Comedian’s series examines conflicted feelings about Bill Cosby
In his Showtime project, former Chicagoan W. Kamau Bell tries to lead ‘the whole conversation’ about Cosby as both cultural leader and alleged abuser.
Haven’t had enough yet of Bill Cosby and the story of his spectacular rise and shocking fall?
“We Need To Talk About Cosby” is for you. Welcome to “the complexity of humanity,” as this four-part docuseries, premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, puts it.
Directed by comedian, TV host and former Chicagoan W. Kamau Bell, ”Cosby” serves up a compellingly nuanced look at the actor and stand-up comic formerly lauded as “America’s Dad,” but now an accused serial sex abuser whose alleged crimes took place even as he entertained and inspired millions and stood up for Black Americans.
Millions are implacably in one camp or the other — love him or loathe him. But it isn’t that simple, Bell argues, as he embarks on a mission to reconsider the Cosby saga and wrestle with perplexing contradictions.
Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt responded to the docuseries with a statement reiterating that the comedian “vehemently denies all allegations waged against him,” and complained that a “professional documentary” should instead target what he called “prosecutorial violations.”
The best thing that could happen from the series, Bell says in an interview, is that it could create a space for people to talk about and process their conflicted feelings about Cosby and his groundbreaking 1984-92 NBC comedy “The Cosby Show.”
“The film is an invitation to consider conversations about how to create a safer world and do a better job of listening to people who have been sexually assaulted,” Bell says.
The project largely steers clear of the tortuous legal case against Cosby, which included platoons of lawyers, two trials, several appeals, nonstop media coverage and the stunning reversal of his conviction by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in June 2021.
Instead, Bell (who traveled the country talking to people about social issues in CNN’s ”United Shades of America”) interviews academics, comedians, historians, journalists, TV commentators, lawyers, sex therapists and sex abuse experts about why Cosby mattered in America’s cultural history and how to reconcile whether he still matters, now that we know all that we know.
For millions, Cosby became a figure of unquestioned moral authority; few imagined a villain could lurk behind that endearing façade, fooling an entire country, Bell says in the film. Except for the women who say he drugged and raped them — and until recently, they didn’t talk about it. Ten of them tell their stories in the new project; some became activists, successfully lobbying to throw out statutes of limitation for sex crimes in multiple states.
One of Cosby’s accusers, Eden Tirl, an actress who appeared on “The Cosby Show,” tells Bell she felt awful when Cosby was sentenced to prison. ”It was a sad day in the history of Black culture.”
Most of the people in the docuseries, including Bell, accept Cosby’s guilt, but few are willing to toss him in the ash heap of history and walk away. They struggle with this task; Bell’s film is about navigating that struggle, to look at what Bell calls “the whole Cosby.”
“Black people do their best work when they look at America in an unvarnished way,” he says. “Let’s have the whole conversation [about Cosby]. In this space [in the film], we’re going to do it.”