We need to be willing to have the difficult conversations about uncomfortable topics if we want things to change. Director W. Kamau Bell does just this with his 4-part documentary series We Need to Talk About Cosby.
Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s were part of the “Cosby generation.” We were raised on television programs like Fat Albert and The Cosby Show. Dr. Huxtable was a household name. Cosby was an inescapable fixture in popular entertainment. He was funny, likable, and confident. He projected this vision of Bill Cosby that we all grew to know and love. And that vision was shattered when the many allegations against Cosby came to light. As of today, over 60 women have come forward to tell their stories of being drugged and raped by Cosby. While some in the public rejected the notion that he committed these crimes, the rest of us had to grapple with a new reality: America’s dad was a monster this whole time.
W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries is a series of conversations with many individuals about Bill Cosby as an entertainer and a man in order to come to terms with all that’s been revealed about him. Interview subjects include writers, hosts, entertainers, professors, actors, critics, editors, producers, etc. Some knew or worked with Bill Cosby in real life, some are experts in subject matter relevant to the topic and others were his victims.
The docuseries does a superb job disseminating how Cosby came to be as an entertainer and a cultural icon. Cosby broke ground for black comedians while also being deemed “safe” by white audiences. In his early comedic career, he avoided jokes about racial strife and by doing so he cast his net to a much larger audience. Tressie McMillan Cottom PhD describes this in the documentary as “incrementalism” in which a black performer will become popular, gain wealth and help their community when they can all while “being the safe, compromised choice.” Bell’s docuseries tackles the history of black representation in entertainment, Cosby’s growth as an entertainer and his meteoric rise with his popular TV shows. It also reveals his downfall in recent years with his erratic behavior and controversial public statements. Through conversation we also learn about early red flags in which Cosby that we missed and how one black comic from Philadelphia, where Cosby was also from, whose viral stand-up act put the concept of Cosby-as-rapist into the public discourse. The most powerful and distressing moments of the documentary are the conversations with Cosby victims who bravely tell their own stories of sexual assault.
There’s a lot to unpack here and We Need to Talk About Cosby does so brilliantly. You can tell that Bell really focuses on representation with his selection of interview subjects. Some will call this docuseries a “hit job” which I think will be an unfair assessment. We Need to Talk About Cosby is an opportunity for us to really grapple with these two versions of a cultural icon that we have in our heads and come to the brutal understanding that they are one in the same.
Note to add: Cosby, family members, main cast members from The Cosby Show and Cosby representatives do not appear in the series.
We Need to Talk About Cosby premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Showtime will release the docuseries on January 30th.