Exploring matters of race has become W. Kamau Bell’s calling card. His long-running CNN docuseries United Shades of America, which exposes and probes into provocative issues in communities across the country has earned him three Emmys. In his Showtime docuseries, We Need to Talk About Cosby, which garnered three Emmy nominations, Bell took a deep dive reconciling the fallen legend’s many positive contributions with the shocking revelations of a long history of sexual assault allegations that led to a prison term (which was later overturned). Now Bell has returned with the HBO Max documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed. This one, he reveals, hits closest to home.
EBONY: Why did you want to do this documentary?
Kamu Bell: My wife and I are parents. My wife's white; I'm Black obviously. We have daughters who are Black but also identify as mixed. I noticed that my oldest daughter Sami had other friends who are mixed too, and not of the same type of mix as her, and I thought are these kids drawn to each other? Is there some information they have that they're sharing with each other?’ It just came from me and my wife observing our daughter and her friends, just wanting to sit down and talk to them about what their lives and identities were like.
What did you learn?
It is hard for mixed folks to talk about their identities the older they get because a lot of times they're told they have to pick a side. And the thing that I learned from these young kids before they experience peer pressure or societal pressure is they feel very easy claiming all of it as one. It's not, "I'm half this and half that." They feel like "I am this and this." It's addition, not fractions.
What resources and research did you seek and do? Or is it just the kids’ voices?
I'm not mixed race, so I can't talk from any expert perspective, but I've always been a big researcher. Having the show United States of America for seven seasons, we always relied on research to help build stories. We always start with experts and for this show, we hired consultants who are also mixed race who do work in this area. We also did all of our Google searches and reached out to some of the people who are featured in the film, along with community leaders who are mixed race. We hired mixed people on the crew and in production to help us figure out how to tell the story. But again, most of the stories come from the mouths of kids seven to 16 years old who are experts in their own experience.
Is it politically correct to say ‘mixed’ over biracial or multiracial?
I asked these kids how they described themselves. I don't think we are ever in a position where we can 100 percent say this is the term that is used, but certainly "mixed" is a term that I hear quite a lot. But I'm also aware that as we know, as Black folks, these terms evolve over time. So, when I was a kid, I heard biracial [but] I don't hear biracial as much as I used to. I heard multiracial. Some people still use that. You hear some people say mixed race, and some people like to drop off the race and say, "No, I don't want to concentrate on the race. I want to concentrate on the mixture of all of it." So you just hear the word mixed. But this is not meant to be the definitive statement. That's why we even decided to name it 1,000% Me. It's about kids getting to define themselves.
Is this doc more relevant to the Bay Area where it takes place, or does it resonate throughout the country?
Everything that resonates in the Bay resonates throughout the country. I think history has proven that from the Black Panthers of the ‘60s through E-40 and MC Hammer's music up, to Ryan Coogler and Black Panther. What the Bay does is sometimes ahead of where America is at in conversation, but we're always having conversations that America needs to have—or should or will have.
Do you wish you had more time?
You always want more time, but it was really important to me to make this an hour or less because I also wanted it to be accessible for families to watch together. We could have released two hours of this, but then you may limit the viewing audience. And part of this is also about if it's an hour, HBO can actually show it more so more people can see it just as it comes on their TV. We have more film we could put together.
What have you done with the excess?
We’ve actually released bonus materials that include other kids who didn't make the cut of the film because we really want to try to use as much of this as we can.
Why was this important?
I saw a benefit to showing lots of different versions of the mixed experience...for me, it was about the more stories we can get in here, the more conversation it can lead to and the more people who may be seen through this.
You said ultimately you want to expand the conversation. Can you explain why?
I enjoy creating more avenues for complex conversations. And this is personal because I have kids involved. I put my kids in here which was a big deal. We're not the kind of parents who put our kids over the Internet so it's about being vulnerable and opening ourselves up to a new conversation, giving mixed kids specifically a way to talk about their experiences.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.