Charles Barkley tackles uncomfortable conversations about race on new series

Tuesday May 9th, 2017

When asked why he wanted to pursue a televised exploration of race in America, TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley says he was bothered by the negative stereotypes of minorities on television.

“If you are black on television, you are probably going to be some kind of thug, gangster or portrayed in a negative light,” Barkley said.” If you are some type of Muslim, you are going to be blowing stuff up. If you are Hispanic you are going to be some type of gangbanger. I’ve felt like this for years.”

That was genesis for TNT’s Barkley-led four-hour documentary series American Race, which will air on Thursday and Friday with two episodes each night at 9 and 10 p.m. (ET/PT). The show features Barkley traveling to different American cities to explore race dynamics in those cities. The four shows cover race and policing in Baltimore; what it is to be Muslim in America in Irving, Texas; race and entertainment in Los Angeles, and immigration in Atlanta. Barkley said he has wanted to form a production company for years and pitched the concept to Turner Sports executives, who greenlit the idea.

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“It’s a hard show,” said Barkley last week at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan. “None of the conversations were pleasant. They all had to do with some form of discrimination, exclusion. None of the conversations were happy-go-lucky. I needed a beer after every conversation.”

Is it worth watching? Here are two reviews—one from The Root and one from The Los Angeles Times—that end up on different sides of the planet.

Some will criticize Barkley being at the center of a discussion on race given his primary job as a basketball analyst. He said he expects to be criticized.

“Listen, when I get on TV, I’m going to be talking about a silly basketball game and I’m going to be having a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “But I’m very aware of all the social stuff going on. I’m never going to be one of those guys who gets on TV and yells and screams. That’s not how I do my business. But I’m very aware of social responsibility…My friends said, 'Are you f----- nuts for doing this show. Why don’t you do Charles Barkley’s Favorite Vacation spots?' There will be some backlash but I’m a big boy. I can take it.”

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As part of the show, Barkley spoke with Dallas-based activist and restaurant owner Sharmina Zaidi; Los Angeles-based actor and activist Peter Jae Kim; Dallas-based sign maker and activist Justin Normand; Atlanta-based civil rights attorney Gerald Griggs, and Baltimore-based civil rights lawyer William H. “Billy” Murphy. Executive producer Dan Partland said there were 30 people part of the production and the unit on the ground consisted of 15 people. The most controversial part of the four part series will be Barkley and Griggs sitting down with Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and one of the leaders of America’s so-called alt-right movement. 

“What I wanted to get across to Mr. Spencer is the rest of the country is great, is strong and we will not stand for the bigotry and hatred that is flowing out of your mouth,” Griggs said. “We will protect our Asian brothers and sisters, we will protect our Muslim brothers and sisters, we will protect our LGBT brothers and sisters and we will the show the world that love trumps hate.

Of course the question that rightfully arises is why give Richard Spencer any kind of oxygen on national television.

“I think some people will struggle with that,” Partland said. “We thought long and hard about it. In the end, we were convinced that it was more important to shine a light. They say sunlight is a disinfectant. In the course of filming, we felt there was a lot of change in how the country viewed race and viewed groups like the alt right…The point that we started with the show was believing overt racism did not exist anymore and we needed to talk about systematic racism and subtle things on the margins that people are not always aware of. By the time we got to the end of filming, we felt we were not talking about the elephant in the room but about just racism. Richard Spencer provided an opportunity to expose that and to talk about what underlies all of those different issues.”

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“I am glad we had him on the show because I want to know who my enemies are,” Barkley said. “I give him credit for having the balls and gumption to go on television and say his thing because there are a lot of people who think like him and we don’t even know they are around. I don’t like this dude, obviously, but he doesn’t hide behind it. There are so many people in America who think like him but we don’t know who they are.”

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