W. Kamau Bell's daughters inspired his new HBO doc about multiracial families, '1000% Me': 'Our kids talk about their identity and don't seem to be overwhelmed'

Comedian W. Kamau Bell is exploring race, identity and parenting in his new HBO documentary. (Photo: Getty)
Comedian W. Kamau Bell is exploring race, identity and parenting in his new HBO documentary. (Photo: Getty)

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Comedian, writer and girl dad W. Kamau Bell can always be counted on to spark a frank and funny discussion about a polarizing topic. This has been the case with many of his shows, particularly his Emmy award-winning CNN series, United Shades of America, now in its seventh season.

“Being a comedian, there are so many ways to get people to talk — sometimes it's with tears and sometimes it's with laughs. My work is always about encouraging people to continue the conversation and the work after [I’m done],” he tells Yahoo Life.

Typically, Bell notes, his work is "aimed at adults." But with his latest project, kids are leading the way. Bell credits his three daughters — Sami, Juno and Asha — with inspiring his new hour-long HBO documentary, 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed. In addition to interviewing children from interracial couples about their experiences growing up multiracial, the comedian — whose wife, Melissa Bell, is white — gives audiences a rare glimpse into his own family’s views on race and identity. The interviews include a mix of his daughters' friends and locals around his own Bay Area neighborhood.

In a world that often forces those with mixed parentage to pick a side, the observations and self-reflection that emerge is a breath of fresh air.

“I’m 100% Filipino, 100% African-American, and 1,000% a person,” says 11-year-old Myles, one of roughly a dozen subjects featured in the documentary, in which interracial couples also discuss parenting multiethnic kids.

When it comes to conversations about race, there’s a myth going around that this topic, like an R-rated film, is strictly for adults. For some parents, the subject of “race” has been tucked away in a box alongside other grimace-inducing topics like sex, death and drugs. 1000% Me, however, reveals, kids absorb the darndest things.

“It's really about me and my wife actively parenting our kids in this world,” says Bell. “We have discussions about race and racism in our house. Our kids talk about their identity and don't seem to be overwhelmed by all of these different identities, the way that people expect them to be.”

Here, kids discuss the complexity of their identity in ways that are simple and unburdened by grown-up discourse. “I think that it’s better for [kids] to learn about race and learn what race means and how race affects you when you’re younger, rather than later,” explains 10-year-old Mila in one scene, as her parents beam with pride at their kid’s insight.

Perhaps the most moving part of the hour-long documentary is the involvement of Bell's own family. He says watching his eldest daughter explain segregation to her little sister is something he’ll never forget.

“There are literally kids talking about these heavy things," he says. "As we were making this documentary, there was all of this fear of critical race theory and fear of American feeling too woke. Fear that kids couldn't handle discussions about race and racism because it would make them feel guilty or sad. And here we were making a film where all these kids are talking about race and racism, and it's not making them feel sad.”

Despite Bell’s fame and very public life, he and his wife are protective of their children when it comes to the internet.

“None of them are on social media,” Bell says. “Two of them have iPads. My oldest daughter is in middle school and can now text her friends on the iPad. But there's no social media thing happening with them, and they understand that part of the reason that we don't put them on social media is because of my career.”

The other part, as Bell explains, is the knowledge that unfortunately phones become appendages and it’s a privilege to not feel the gravitational pull of social media.

Serious discussions aside, when asked about how being a father of three young girls has changed his perception of gender, Bell pauses for a beat and confesses that he’s now a snitch.

“The great thing about being a dad to girls is that you can sell your whole gender out. I can tell 'em all the state secrets about boys so that they can be prepared for it. I am a total double agent to my gender for my daughter. I'm sharing all the state secrets about men,” Bell says with a laugh.

1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed begins streaming on HBO & HBO Max on May 2.

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