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‘American Race’ review: Charles Barkley has good intentions, but too little time

In this provocative two-night event series, former NBA star Charles Barkley traveled across the country to explore the issue of race from different angles, including police and race relations, Muslims in America, immigration issues and Hollywood stereotyping (Credit: TNT)

THE DOCUSERIES “American Race”

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday on TNT

GRADE B-

WHAT IT’S ABOUT NBA great — and TNT basketball analyst — Charles Barkley explores four topics that are “impacted by discrimination.” The first hour, which previewed Sunday, covers Baltimore, followed by Muslims in America, Hollywood stereotyping and immigration.

MY SAY Barkley’s tour of the great divide in American life and history is sometimes informative, sometimes not, and almost always about Sir Charles. He’s too big a personality to avoid the pitfall of “becoming part of the story,” and the part he played three years ago ensured he would here, too.

That happened just after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when he used a derogatory term to describe the rioters in a radio interview, and followed up on CNN saying, “Every time something happens in the black community, we have the same cast of sad characters. We don’t have to have Al Sharpton go there.”

If sides had to be taken over the tragedy in Ferguson, Barkley appeared to take the side of law enforcement (“The cops are awesome,” he later told CNN), and to no one’s surprise, the words were controversial in some black communities. In Thursday’s opener, Barkley hears from a Baltimore grandmother who tells him “those negative words hurt deep.” (another man tells him the same thing.)

Later at a meeting with residents at the Baltimore family grief support center Roberta’s House, Barkley tells them, “I never said the police do everything correct, but I know they’ve got a difficult job.” At that point, a woman who identified herself as Diane Butler, the mother of Tyrone West, stood up. (West, 44, died from asphyxiation while he was restrained after a traffic stop on July 18, 2013.)

“I don’t know you but I don’t like you,” she says. “You say you rolled with the police and that it takes only a split second [that officers have to make a decision]. Then tell me why it took them 15 to 20 minutes to beat my son to death?”

Barkley’s avowed purpose for this four-parter is that “people never talk about race until something bad happens — I want to provide a conversation.” This is the most urgent conversation of the opening hour, yet it comes to a dead stop at the moment it begins. Reason? An hour can’t begin to fathom the many issues covered here — Baltimore alone requires four — and so with intentions pure and heart in the right place, “American Race” falters. There’s not enough time, and what’s here is occasionally squandered — an interview with white supremacist Richard Spencer in the fourth episode glaringly so — or devoted to equally complex subjects (immigration).

But Barkley is right about the talking part. That needs to be done. He deserves credit for at least trying.

BOTTOM LINE Barkley is a good tour guide, and proceeds with an open mind. But the tour’s neither long enough nor deep enough to get his avowed “conversation” started.

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