In 2018, comedian and TV host W. Kamau Bell was talking to TV producers about comedy documentaries when the question arose: “Could you do a doc about a comedian who has fallen?” Bell recalled his fascination with Ezra Edelman’s acclaimed O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour series that examined the football player acquitted of murder through the wider societal lenses of celebrity, race, sports and class. A few months later, Bell was captivated by Surviving R. Kelly, which gave voice to multiple women who have accused the disgraced R&B singer of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
Those two docs form the inspiration for Bell’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, a groundbreaking docuseries from the first-time director that premieres on Showtime on January 30th, and takes a 360-degree view at one of the most celebrated and reviled comedians of the 20th century.
Over the course of four hours, Bell attempts to reconcile Cosby’s early civil rights contributions, his rise to “national hero” status for many Black Americans and title of “America’s Dad” with heinous accusations that he drugged and sexually assaulted more than 60 women. (Cosby was convicted of sexual assault in 2018 and served more than two years in prison before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the conviction last summer on appeal. He has denied all accusations.)
The result is a stunning series that examines Cosby’s entire life, giving room for multiple accusers to share their stories alongside Bell’s personal attempt at reconciliation. “There were times when I was making this that I wanted to quit,” the filmmaker admits near the end of the series.
You talk in the series about your own relationship with Cosby as a comedian, as a child of the late 1970s and Eighties and as a Black man. What was the original lens on which you approached the series? Or is it impossible to separate the perspectives?
Lenses are pre-composed of a lot of different parts, so I can build the lens for you. I don’t remember a time in my life where Bill Cosby wasn’t a part of the wallpaper of Black America. Everywhere I look, he’s around the corner and always seems to be talking directly to me as a Black kid. The Cosby Show was seminal for me like it was for a lot of Black people, and a lot of people of all races, because he was America’s Dad — not just Black America’s dad. Bill Cosby Himself was one of the greatest stand-up comedy documents of all time.
And then also, it’s not important to just do good work. You have to be good in the world through the example of philanthropy and representing Black excellence and promoting Black culture. Then, like a lot of people, I started to hear some of these things post-2004 [after the first public allegation of sexual assault], but you’re not connecting them and think maybe at that point in time, all that stuff is celebrity gossip news and not a major news story. And then Hannibal Buress did for me what he did for a lot of people: He forced you to say, add these three things together: America’s Dad, public scold of Black people, and accused of sexual assault and rape. And the bigger lens is like, as Roland Martin says [in the series], you can’t tell the story of Black people in America in the 20th century without telling the story of Bill Cosby. But then how do you tell it?
Did the series morph a lot from your initial conception to the finished product?
It’s basically an execution of what we initially talked about. But the one thing that it didn’t have is a lot of talk about his childhood because those people don’t want to speak. So we had to understand that this doc was about when America met Bill Cosby. [The other producers and I] were having a conversation about comedy docs in general and I was asked, “Could you do a doc about a comedian who has fallen?” And when you say that, there’s only a handful of comedians you’re talking about and the preeminent one is Bill Cosby. I think I was one who said you’d have to do it O.J. Simpson: Made in America-style.
I’m Black American. [The other producers] are white American and South Asian American. And all of us had this wellspring of Bill Cosby love that had been in us for a long time that we didn’t know what to do with all the allegations. It’s in large part a Black story but because he became so big, everybody of a certain generation has a real connection to him.
Given that wellspring of love, did you go in with any trepidation or concerns about yourself or how you may be perceived?
I was aware that this was not going to be a popularity move for a lot of people and that I was going to lose some people who maybe considered themselves fans of mine. For some people, it plays into a very convenient narrative they’ve already built for me that I don’t believe about myself: Black man married to a white woman working for a white network and pretending to be militant but he’s really just a sellout. I knew I wasn’t pitching a superhero movie.
“If I’m really learning the lessons of Bill Cosby that I thought he wanted me to learn, then that guy wants me to make this doc.”
Even with the wide berth you were given, how do you begin to structure the series given the enormity of the subject?
It was us sitting in a room with giant sheets of sticky paper on the wall going: Career. Allegations. America. It became very clear that if you want to tell the story with any sort of heft and help it to be illuminating, you have to follow all the twists and turns in his career. There’s a part of this [series] that’s literally just to educate people about things they didn’t know about his career or to show people like, “Oh yeah, I remember that.” And also to show how hard he worked in his career to make it. In the Seventies, he was doing showbiz at every level he could: children’s TV, public television, prime time TV, movies, music albums, comedy albums.
What did you personally learn about Cosby from your research and doing this series that struck you most?
That it gets harder and harder to talk about him the more you learn about him. [Cosby Show actress and Cosby accuser] Lily Bernard talks about how revolutionary it was to be on that set and see how many Black people had jobs behind the camera. He really changed a lot of people’s lives and careers that will still in quiet spaces credit him to this day. And then a few minutes later, she’s telling you about how she was raped by him. For her to have that perspective — to still be able to connect with the person — was amazing to see. How does all this exist in one person in one doc?
The series does a fantastic job reminding viewers that there’s no such thing as a “perfect victim” and highlights the myriad blaming-and-shaming methods some people use on survivors.
I think when we say the “perfect victim” in America, we really mean a white woman who is on her way to Bible study. And even those people are still going to be asked, “What were you doing walking to Bible study at nine o’clock in the morning on a Sunday?” The major thing this film is advocating for is: whatever you believe about Bill Cosby, we do a bad job dealing with sexual assault and rape in this country. We do a bad job of creating systems of safety to prevent harm, which we could do the same way we do with seatbelts and stop signs. It doesn’t mean you end all the harm, but you prevent a lot of it.
I’d even go further and say there are those who think Bill Cosby himself is innocent and still are able to reconcile that with wanting to advocate for general societal and structural change with helping sexual assault survivors.
I agree with you. This is the conclusion I came to: If I’m really learning the lessons of Bill Cosby that I thought he wanted me to learn, then that guy wants me to make this doc. Be smart. Get smarter. Be educated to care about your community, especially if you’re Black. Elevate Black people. I’ve tried to elevate the Black women who need our help and support and need to be listened to. So if I’m to learn the lessons that ultimately Cliff Huxtable wanted me to learn, then this is the doc he wants me to make.
You say in the series that a lot of people declined to talk to you. Was it difficult to find willing participants, and what were the main reasons people passed on you?
Some of those no’s — I want to be clear — were a “no” where they talked to me on the phone for an hour and said “no” after. For anybody who was raised on Cosby, it’s a third rail conversation. And for Black people, it’s like you’re adding more electrified rails to the conversation, especially if you’re a Black public figure or performer. You know that you’re dividing your audience if you talk about this. Some people who even believe the survivors just don’t want to hear about it cause they’re still heartbroken. It was too hot to touch and too difficult to navigate in a way that wasn’t going to get you flamed or attacked on social media or in the press. That’s true no matter what race you are, but specifically for Black people.
Did you make an attempt to talk to Cosby himself? Would you have preferred if he spoke?
First of all, I always claim the space that I see other comedians doing this work do: I’m not a journalist and CNN [who aired Bell’s show United Shades of America] did not hire me as a journalist. They hired me as a comedian. Now I’m backed up by journalism and standards and practices who say, “You can say this; you can’t say that” and it’s important for me to own that space.
But [Cosby] was never a true crime doc. Surviving R. Kelly really takes that on more like, “There’s an active crime scene and we need your help catching the criminal.” This is not that. He was in prison when we started, and at the time it wouldn’t have made sense to reach out to him anyway. It was always about the conversation about Bill Cosby, not about what he said, because he’s been quite clear about what he says. I don’t know what you get from that. Once you make space for the survivors, I don’t know how you do them right by then putting him in here.
If they had reached out to you and said, “Cosby would like to do an interview,” what do you tell them?
There are way better people to interview Bill Cosby than me. [Laughs] Just full stop. He needs to talk to a journalist or a forensic psychologist.
I was struck by the multiple people in the series who said, essentially, they didn’t believe any of the allegations until they knew someone personally who alleged Cosby assaulted them.
I think because the system has been set up to raise men not to trust. I grew up in the era of, “If a woman says no, that no means no.” But at the same time, in the culture, it’s like, “Well, the first no doesn’t always mean no.” There’s this sense of, How many nos it takes to get to no. That’s why these structures have to be redone and we need to talk to women who have been in this position because this is not about one man doing bad things. There’s a whole system in place that allows him and other powerful men to get away with this, and the system sets up the rest of us men to go, “You’re not supposed to trust this woman because what was she doing? Why did she go to his room at that time wearing what she was wearing?”
And to me, the most important conversation is the one after people watch it and they talk about it more and hopefully get to the work of, how do we create a system where this is less possible and where survivors are more supportive? At the end of the day, this is about creating a world that is safer for survivors.
“The major thing this film is advocating for is: whatever you believe about Bill Cosby, we do a bad job dealing with sexual assault and rape in this country.”
Part Four focuses a lot on race and perception regarding both accusers and the accused. Do you give a lot of thought to how the series will be perceived by different audiences?
As a Black man in America who has gone to both predominately Black public schools and predominately white private schools, I’m very aware of how what I’m doing changes in the environment and how my presence changes depending on who’s there and what the racial makeup is.
I knew there is a certain type of Black person who is going to say this Black man married to a white wife went to a white network to tear down one of our Black heroes. All I can say is: The Cosby Show was not on a Black network. He was not called Black America’s Dad; he was called America’s Dad. And we as Black creators in the entertainment industry have to work with the people who you work with — the people who you believe have your best interests at heart. The levers of show business are still generally run by white people, but some of those white people want to help tell Black stories. True equality is when it’s not that way anymore, but we’re just not there yet.
Now that you’ve finished making the series, are you more or less disheartened in how society treats survivors?
I am now at a point in my life — as my grey afro shows — where you’re like, “God damn it.” You want the baton to be lighter for the next generation, and I’ve got three daughters. And it feels like it might be heavier [for them] and it might be on fire. Yet I have to go out there and do the work every day. The big thing about this film and the work that I do now is it’s more than the conversation. “What are we going to do from having had the conversation?” We’re at a critical point in American history where I think it’s not only that we won’t advance, but we’ll slide backwards. It is disheartening, but my responsibility as a Black person is to use the privilege I’ve been given to try to figure out ways to create better solutions or create better conversations. And that’s basically what I think my role is for now.