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CNN takes Philly’s ‘Toxic City’ to a national audience

Comedian W. Kamau Bell's documentary series looks at environmental issues in Philadelphia and Chester, bringing some of the stories told in the Inquirer's Pulitzer-finalist series to a national audience.

"United Shades of America" host W. Kamau Bell, dressed for a visit to the Covanta incineration plant in Chester, in Sunday's episode the CNN documentary series, "Toxic America," which looks at environmental issues in Philadelphia and Chester.
"United Shades of America" host W. Kamau Bell, dressed for a visit to the Covanta incineration plant in Chester, in Sunday's episode the CNN documentary series, "Toxic America," which looks at environmental issues in Philadelphia and Chester.Read moreCourtesy of CNN

Three days after hosting ABC’s Good Morning America on Eakins Oval, Philadelphia gets a different kind of closeup on Sunday, as CNN’s Emmy-winning documentary series United Shades of America makes the city, and nearby Chester, the focus of its fourth-season finale, “Toxic America.”

This one won’t be celebrating our cheesesteaks and water ice.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell, who hosts United Shades, is no stranger to Philadelphia, having attended the University of Pennsylvania for three semesters. In the show’s first season, he was here for an episode that looked at policing in Philadelphia and Camden.

Still, he and his producers first thought of going to Flint, Mich., home of the ongoing contaminated-water crisis, for an episode about, among other things, how pollution disproportionately affects the poor. As they talked about it, though, they realized that “it’s more than just Flint. It’s even a major city like Philadelphia. It felt like an angle on it that nobody had talked about specifically on a national level yet,” Bell said in a recent phone interview.

“But also … it’s not just Philadelphia. It’s also this place outside Philadelphia called Chester,” where residents have been dealing for decades with the placement of incinerators and other facilities no one with a choice really wants as neighbors.

One of the show’s producers, Lauren Thompson, knew Inquirer reporter Wendy Ruderman, who, along with journalists Barbara Laker, Dylan Purcell, and Jessica Griffin, was a finalist in this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for the Inquirer series “Toxic City,” which uncovered the environmental hazards to which Philadelphia children are exposed.

“That sort of opened up a whole world to us,” said Bell, whose interview with Ruderman and Laker takes place, scenically enough, on a pier on the Delaware, with the Ben Franklin Bridge in the background. It’s typical of Bell’s style that he tries to introduce his interviewees as more than talking heads, in this case comparing Ruderman and Laker to Cagney & Lacey and Abbi and Ilana from Comedy Central’s Broad City.

“The point is they’re friends, they’re women, and they’re badasses,” he said of Ruderman and Laker.

Those familiar with the “Toxic City” series will recognize the story Bell is telling as he visits Lewis C. Cassidy, an elementary school that was identified in The Inquirer’s “Toxic City” series as being “perhaps the most toxic school in the Philadelphia system,” and interviews Chelsea Mungo, who was in the fourth grade when she wrote to state Sen. Vincent Hughes to protest conditions at the school and to ask for more funding.

“I think this episode is one of those that is probably more beneficial for the people outside of Philly and Chester than it is for the people who are there,” who already know the problems, Bell said.

I’ve tended to think of United Shades of America as investigative comedy, if a somewhat less frenzied form than practiced by John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Both tackle complex issues that don’t always get much of television’s attention, in ways designed to keep us watching. But there’s not much funny to be found in stories of children with lead poisoning or going to schools contaminated with lead and asbestos, and Bell, whose default expression is a broad smile, is fine with changing his tone to suit the occasion.

“I generally find that people appreciate that my tone is respectful about things that are hard to talk about,” though that doesn’t mean he can’t find humor in unexpected places. “Because how would we survive if we didn’t laugh sometimes at these intense issues?” he said.

“People sit across me and they’re OK with it not being the local journalist or national journalist who’s trying to hit the hard story. … Maybe it’s investigative feelings journalism?” he said, laughing.

“People who I interview like that I’m breaking up the rhythm [we often see in TV interviews]. I just want to have a good conversation with you. And we’re there for a reason, but it happens that in conversations, there’s laughter, there’s sadness, sometimes there’s hugs. You know, I sort of enjoy the fact that this show has evolved [so that where] if I realize this is super-serious, there’s no need for jokes, that’s fine. But even in those conversations, laughter that doesn’t maybe make it on screen will help alleviate the tension.”

Bell, who previously hosted the FX/FXX late-night show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, doesn’t pretend to be an impartial observer. But four seasons of traveling the country for his CNN series has “given me a wider array of knowledge,” he said.

“I think I’m still going to be a person who feels very at home in the Bay Area, hanging out with my lefties and liberals,” he said. “But it does make me feel I can kind of go anywhere. And … I can have a conversation with anybody — who is open to having a conversation. As much as people sometimes get mad about who I talk to on the show, those people would actually have conversations. The people who don’t have conversations, or who make it really hard, we don’t put in the show because that’s not worth it for us.”

What also isn’t worth it to Bell is trying to come off as the smartest guy in the room. He describes “revealing my own ignorance” as part of his brand and is quick to credit others with helping to shape the show’s approach to issues.

“I grew up like a lot of dudes who felt like they had to be the smartest, best, strongest, best-looking and be mad at the people who were smarter and better-looking than them, and had to talk a lot. So I grew up like that, despite my mother’s best intentions, because that’s what happens when you’re a man in America," said Bell, who was born in California and spent his early years in Alabama, Boston, and Chicago.

“When I moved to the Bay Area, I really learned, just through people I hung out with, that the quieter I was, the more I paid attention and listened, the smarter I would be just because I was getting new information. And then through United Shades, I started to own the fact that like this is really the dumb-question show," he said.

“When people know you’re not showing up as the expert,” they’re happy to explain what they know, he said.

Sunday’s episode caps a season whose topics have included a look at megachurches in Dallas, reproductive justice issues in Mississippi, and segregation in Milwaukee. And while the problems the show spotlights in Philadelphia and Chester loom large, Bell doesn’t see them as insurmountable.

“These things are fixable,” he said. “It would just take resources, and time.”

United Shades of America. Sunday, June 16, 10 p.m., CNN.