Review: ‘We Need To Talk About Cosby’

Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s Docuseries Examines Bill Cosby’s Complicated Legacy: Warts And All

Bill Cosby has a definitive legacy. He’s a standup comedian, had dozens of shows, been in plenty of movies, a champion of education, “America’s Dad,” and countless other titles and accolades have bestowed for Mr. Cosby. Unfortunately, recent headlines showcase another side of the legendary entertainer that many did not know (and plenty are still in denial of) as he has been accused of raping more than 50 women over the decades of his tenure in showbusiness. Cosby has been such a clean-cut and beloved figure that even the notion of him being some sort of predatory person seems almost impossible. Many fans of him and The Cosby Show had to wrestle with the idea that someone we pretty much collectively thought of as a wholesome moral authority was secretly a monster for the last 50 years. It’s difficult. It’s a lot to unpack. So basically, We Need to Talk About Cosby.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell who in addition to standup has hosted Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and United Shades of America is no stranger to examining and unpacking difficult subjects decided in his directorial debut to put the lens on Bill Cosby to try to wrestle with the fact that this man who was loved and admired by so many, has had a side of him that not only did we not see, but even to this date, a side that we cannot believe.

Now right off the top, this is not a “hit piece” on Cosby as many on social media and the message boards have been saying that it is. We Need to Talk About Cosby is surprisingly a very well-balanced look at Cosby told from many angles. Bell doesn’t construct the documentary in the true-crime fashion we’re used to seeing nowadays. Instead, We Need to Talk About Cosby is a deep dive into who Cosby is, who he is to us, and how do we feel about him now that we know “the real” version of him.

The four-part docuseries looks at Cosby from when he was a student at Temple University, getting into standup comedy, and then taking entertainment on by storm. Each of the four chapters examines Cosby at a different point of his life. The first part takes a look at him as a new and fresh comic, who then explodes into stardom with I Spy and helps change the fact of representation on TV (and many other things). The second chapter explores Cosby as he continues to rise in fame and uses his fame for good as evidenced by his primetime special on slavery and black history that would make any Critical Race Theory dog whistler hate him through today’s pollical lens. Cosby doing Picture Pages and Fat Albert helped raise and entertain an entire generation. The third chapter, of course, takes a look at The Cosby Show and its cultural impact. At one point, 65 million people would watch The Cosby Show on a weekly basis. Compared to the current hit of today The Big Bang Theory which was watched by 23 million people a week, The Cosby Show is miles ahead of everything else and has a lasting impact. Finally, the fourth chapter looks at his “poundcake” moment and him airing out the black community’s dirty laundry and basically turning into Fox New’s favorite black friend, and then leads up to his Me Too comeuppance that we are all still dealing with. Each episode takes a look at Cosby’s career trajectory during each decade, but also intercuts his accomplishments with firsthand accounting of his abuse of women during that time to give some perspective of his duality.

As stated, We Need to Talk About Cosby isn’t completely one-sided against him showcasing him as the monster we now know him to be. It also discusses the positive impact he has had on entertainment on a major level. For example, Cosby is responsible for black stunt performers in Hollywood. Before he joined the TV show I Spy in 1965, there were no black stuntmen and stuntwomen in Hollywood productions. It was simply white stuntpeople wearing blackface. Cosby put a stop to that on day one of joining the show. Since then, we have had a thriving industry filled with black stunt performers. Also, let’s not forget, I Spy came out in the same time period that Amos and Andy were on television. Cosby opted not to participate in the ongoing Hollywood minstrel show that was ongoing and instead wanted to show a new type of image for America to see black people in. Cosby as a champion of education, who also put his money where his mouth is, donated to colleges and universities to ensure that many students had the best resources to get a degree and make something out of themselves.

But of course, that’s only one part of Bill Cosby. We Need to Talk About Cosby also delves into the side of him that’s all too familiar with us now. In addition to interviewing various people connected to Cosby, cultural critics, and fans (Michael Jai White, Doug E Doug, Godfrey, and others) who offer their perspective, W. Kamau Bell also interviews some of Cosby’s survivors who provide excruciating details of their assaults. If you were on the fence about his innocence or guilt, it’s very hard not to be after listening to their accounts of being drugged, raped, and then discarded like a piece of trash by a guy with so much power there was literally nothing they could do. Another common theme among the survivors in their accounts is their feeling of guilt afterward, and how many of them apologized to Cosby afterward, like it was their fault.

This is in part of the image that Cosby has cultivated over the decades of goodwill people entrusted to him for providing great entertainment over the years. We Need to Talk About Cosby makes the case that Cosby even weaponized his “wholesome dad” public image to be able to do whatever he wanted and get away with his. One survivor who appeared on The Cosby Show even commented that after filming a scene (in which Cosby was uncomfortably too hands-on during one-on-one rehearsals) that after the scene was done, he whispered “fooled them again” to her in the aftermath.

Another interesting aspect is how Bell is able to connect the dots to many of Cosby’s work to basically see “breadcrumbs” that Cosby has been hiding in plain sight. For example, Cosby’s obsession with Spanish Fly and him not only working it into comedy skits, but he also would endlessly talk about it on talk shows. Sure, it seems harmless at the time, but it’s absolutely cringe-worthy with what we know now. A gag on The Cosby Show talking about how Heathcliff’s barbeque sauce made everyone horny could be now seen as an analog to him drugging women for sex. Even some of his comedy albums geared towards children spoke about the dangers of “pills that make you feel good” which is downright hypocritical in hindsight. Even making Cliff Huxtable an OBGYN whose office was in his basement feels extremely creepy, and because Cosby had such control over the show’s decisions, it feels weird.

In the fourth episode, Bell explores the idea of the naysayers and why many (especially black men) were so quick to defend Cosby when the accusations started endlessly piling on. Some people saw it as a modern-day high-tech lynching of a successful black man. Emmitt Till’s name has been thrown around to defend Cosby by some as well. The conspiracy theory of Cosby supposedly trying to “buy NBC” was debunked by everyone interviewed. Bell makes the point that this is an ongoing trend as well. R Kelly is an example of someone who did horrendous stuff to vulnerable people, but his celebrity and his black manhood operated as a shield from criticism (and punishment and accountability for some time) for his horrible behavior towards women. Bell states that once again, black women still have the toughest time dealing with these types of things, and they are the ones who have to do most (if not all) of the work. Oh, and yes, We Need to Talk About Cosby is most certainly for a black audience. Most of the interview subjects are black people who also wrestle with his legacy, and many of the issues presented in the docuseries focus on how “we” (black people) feel about and deal with Bill Cosby.

Bell does a great job in his directorial debut. In a Michael Moore style of documentary filmmaking, he does involve himself into the story. He almost must because so much of the idea of We Need to Talk About Cosby is ingrained into him as well. He’s a self-proclaimed “child of Bill Cosby” and went into standup comedy because Cosby was his idol. The “we need to talk about Cosby” part of it is almost autobiographical because “he” needs to deal with how he views Cosby. Finding out someone you idolized is a rapist is very defeating. However, Bell is very great in the documentary when it comes to interviewing his subjects. Each person interviewed has a sense of comfort and ease that they have no problem speaking plainly with him, almost like he’s their long-lost friend. Even those recounting Cosby raping them revisited probably one of the worst moments of their lives with ease. That’s in no small part by W. Kamau Bell’s skills as an interviewer.

Of course, we all know that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Cosby’s conviction due to a legal error, but this happened while W. Kamau Bell was filming We Need to Talk About Cosby. In fact, Bell was just about done filming the documentary when he and the crew got updates on their phones while interviewing people, throwing a huge wrench into the production. This also allowed Bell to get raw and real reactions from his interview subjects, especially those who were violated by Cosby on how they felt about him being free from both accountability and from prison. But this allowed Bell to continue and follow his subjects and they tried to continue to make positive changes in response to Cosby. For example, many turned to activism and helped change the statute of limitation laws for rape cases throughout the country since no more of Cosby’s accusers can press charges against him as the statute of limitations regarding Cosby’s rape cases has expired.

We Need to Talk About Cosby wrestles with the question of “we can separate the art from the artist?” Do we throw away I Spy, Fat Albert, Picture Pages, The Electric Company, Kids Say the Darndest Things, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and countless others? What about the millions of dollars he gave to college endowment funds that might help produce a future president of the United States? It’s a difficult question, and one that Bell doesn’t directly answer. Instead, he allows you to try and figure it out on your own.

But make no mistake, Bill Cosby the man did despicable things to vulnerable women and used his fame, money, and power to do it and avoid accountability for decades. He was enabled by an industry that didn’t mind looking the other way as he was a great cash cow (Coke and Jell-O pudding can account for that), and a public image that helped shield him from any criticism. He’s an enigmatic figure, and one we need to wrestle with and talk about.

Bell and his subject stress that Cosby is just one guy. There are countless others in society who have done heinous acts against women who also breathe free air daily. Bell showcases a montage of Brock Turner, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, Donald Trump as examples of people who have not been held to account for their behavior towards women. One of the most powerful moments is when he asks his interview subjects if they know someone who has been raped and almost every one of them says “yes.” The most impactful answer was from one interviewee who said: the correct question should be “how many men do you know who has raped someone?”  As much as W. Kamau Bell wants us to deal with Cosby, he also wants us to stop failing women.

We Need to Talk About Cosby premieres on Showtime on January 30th.