For decades, Bill Cosby was known as “America’s Dad,” becoming one of the biggest comedians of all time, the creator of one of the most popular sitcoms in television history, and a true entertainment pioneer, all while presenting himself as a squeaky-clean family man. But in recent years, Cosby has become known for his more than 60 sexual assault allegations over the course of his career, imprisoned for aggravated indecent assault, and seen as a hypocrite to a world that often saw him as a moral leader. In W. Kamau Bell’s four-part documentary We Need to Talk About Cosby, the comedian and director delves into the history of Cosby, his actions, and the impact that he’s had on the world around him — for better or for worse.
Early on, Bell calls himself a “child of Cosby,” and for many who watched Fat Albert, The Cosby Show, and listened to his catalog of comedy albums, it’s hard not to feel like Cosby was an integral part of their childhood. Bell follows Cosby’s entire career, from his quick rise as a popular standup to his shocking release from prison last year. In doing this, Bell not only shows us how remarkable the work of Cosby truly is, but he also presents elements of Cosby’s past that seem like major red flags at this point.
For example, Bell points out how integral Cosby was in getting Black stuntmen hired on film and television projects, or just how important seeing a family like the Huxtables on television was. But by breaking up this series, Bell can also focus on the different phases of Cosby’s life, as well as the different allegations from these periods, including testimonies direct from the victims. In showcasing Cosby’s achievements and the allegations together, it shows a horrific pattern of behavior that only gets worse as the success grew.
Yet it’s hard to remember the Cosby we once believed him to be in hindsight. Bell will show an iconic scene from The Cosby Show, which reminds of how charming and lovely the series was, and will take that feeling away by showing a now-disturbing choice in the show that hits completely differently in 2022. This back-and-forth is what Bell is trying to wrestle with. How do we deal with art and people who quite often made a massive impact on the world, when it turns out these people aren’t who we originally thought they were? Cosby made himself out to be a moral authority, but what happens when those morals are corrupt?
Through We Need to Talk About Cosby, Bell is primarily asking whether the art should be considered separate from the artist, and while Bell never quite answers this question, he makes it clear that regardless, the work will likely be tainted. To summarize what one interview subject says near the end of the series, it’s impossible to talk about Black America in the second half of the 21st century without also talking about Cosby. Through Bell’s dissection of Cosby’s importance over the years, and the legacy the man would’ve had, it only makes the reality of who he is even more tragic.
But more important than wrestling with the legacy of Cosby’s career are the interviews that Bell conducts with many of Cosby’s victims. Through these interviews, we see a pattern of behavior and a man who believed that he could get away with his crimes because of the public persona that he shows the world. Almost all of these testimonies involve one moment where the victim can’t believe what is happening simply because of who Cosby presents himself to be. Near the end, Bell shows how many still support Cosby, yet after watching We Need to Talk About Cosby, it’s impossible to ignore these allegations.
Despite the inherently bleak nature of We Need to Talk About Cosby, Bell manages to mostly keep this light, thanks to a comforting connection Bell has with many of these subjects. Rarely does We Need to Talk About Cosby feel like a series of talking-head interviews, but instead, like a conversation between two acquaintances discussing the fall of this comedic icon. But also, through the many clips of Cosby’s work, it can also become easy to get lost in just how delightful Cosby once was. Many times, Bell will show the interviewees a video from some Cosby project, and their faces light up with the remembrance of something that once brought such joy. Of course, the reality soon follows, but it’s that joy that is hard to reckon with, it’s that joy that made it so hard to see the truth over all these years.
We Need to Talk About Cosby is a fascinating look at the life of Cosby, the duality of his career, and the immense letdown of being disappointed by “American’s dad.” But it’s also an integral series in terms of allowing the survivors to tell their own stories, coming to grips with how to explore art from individuals with horrendous pasts, and how it’s important to walk the walk, instead of just talking the talk.
We Need to Talk About Cosby premiered at Sundance 2022. The first part of We Need to Talk About Cosby will premiere on Showtime on January 30, with installments airing on Sundays.