Bill Cosby was fondly called “America’s Dad” for over three decades. Despite being considered one of the greatest stand-up comedians by his peers, and having a string of television series and films, it was his role as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show that endeared him to many around the globe. Breaking racial barriers at every stage of his career and preaching the value of education through his Fat Albert cartoon and his “Picture Pages” segment on Captain Kangaroo, Cosby was a hero to a whole generation of kids. However, as director W. Kamau Bell details in his four-part docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby, beneath the cloak of respectability the actor had crafted for himself resided something far more sinister.
Accused of raping, drugging, coercing or sexually assaulting as many as sixty women, Cosby’s fall from grace was far slower than his meteoric rise to stardom. Although allegations about the actor had been leaking like drips from a broken faucet for over a decade, it took a 2014 comedy routine by Hannibal Buress to go viral for many to finally take notice. Now that our collective eyes have been pried open what do we do with the information we cannot unknow? How do we come to terms with a man who achieved great things but was also viewed as a monster? These are a just few of the questions that Bell’s latest work wrestles with.
Charting Cosby’s career all the way back to the early ’60s where he went from amateur comedian to co-headliner of the hit series I Spy, We Need to Talk About Cosby highlights how he broke new ground in entertainment with each new step he took. Originally wanting to be the Philadelphia version of Dick Gregory, the first Black comedian and activist to perform for white audiences, Cosby’s career skyrocketed thanks to his wholesome brand of comedy. While Gregory used his platform to talk about current issues like the Civil Rights Movements, Cosby was praised for being “raceless.” A gifted storyteller and physical comedian, he was the non-threatening Black man who made white audiences comfortable. A trait that proved to be the key to unlocking the tightly guarded gates of Hollywood.
This is not to say that the comedian-turned-actor did not do a lot for the advancement of Black people in Hollywood. His mere presence as a leading man in I Spy, one who was an educated James Bond-eques hero no less, was a game changer. In fact, one of the most shocking revelations in Bell’s series, on the positive side at least, was that Cosby was instrumental in getting Black stunt people work in television and film. Prior to Cosby putting his foot down, white stunt people were simply painted black.
While his success paved the wave for numerous Black people in the industry, Bell frequently reminds viewers that it came at a period when the seeds of rape culture were being sown. The sixties were an era where the lecherous ways of famous men were filed under the “boys will be boys” folder of excuses. As Bell’s series expertly details, the allegations regarding Cosby drugging and assaulting women trace all the way back to this time.
Speaking to a wide range of individuals that include journalist Jemele Hill, educator Marc Lamont Hill, actors Doug E. Doug and Joseph C. Phillips, lawyer Gloria Allred, sex therapists, writers, and several of Cosby’s accusers, We Need to Talk About Cosby is much more than a series about a disgraced actor. Bell uses the fall of Cosby to broach everything from toxic masculinity to celebrity worship and capitalism to white supremacy. Despite using a broad brush, the picture that Bell paints is concise and effective.
By breaking each episode down to a specific decade, Bell highlights both Cosby’s achievements and the traumatic encounters many women had with him. Unlike his award-winning CNN series United Shades of America, Bell remains behind the camera for the bulk of the series. While his narration offers moments of humour scattered throughout, it is the stories from the victims and those who had encounters with Cosby on a professional level that resonate the most. They not only provided the blueprint for how he was able to operate in the fashion that he did, but also exposed how many in the industry enabled and insulated him.
As Marc Lamont Hill recounts at one point, Cosby may have moved into his angry grandpa phase in later years, capped by his divisive “pound cake” speech which essentially blamed Black people for their woes with police and not decades of systemic racism and poverty, but he was extremely sensitive to any form of criticism. Like a king ready to behead any disloyal subject, he used his influences to kill stories that framed him in a negative light.
While Cosby’s clout shielded him from the bullets of scrutiny for decades, including questions as to why droves of models were sent to the tapings of The Cosby Show for “mentoring,” Bell’s series forces one to confront the uncomfortable role society at large played as well. Even when the infamous New York Magazine cover dropped, which feature his accusers and an empty chair representing those yet to come forward, many were still reluctant to believe the accusations.
Some of this denial falls along racial lines, given America’s long history of lynching Black men falsely accused by white women, even though women of colour were among the accusers, but some of it was his celebrity as well. He had been such an instrumental figure in our lives that we thought we knew Cosby.
The thing is we never knew Cosby. The image of him tattooed in our minds was of his creation. We only saw what he wanted us to see.
We Need to Talk About Cosby captures just how much celebrity worship blinds us to the horrors often staring us right in the face. Bell effectively shows how the warning signs were there, even Cosby himself seemed to allude to them in some of his routines, but society chose to drive through anyways. Putting the onus on the victims, and not the accused, to jump through hoops to prove guilt. As one sex therapist notes in the series, we always ask if we know someone who has been raped and never if a person has raped someone. We Need to Talk About Cosby makes it clear that we can’t discuss Cosby without talking about rape culture as well.
We Need to Talk About Cosby is currently screening at Sundance and will be released on Showtime January 30.