Charles Barkley long has been a provocative voice on matters of race — and many other matters — but he is prepared to take that role to a new level as host and executive producer of the TNT series, “American Race.”
Some of his friends were not so sure this was a good idea.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you do Charles Barkley’s favorite vacation spots?’ ” he joked Thursday during an event to promote the series at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.
Instead, the series takes a deep dive into race, traveling the country over four one-hour episodes in an effort to, as Barkley put it, “have a thought-provoking conversation.”
The first episode will be previewed after TNT’s NBA playoff coverage Sunday night, then two episodes will be shown each night on May 11 and 12. All four will be available to subscribers Monday via video on demand and on the TNT app.
Barkley, TNT’s longtime NBA analyst, said that for years he has been intrigued by starting a production company and that one of his priorities was to combat negative stereotypes of minorities on television.
A series of incidents involving the police and the black community, and later a presidential election that stirred racial tensions, provided further impetus for the series, in which Barkley conducts some eye-opening conversations — literally so, considering his wide-eyed reaction in more than one sequence.
“It’s a hard show,” Barkley said. “None of the conversations were pleasant. They all had to do with some form of discrimination, exclusion. So none of the conversations were happy-go-lucky. I needed a beer after every conversation.”
In the first episode, Barkley is confronted in Baltimore by the mother of Tyrone West, who died in a confrontation with police in 2013. She pointedly takes issue with some of Barkley’s past statements in support of police.
“It was surreal, because I had never met a person whose son or family member had been killed by the cops,” he said. “It was really uncomfortable getting your [expletive] kicked like that.”
In later episodes, Barkley visits a burger restaurant in Texas at which Muslim prayers are conducted during dinner hour and speaks to an actor in Los Angeles frustrated by how Asians often are left out of conversations on race altogether.
“You hear people talk about the Muslim ban, but they don’t know any, and they talk about undocumented workers and they don’t really know any,” Barkley said. “It’s just something some guy said in a stump speech . . . I wanted to put a face on the situation between the cops and the black community, the Muslim community, the undocumented aliens.”
Fellow executive producer Dan Partland and six of the people featured in various episodes joined Barkley in a panel discussion on Thursday.
In the final episode, Barkley and Atlanta attorney Gerald Griggs sit down with white supremacist Richard Spencer.
“We talked to him for two hours,” Barkley said. “It was the most disappointing, frustrating, angry I could ever probably envision myself in my life, especially while you’re sitting right next to me.”
He said he had to remind himself, “OK, you cannot hit this dude.”
Barkley, 54, said that being from Alabama, he understands the particular challenge of racial issues in the South, where, he said, after you leave the major cities, “you’re going to be around a bunch of rednecks.”
He said he considers “American Race” among the most important things he has done in his life, in a class with his 1993 Nike commercial declaring he is “not a role model.”
“When you get power, and I’m blessed to have some, I just want to do positive stuff, and I’m going to keep doing positive stuff,” he said. He expects some backlash from the series, “but I’m a big boy. I can take it.”
“I like to drink and I like to gamble,” he said, “but I still have a serious side. You can do both, and I’m going to do both.
“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.
“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. I got this.”