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Charles Barkley gives the 'American Race' some real traction

Charles Barkley has a new TNT series, “American Race,” and no, it’s not a reality triathlon competition.

It’s about that other kind of race — the black, white and brown kind — that Barkley always seems to be getting in trouble for bringing up on that other TNT show, “Inside the NBA.”

“I knew I’d catch … for this going in,” said Barkley, 54, of his new docuseries exploring hot-button topics such as undocumented workers, Black Lives Matter and Oscars So White. “People say ‘These jocks won’t stand up for anything.’ Then when you do stand up, they complain too. Which one is it?”

This is vintage Barkley, the cranky-yet-comical old school commentator that’s made him a media superstar talking about sports and all else. He’s a handful — and he’s just getting warmed up.

“Did you see last year when that thing happened with [Colin] Kaepernick?” he continued, referring to the San Francisco 49er quarterback who took a knee during “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest racial injustice. “It was like WWIII. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I’m smart enough to not let this stuff bother me. I’m just trying to do the right thing, and people are just going to have to deal with it.”

What they must deal with is four hourlong episodes airing over two nights — May 11-12 — when Barkley tours the country to answer some of his own questions about the relationship between law enforcement and the black community, Islamophobia in the Trump era and why America is so divided.

And it’s presented in a very Barkley-equse format. Prime example: the intro for the fourth installment in the series, “A Country Divided.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” says Barkley in the opening moments, “but America has lost its mind. … We got a bunch of cry babies out there who are upset ’cause their candidate lost, and the other side, they’re just gloating over their victory. … This is just plain stupid. What forces are keeping us apart?”

Or the episode exploring racism in Hollywood: “Last year’s Oscars, everyone went crazy because they were so white,” muses Barkley. “The Oscars have always been so white. I don’t know why last year became such a big deal. I think people get carried away. No one’s entitled to an Oscar. I’m from Alabama. They got real racism in Alabama, not just the fuddy-duddy stuff you got out here in L.A. This year’s Oscars had the most black winners ever, but people are still cautious. I want to know if people are overreacting, or is Hollywood racist?”

To answer Barkley’s often basic but honest questions, the hulking commentator travels across the country to sit at the dinner table with a Muslim family inTexas, an undocumented Mexican family in Atlanta and chat in the kitchen of conservative white couple in the South. He moderates heated roundtables between opposing sides on subjects such as what constitutes fake news and is physically moved by the pain of a Baltimore mother who lost her son in a police shooting.

While taping the show last year, he stopped at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood to be the celebrity guest for a night of improv sketch comedy. Barkley told stories of things he’d said in the past that had got him in trouble such as: “I’d never buy my girl a watch … she’s already got a clock over the stove” and that Col. Sanders is one of the black community’s most revered heroes. The troupe spun pointed and hysterical sketches out of those statements that are either hilarious or appalling or both.

After the show, while watching a football game in the green room, he said he’d said some things over his career that he probably should have thought about a little more before “opening his mouth.” But the point of dropping by the theater and shooting part of the show there is to get people talking.

“If you look at politics and people on television, they tell us what to think, the way things should be, but nobody ever asks us for our opinion,” said Barkley as stunned fans in the hallways ogled at him — he’s not your typical hipster comic who weigh about as much as one of his legs.

The 6-foot-6 mountain of a man was dressed in pedestrian black slacks, an office-appropriate button-down shirt and lace-up black shoes so huge they barely fit under the coffee table. He spoke seriously and passionately about why he, of all people, wanted to launch a series about race (“my daughter’s been a victim of stereotyping at the private school she goes to”) yet still found time to steal glances at a game. “The whole objective of the show is to have a civilized conversation. I didn’t want yelling and screaming, which is fine, but we’ve got a lot of yelling and screaming right now. The objective was like, let’s just have an honest discussion. We can agree to disagree.”

On “American Race,” Barkley’s sensibilities live somewhere between old-school crank, live-and-let live pragmatist and unpredictable loose cannon. He asks what many people are too afraid to — what’s the big deal? — and with the unapologetic candor that helped launch his post-game career into the stratosphere. He’s mixing it up nightly with the “Inside the NBA” crew of E.J. Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny (“The Jet”) Smith, who aren’t afraid to rip into each other. That’s the attitude he brings to “American Race.”

“If you want to have a one-sided opinion, you can go to Fox News and you know how they will be no matter what,” he says of the angle he takes on “American Race.” “I didn’t want to do this show from any one perspective.”

No matter who he’s talking to, whether its Ice Cube or an undocumented Mexican father (whose name was withheld for his protection) or extreme-right, white nationalist activist Richard Spencer, the reaction to Barkley was almost identical. School-boy crush mixed with nervous elation. They can’t quite believe they’re in the same room with Sir Charles.

Barkley may not have the political savvy of “United Shades of America’s” Kamau Bell, or the fly on the wall patience of Morgan Spurlock in “30 Days,” but as a unifying figure, there is no one else who could do the job quite like Barkley.

“I grew up poor in Birmingham, near Montgomery and Selma — that’s like right in the middle of all that [civil rights] stuff. That’s why it’s important and significant in the future. Plus I just got too many questions that need answering.”

‘American Race’

Where: TNT

When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday (sneak peek); also 9 and 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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