Charles Barkley is never going to win this one, but that was never his intention. Race. Religion. Sexuality. When the unscripted TNT analyst decided to address these and other issues in “American Race,” his docuseries that airs Thursday and Friday, he knew his charm and celebrity would get him in the front door.
But then what? Could he keep the conversation going? And how much of a verbal lashing – and post-viewing backlash – should he anticipate?
“It’s a tough series,” Barkley said in a recent phone interview. “I got my butt kicked (figuratively) a couple times. I’ve taken some heat in the black community for defending cops, but I don’t defend bad cops. We need good cops in our community and we need to get rid of the bad ones, which is what I always say. Otherwise we’d be living in the wild, wild west. That one woman still yelled at me. Meeting with that white supremacist was brutal. That undocumented family broke my heart. But I learned a lot from this and my hope is that we start talking instead of screaming at one another.”
The four-episode series is a quick bus tour around America, with stops in Baltimore, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles. Barkley, who is the executive producer and the project’s sole publicist, moderates heated town hall sessions, observes prayers and shares meals with Muslims, dines with an undocumented Mexican family, meets with an extremely conservative white couple, participates in a police shooting simulation, and hears a Korean actor speak of Asians as feeling “invisible.”
The opening segment provides one of the most gripping moments: During a town hall in Baltimore, a black woman whose son was killed by a police officer, and who was furious about Barkley’s frequent defense of law enforcement officers (only the good ones, he reminds), takes the microphone and glares at the Hall of Fame forward.
“I don’t know you, I don’t like you,” she says in a slow, powerful, delivery. “Tell me why it took 15 to 20 minutes to beat my son to death?”
Barkley, 54, appears stunned. He blinks, but doesn’t back away. He offers condolences and tries to clarify his position, mediates some verbal sparring between two others in attendance, but continues asking difficult questions, which cuts to the essence of the series. All four of the hour-long episodes move quickly and evoke compelling, at times provocative exchanges, primarily because Barkley is an ideally imperfect host.
His genius is as a conversationalist, not as a journalist, which is why the format works. People are drawn to him because he is earthy, smart and spontaneous, because they feel they know him and because he is so damn curious. After the tense opening segment, Barkley becomes an even better listener.
“I wanted to let people tell their stories, to give them a voice,” he continues, his voice rising, “and to put a face on religion and race. Do you know many people don’t realize that undocumented workers pay taxes but can’t get social security because, if they sign up, they’re afraid they’ll be deported? It is such a myth that undocumented workers are eating all our resources and ruining our country. And let’s talk about Muslims. How many people actually know Muslims? I played with a few (Hakeem Olajuwon), but I didn’t really know them. Trump thinks we should send them all away? Man, there is so much vile rhetoric out there.”
While filming the series, he says, he thought back to his childhood in the projects in Leeds, Ala., in the bedroom of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Atlanta.
One of the more difficult scenes, Barkley said, was the interview with white supremacist Richard Spencer. Though visibly star-struck when Barkley enters his house, Spencer unapologetically embraces “white power,” expresses dismay about the nation’s changing demographics and mocks gays.
“I was so mad at him,” said Barkley, his feelings reflected on camera, “that I couldn’t think straight. I had to calm myself down.”
In the closing moments of the final episode, several of the participants are gathered in Atlanta, including the woman who scolded Barkley in what would become the tease to the series.
“We talked and we’re fine,” he added. “I can’t imagine what she is going through. I had never met anyone who had lost a (relative) to a police shooting. That was the first time. So, like I said, I learned something. Gotta keep talking.”
This is Charles. This has always been Charles. He is not a scholar, an actor, a journalist. He is an entertainer and a conversationalist and a storyteller, and those who recognize the series for what it is – a four-hour chat with our neighbors – will applaud the effort.