Overtures and Undertows

‘Overtures and Undertows’: Stand-Up Comedian/Documentary Director W. Kamau Bell Goes His Own Way

By Noma Faingold

W. Kamau Bell, 50, may have started out as a stand-up comedian in the 1990s, but he realized early on that he had to widen his vision of a career in show business.

While living in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District for 11 years, Palo Alto-born Bell honed his craft. He saw many of his comedian peers heading to Los Angeles to try to land a sitcom, stand-up special and/or make money in commercials. 

“I went my own way,” he said. 

W. Kamau Bell. Courtesy photo.

A seed was planted in 2001 when Bay Area actor/writer Bruce Pachtman asked Bell to direct one of his solo shows. 

“That led me to where I am now,” Bell said. 

He is now a prolific documentary filmmaker, who tackles politically conscious and socially relevant topics, such as his latest project, “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed,” a family-friendly, hour-long look at what it’s like today to grow up mixed race. 

The doc, produced by HBO (streaming in May), will be screened during the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 22 at Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

“1000% Me” is perhaps Bell’s most personal documentary to date. The idea came to him through observing his three mix-race daughters, Sami, 12, Juno, 8, and Asha, 5. Bell, who is black, and his wife, Melissa, who is white, have been married since 2009 and they currently live in Oakland. 

In the opening scenes, he captures his children on film as well-adjusted on the subject of race and personal identity. Initially, Bell interviewed other Bay Area mixed-race kids and their families, some of whom were friends of his daughters. 

“We were going to go around the country and do this, but I realized this was a good place to film,” he said. “It’s really a love letter to the Bay Area.”

Telling just a handful of stories of children who are mixed in different ways, including Black/Chinese, Filipino/white and South Asian/Black, he kept the piece from getting diluted. 

Several Bay Area children and their families are featured in the HBO documentary, “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed,” directed by Oakland’s W. Kamau Bell. HBO courtesy photo.

“I wanted the viewer to really get to know these kids. I let them talk and they could feel like the expert,” Bell said. “People are going to be surprised at their knowledge base and ability to talk about painful things without causing them pain. They are deep, smart and compelling. They’re prepared to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

The film carries a light and hopeful tone, which likely wouldn’t have been the case a generation ago or even if he had filmed in other parts of the country right now. 

“I wanted it to be something families can sit down and watch. It’s really a conversation starter,” he said. “I would like it to be shown in schools.”

W. Kamau Bell. Courtesy photo.

Bell has long established himself as an artist and activist willing to confront and try to make sense of uncomfortable topics, such as in two award-winning docuseries, “United Shades of America,” which ran for three seasons on CNN and Showtime’s, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” (2022). Last year, he also co-wrote a New York Times best-selling interactive workbook with Kate Schatz titled, “Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book.”

“I’m always drawn to difficult conversations,” he said.

The next project for Bell, the ACLU Celebrity Ambassador for Racial Justice, is to publish a children’s version of, “Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book.”

“At this moment, it’s about being on the right side of history,” he said. “All of us who can, need to do.”

“1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed.” (59 minutes) HBO, will screen during the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 22 at noon at BAMPFA. Tickets: sffilm.org.

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