard has his hood on he's hard to understand. The interviewer couldn't hear what he was saying very well. The Wizard said they are working on getting mouth holes ;)

    You guys have had generations to work the kinks out of these outfits. You often can't understand what others are saying when you're all Klanned up? And you just roll with that for generations? What a pack of blithering idiots.

    IOW it was biased (none / 0) (#2)
    by nyjets on Mon May 02, 2016 at 11:29:36 AM EST
    'How refreshing to have a show unabashedly tells the story of a particular group in their own words, '

    In other words it was biased to one side and ignored any other points of view. That means anything they said has to be taken as suspect because it focuses on one side and ignored the other side.
    There is nothing refreshing about it. It means you can not trust the show.

    Yeah, right. I felt the same way (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Peter G on Mon May 02, 2016 at 09:02:16 PM EST
    about Ken Burns' "National Parks." Totally untrustworthy, with no one presenting an anti-environment, anti-outdoors, anti-beauty, anti-public-spirit point of view.  



    my point is (none / 0) (#6)
    by nyjets on Mon May 02, 2016 at 10:18:07 PM EST
    Yes in some (actual few) cases there is only one side. However, in most cases, there is another side. Like in this case. The fact that they ignored the crimes like they did tells only half the picture.
    To put it another way, many people here would be critical of a documentary focusing on crime victims and prosecution as being biased and one sided because they ignored the 'humanity' of the criminal.

    The show was not about whether it is just (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by Peter G on Mon May 02, 2016 at 10:42:58 PM EST
    to punish people convicted of crimes. It was about the personalities of some of the human beings incarcerated in our overstuffed prisons. The show didn't hide or misrepresent its point of view.

    The more interesting people I've met in life (none / 0) (#8)
    by Mr Natural on Thu May 05, 2016 at 05:26:24 PM EST
    learned how to color outside the lines.  

    Some were artists.  Some were criminals.