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“Difficult conversations is kinda what I do,” W. Kamau Bell observes near the end of his four-part Showtime docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby.
We Need to Talk About Cosby isn’t the Bill Cosby documentary that Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) would have made, and it isn’t the Bill Cosby documentary that Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (Allen v. Farrow) would have made, and it isn’t the Bill Cosby documentary that Dan Reed (Leaving Neverland) would have made, and we can surely all take a second to be truly saddened that “celebrity sexual abuse scandal” has needed to become a genre of documentary.
We Need to Talk About Cosby
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, January 30 (Showtime)
Director: W. Kamau Bell4 hours
W. Kamau Bell isn’t exactly an investigative journalist and he isn’t exactly a dirt-digging muckraker, and the case of Bill Cosby doesn’t really require such a specialist. Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by more than 60 women, he was convicted in one of the cases and the fact that he is a free man today is a product of a legal technicality and not, in any way, an exoneration. If you require “proof” of Bill Cosby’s crimes, We Need to Talk About Cosby won’t be a documentary for you, though it features extended and reasonably graphic accounts of Cosby violations from several of his accusers.
Those other imaginary Bill Cosby documentaries would have served their purpose, but We Need to Talk About Cosby is, for the most part, exactly the right documentary for the moment and Bell is clearly the right filmmaker to have crafted it. It’s a complicated and pragmatic project, and here’s the important caveat or warning: For some people, the conversation about Bill Cosby isn’t a difficult one at all. He’s been accused of sexual assault by 60+ women and that’s the conversation right there. That’s the legacy. Full stop.
This is not that documentary either.
Over four hours, Bell and a varied panel of invested parties go through Cosby’s journey in the public eye, from early standup to I Spy to Fat Albert to The Cosby Show to the accusations, trial, conviction and release that have superseded everything that came before.
Bell’s interview subjects include standups and standup historians (like Godfrey and Wayne Federman), co-stars and creative collaborators (like Doug E. Doug and Matt Williams), academics (like Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Boyd) and cultural critics of all stripes (like Jemele Hill, Renee Graham and Mo Ryan), along with the aforementioned accusers. Beyond their candor and clarity and the nightmare of it all, the survivors represent ties to distinctive steps along Bill Cosby’s journey — his Cosby Show fame, his various residencies in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, his tenure studying at UMass-Amherst. The voices of countless other accusers are presented from other documentaries and news interviews, slotted within a five-decade timeline of predation.
The documentary is designed to instigate a conversation and not to build a case, which gives Bell a very different responsibility. We Need to Talk About Cosby doesn’t contain the now-standard “We went out to [Insert Accused Pariah Here] for comment and were ignored or declined or whatever” disclaimer. You won’t see any key cast members from The Cosby Show, nor is Bell trying to work his way down a list of A-list Black comedians influenced by Cosby. The agenda is “Who is prepared to talk to me in an interesting way?” not “Who are the biggest names I can get in order to grab clickbait headlines?”
That means not ignoring the significance of Cosby the comic and Cosby the entertainment mogul and Cosby the reshaper of public perceptions of Black family and Cosby the champion of education and Cosby the self-appointed hectorer of troubled Black masculinity. And I return again to the very real possibility that some people won’t want to see how complimentary the series is at times, much less for how long. I’m going to acknowledge that at four hours, We Need to Talk About Cosby exists in that awkward space where it benefits from being longer than feature-length (or an overpacked episode of Bell’s top-notch CNN series United Shades of America), but it’s a bit padded at four hours.
The point that Bell and his experts — in a non-COVID world, I would have loved to see some of these folks interacting in a panel discussion — want to make is that without establishing how beloved and, more than that, trusted Bill Cosby was, you can’t fully understand how he was able to do what he allegedly did for so long. And if you can’t make clear his position of righteousness and rectitude, you can’t understand both why it was so hard for some people to believe those stories and why Hannibal Buress felt the need to famously put Cosby on blast in a 2014 comedy routine.
And if you can’t understand the power that Cosby wielded in Hollywood, and how basically unprecedented it was for that power to be wielded by a Black man, you can’t properly put Cosby in the context of Hollywood’s upheaval of the past five years — nor can you understand how, with many of these accusations as public as they were, a network like NBC still was trying to develop new projects for Cosby as recently as 2014. What he meant can’t be separated from what he did.
Bell’s interviews are mostly conducted in settings designed to look as comfortable as possible, as if cushioned chairs and plush chaises make painful reckonings unfold more easily. Then he makes the interviewees squirm, training his camera on them as they watch standup or Cosby Show clips on a tablet. Even aware that any laughter or even visible approval is being recorded for judgmental posterity, Bell’s guests sometimes chuckle or smile, but more often they wince or look away in something that’s halfway between embarrassment and horror. More than anything, they react and they interact with Bell, whether they’re immediately and exclusively condemning of Cosby and his enablers, pragmatically willing to hold two thoughts in their mind at once or, in at least one case, unwilling to completely dismiss their prior affection.
However repetitious We Need to Talk About Cosby occasionally is and however much Cosby’s abrupt release in 2021 left Bell with a more uncertain conclusion for his documentary, this conversation feels like a defining one in our era where questions of separating the art from the artist — Can we? Should we? How do we? — keep coming up. Bell isn’t mealy-mouthed in his harshness or in admitting to his unease when he feels inclined to offer praise or even respect. It’s provocative and important stuff.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Director: W. Kamau Bell
Producers: Katie King, Andrew Fried, Jordan Wynn, Dane Lillegard, Sarina Roma
Executive producers: Vinnie Malhotra, W. Kamau Bell
Editors: Jennifer Brooks, Meg Ramsay
Cinematographer: Hans Charles
4 hours4 hours
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