W. Kamau Bell is one of the smartest and funniest comedians working today and an important voice for social justice. His views on America are sharp and pointed and relevant. A three-time Emmy winner for his excellent CNN series “The United Shades of America”, Bell now directs the powerful think-piece miniseries, “We Need to Talk About Cosby.”
Bill Cosby is many things, and his life holds many stories, but this documentary attempts to come to terms with a man who broke barriers and did so much for generations of Black Americans young and old, while behind the scenes he was drugging and raping women for decades.
More importantly, this is a film that gives voice to many of his victims about how they were tricked by his public persona. These women felt safe with this man. It was his uncanny ability to gaslight nearly everyone. He was America’s dad. He was the man who did the “Picture Pages” segment on “Captain Kangaroo.” He gave 20 million dollars to a Black college. Mr. “Jell-O Pudding”! What could go wrong?
The documentary traces the rise of Bill Cosby’s career and shows his determination as a performer. As public personality he avoided the hot-button issues of the time, which made him more palatable to crossover audiences.
In the mid-sixties, Cosby became a television star on the popular series “I Spy.” His performance walked back Black stereotypes (his character was a secret agent who was also a Rhodes Scholar) usually seen on television. The actor was skyrocketing in popularity and respect and was gaining a reputation as one of the nicest guys around. As the documentary points out, while Cosby was gathering his Hollywood clout, his proclivity for molesting drugged women was taking shape at the same time.
As he shows on his CNN show, Bell has a comfortable interview style. His way of speaking to his subjects eases them into their stories. These are very real conversations and Bell lets the women and other interviewees speak their truths about Cosby without interruption.
The interviewees are not just the women. Bell speaks to professors, writers, psychologists, and people who have worked with Cosby. Each person who came into contact or were employed by the man all speak of their sense of betrayal, with one surprising admission by actor Doug E. Doug that he still loves Bill Cosby even in the face of it all. It is this kind of honesty that is refreshing to hear and exists as more proof that Bell’s film is anything but gotcha! journalism.
As the film examines the sexist culture of the time, it becomes clear how Cosby’s actions were so easily executed. His enormous celebrity caused so many to enable him while many looked the other way. It is sickening to hear how a couple of people in his circle played journeyman pimp for him, escorting women in and out if his dressing and hotel rooms even though they knew what was happening. That Bell doesn’t let his film linger on those who enabled the star is smart. With every shocking revelation, he keeps the focus on Cosby the man and the women he did harm to.
The testimonials of these brave souls are both devastating and empowering. It is unimaginable to hear the situations they found themselves in and the way Cosby treated them after he got what he wanted. It is moving to see how they have carved out lives and careers beyond what happened to them, but the pain will always be there and, as the final night’s episode shows us, justice was not ultimately served.
Bell’s film examines different sides of Cosby’s crimes. We hear how the fallen star has (to this day) his defenders, many of whom cried foul and wrote it off as just another Black man of stature being knocked down. While there is a discussion to be had regarding being able to separate the artist from the art (a great clip of Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert discussing that very issue hits home), the sixty-plus(!) women who have come forward and Cosby’s own words in earlier court depositions and public interviews should leave absolutely zero doubt as to this man’s crimes.”
Rape culture. America is living in it every day. It is a very real and sickeningly askew viewpoint the law takes. We see men like Bill Cosby go somewhat unpunished for raping women while the film shows how young white males are getting probation on or no jail sentence at all for sexually assaulting women because of their status in school and/or society. Victims of rape must sit by and watch this happen. It is disgusting to know that Cosby’s victims must watch the crowds who still cheer him on and the last-ditch attempt to keep working while he was being brought up on charges.
“We Need to Talk About Cosby” is not a rise and fall tabloid-ready documentary. W. Kamau Bell is a relevant filmmaker who appears more interested in getting to the discussion of Bill Cosby the man and the trail of heartbreak and broken souls that he leaves behind.
Can we still accept that Bill Cosby is forever a major force in children’s education, a celebrity who opened doors for future Black performers, an undeniable master of his craft as a comedian, a cultural icon of his time and an emblem of moral authority?
Cosby was fooling America and lying about his actual off-camera self all the same. While the performer was helping children of all backgrounds and lecturing on the horrors of drug use, we now know that he was a serial rapist who got away with it for his entire fifty-plus year career.
One person bottomlined it perfectly: “the juxtaposition is just bananas.”