At one point in his four-part documentary We Need To Talk About Cosby, W. Kamau Bell hands an iPad to his interview subjects and invites each of them to watch the iconic scene from The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable’s family lip syncs to Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time” as an anniversary present for Cliff’s parents:
One by one, you see many of Bell’s guests beaming despite themselves. And why shouldn’t they? The Cosby scene is a master class in pleasing its viewers — its Black viewers most of all. In voiceover, Bell notes that the Huxtable kids are not performing to the television audience, but to their adoring grandparents, making the famous moment “about Black love on full display.”
The smiles are often tinged with sadness, though, because this particular piece of Black love — Bill Cosby’s entire legacy, in fact — is tainted by the knowledge that Cosby was convicted of being a serial sexual predator who operated in plain sight of his adoring fans. (That 2018 conviction was overturned on appeal last June, a decision that is itself now being appealed to the Supreme Court. As a result of this development, we are legally obligated to refer to these crimes as alleged.)
“There are a million reasons we don’t want what we know to be true about Bill Cosby to be true,” says college professor Danielle Morgan, overwhelmed with the emotion of revisiting the “Night Time” clip. “But the reality is the reality.”
This is the problem that Bell and his guests wrestle with throughout the masterful docuseries. On one end of the spectrum, Bell offers up a 2017 Late Show clip of Jerry Seinfeld being surprised to hear that Stephen Colbert can no longer listen to Cosby’s comedy in light of the new information we have about the man. On the other, Bell interviews Boston Globe editor Renee Graham, who in the series’ opening moments bluntly describes Cosby as “a rapist who had a really big TV show once.”
The answer that We Need To Talk About Cosby lands on lies, as with so many things in life, somewhere in between those extremes. Bill Cosby is a monster who drugged and allegedly assaulted dozens of women that we know of — and almost certainly many more who have never been willing to tell their stories publicly. He is also one of the defining pop-culture figures of the latter half of the 20th century, and someone who contributed enormously to both Black causes and to white America’s perception of Black America. He put tremendous good into the world, and also perpetrated absolute evil. Can this be reconciled? Can The Cosby Show — or Fat Albert, I Spy, Uptown Saturday Night, Bill Cosby Himself, or the stand-up routine about Noah’s Ark — be enjoyed, as Seinfeld seems able to do, without thinking of what so many women say Cosby was doing to them around the same time? Should all the good parts of his legacy just be memory-holed in light of the many horrible ones?
“Can you separate the art from the artist?” is a thorny question that many have asked and few have easily answered. We Need To Talk About Cosby does not attempt to provide a definitive response, but it nonetheless deals sensitively with the whole messy issue. It acknowledges the many ways Cosby’s work positively impacted so many lives, while never taking its eyes off of the lives he irreparably scarred along the way.
Bell divides the story into four chapters: Cosby’s rise to fame as a comedian and Emmy-winning TV star in the Sixties; his pivot into family-friendly educational TV in the Seventies; his Eighties explosion in popularity thanks to The Cosby Show; and finally his unmasking as a rapist over the last two decades, including his arrest, trial, conviction, and eventual release on appeal(*).
(*) The release occurs right when Bell thought he was wrapping up the movie; his only on-camera appearance of the project comes as he’s absorbing this latest development and trying to figure out how much it changes what he’s already shot.
Within those roughly chronological borders, though, Bell frequently fast forwards and rewinds. We get long stretches chronicling the very public, celebrated Bill Cosby, then double back to hear stories from the women who say he was drugging and assaulting them even as he was winning awards and endorsement deals. Some of the accusers appear via archival footage from the last few years, but several of them participate in new, harrowingly detailed interviews with Bell and his crew. Victoria Valentino recalls how she was only weeks removed from her young son’s drowning death in a friend’s pool when she had the misfortune to meet Cosby, who drugged her, raped her, then told her the next morning to call a cab to get home — “And the horrible thing is,” she notes, “I said, ‘Thank you.’ ” The survivors’ accounts overlap in various stomach-churning ways: They say Cosby was fond of playing backgammon with his targets while waiting for the drugs to kick in. Janice Baker-Kinney remembers feeling their effects and groaning, “This game isn’t fair anymore.”
Though none of these stories are easy to digest, in many ways We Need To Talk About Cosby would be an easier thing to experience if it were just that. With all we have heard about what Cosby was doing behind closed doors all those years, only the most loathsome rape apologists would attempt to defend him. A documentary that focused on recounting that side of Cosby’s life, and that had the wide range of voices Bell has access to here — not just accusers, but lawyers, psychologists, academics, journalists, and even several former Cosby co-workers — would likely be potent in its straightforwardness.
Instead, all the talk about Cosby is as much about contrasting his public and private lives, and about seeing if there is a path towards reclaiming Cosby’s art without absolving his other deeds. That’s far more challenging territory, but Bell and company navigate it with exceptional grace and thoughtfulness.
Context is everything with this story. Bill Cosby got away with his alleged rapes for decades not just because he was famous, but because he was famous in a very particular way. He was a trailblazing Black comedian, and the first Black man to star in a primetime drama series, as the superheroic Alexander Scott in I Spy. His career was a rising tide that lifted up other boats: One of the first episode’s more poignant segments explores the ways Cosby helped end a decades-old Hollywood practice of putting white stuntmen in blackface to double for Black actors, thus making possible the careers of generations of Black stunt performers. But it was Cosby’s rebranding of himself as an all-ages performer and teacher — as “America’s Dad,” as so many of Bell’s interview subjects call him — that made his criminal activities both shocking and possible. Many of the victims recall feeling safe around him at first, because how could this upstanding, inspirational representation of the nuclear family possibly mean them any harm?
We also need the context of just how enormous — and important — Cosby’s stardom became to fully appreciate what a betrayal it felt like to learn who and what he really was. Certain bits of Cosby’s work — the “Spanish Fly” routine from one of his early albums, or a Cosby Show scene where Cliff brags that his special barbecue sauce is an aphrodisiac — now feel like blatant confessions. (Jemele Hill recoils at being reminded of the barbecue sauce clip, calling it “suddenly creepy.”) His brand for the most part was so aggressively wholesome, it was startling to hear the word “asshole” in the punchline to his comedy routine about drug use. Doug E. Doug, who played a supporting role on Cosby’s little-remembered late-Nineties CBS sitcom, describes Cosby’s educational Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert as “a joy headache.” He meant so much to so many people, particularly with the enormous global success of The Cosby Show and its depiction of a well-to-do, morally upright, always loving Black family. Writer and college professor Jelani Cobb at one point says, “I don’t think it’s overstating it: Cosby really almost single-handedly expands the vista of what people think Black people can be in American society.” And this quote is followed immediately of footage of Barack Obama celebrating his election to the presidency — the film explicitly drawing a line from Cliff Huxtable to our nation’s first Black commander-in-chief.
Cobb is also one of many of the film’s interview subjects who suggests Cosby’s public and private personae were more complementary than conflicting — that both the “America’s Dad” image and the philanthropy towards historically Black colleges and universities served to insulate him from suspicion and to make it easier for him to access future victims. Model-actress Eden Tirl painfully recalls Cosby arranging for her to have a small speaking part in a Cosby Show episode, and even getting her own dressing room — while Joseph C. Phillips, who was a main cast member as Denise Huxtable’s husband Martin in the later seasons, notes that he never got his own dressing room, and one week even had to get changed in a storage closet — so that he could sexually harass her in private.
The story of sex offender Bill Cosby is only complete if it’s told alongside that of Bill Cosby, beloved entertainer. By including both, Bell paints a fuller picture of the two sets of victims Cosby created: the women who’ve bravely come forward to describe how he hurt them, but also the many people whose sensibilities about pop culture and life in general were shaped by a man they later discovered might be an unrepentant, irredeemable serial rapist. And whenever We Need to Talk About Cosby is at risk of focusing too much on the unease of the latter group at the expense of the pain of the former, Bell points the camera back where it should be.
Linda Kirkpatrick puts it plainly, saying that the man who raped her after a tennis tournament in 1981 is “a master at his craft, whether it be acting, comedy, or raping. He is a master at it.”
We Need To Talk About Cosby premieres Jan. 30 on Showtime, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen all four episodes.