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Sundance: ‘We Need to Talk About Cosby’ Goes Deep on the Man, the Myth, the Monster

W. Kamau Bell’s four-part look at actor-comedian examines the massive gap between “America’s dad” and an accused sexual predator

A scene from the Sundance documentary 'We Need to Talk About Cosby.'

“When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby, rape,’” the guy in the grainy video says. You know the clip we’re talking about. It’s Hannibal Buress, a stand-up working out material in the middle of a set in 2014. The bit starts with him talking about Cosby’s smugness, how he was telling Buress’ generation of Black men to pull up their pants. It ends with the young comic calling out the actor/comedian/educator/TV-sitcom king for being a rapist. “That shit is upsetting if you didn’t know about it, trust me… It’s not funny. That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”

It was definitely upsetting if you didn’t know about it. Though a lot of people, in fact, were aware of those allegations, from industry folks who’d heard rumors to the fact that Cosby was sued in 2005 by Andrea Constand, a Temple University employee who claimed that he drugged and assaulted her. A host of other women were willing to come forward and testify that they’d experienced something similar; the case was later settled for an undisclosed amount. It ran so counter to the idea of who we thought Bill Cosby was: the sweater-wearing, pudding-pitching, moral authority who refused to curse onstage. The lovable guy behind The Cosby Show, who helped break down barriers for African American performers, and told kids not to take drugs. You know, “America’s dad.” So many of us couldn’t believe the description of him as a serial sexual predator. (“Us” is a key word here.) None of it made any sense.

It wasn’t until that snippet of another comic’s act, captured on a cell phone and dumped on to the internet, that folks began to pay attention. What we found was disturbing. Then other voices spoke up. More, and more, and more voices.

W. Kamau Bell’s We Need to Talk Cosby, a four-part, four-hour docuseries that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this afternoon, isn’t trying to convict Cosby. A jury took care of that, even if those convictions were eventually overturned on a technicality. It assumes you have opinions on the subject of Cosby’s guilt, whether you somehow believe he’s innocent of these accusations or now simply consider him to be, to quote Boston Globe editor Renée Graham, “a rapist who had a TV show once.” He knows that people — former Cosbyphiles, fellow comics, actors who’ve worked with Cosby, journalists, pundits, 99.999 percent of the Black community — have been trying to process the profound schism we experienced regarding what we saw in this massive cultural figure and what we now know about him. These conversations, he noted in his introduction to the virtual screening, had “been happening behind closed doors. I think we have to have them out in front of everybody [now].”

For Bell, this deep dive into the good, the bad, the ugly, and the extremely ugly of Cosby’s past is personal. He mentions that he grew up on Fat Albert and “Picture Pages,” that he became a stand-up in part thanks to Cosby, that he was moved by how the comic worked his way into the system and then used it to change the system from the inside out. Like a lot of fans, he’s still trying to reconcile the love he had for this man versus the monster described by dozens and dozens of women. But Bell also knows the necessity of hashing all of this out in public, because the Cosby story isn’t just about one celebrity abusing his power and betraying his public. It’s also about not listening to women who speak out, or empowering survivors to speak out without the “blaming and shaming” game. It involves power dynamics, and the inability to see past a carefully constructed persona even when contradictory evidence starts piling up and knocking down the facade. It’s asking you to face up to the way we’ve all tried to hold two opposing ideas at once: that someone who did so much for so many could harm so many others for so long.

Each of the four chapters revolves around an era of Cosby’s fame. There’s the first flush of fame, when Cosby’s appearance on Jack Paar’s show and his gigs in Playboy clubs broke ceilings, and his casting on I Spy changed the face of representation on TV. Part Two gets into the Seventies, when Cosby is an established comic and using his clout to make a special on Black history and the lack of education about slavery in 1969 (the footage of this forgotten primetime civics lesson still feels like a cold, hard slap), and establish himself as a kid-friendly teacher on TV. Part Three gives us the Cosby Show era and supernova-stardom, while the final part dives into his post-“Pound Cake”-speech rebranding as the walking, talking, lecturing conscience of the Black community.

Two things tie these chapters together: Bell’s desire to give interviewees a platform to discuss all of this openly, including a number of survivors who talk about their experiences in graphic detail; and how the harmless, nice guy we see on stages and screens bumps up against what’s happening behind the scenes. Comedians like Godfrey, who’d warm up audiences for Cosby’s show, and Cosby co-stars like Michael Jai White and Doug E. Doug talk about the influence he had on them while acknowledging some dodgy stuff allegedly happening on sets. Critics like Columbia professor/New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb talk about his cultural clout and his work with HBCUs, yet note that “while it’s tempting to think this is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation, there’s a compelling case that it’s all Mr. Hyde.” Actors such as Lili Bernard, models such as Eden Tirl and Lise-Lotte Lublin, cocktail waitresses, tennis pros, former Playboy bunnies and a host of other women describe being invited to visit Cosby’s dressing room, or listening to him say he can offer them mentorship, and suddenly finding themself dizzy, drugged and unable to stop America’s dad from doing whatever he wants with them.

Threaded through all of this are what one interviewee calls “breadcrumbs pointing to his guilty conscience,” such as the creepy aphrodisiac BBQ sauce gag he did on The Cosby Show, or a bit about downers on a 1974 antidrug record for kids that mentions avoiding pills that people tell you will make you feel good — the same line he used on women that he drugged. Don’t even get us started about the Sixties routine on “Spanish Fly” that he trotted out again on Larry King’s show in the Nineties. The fact that it seemed so pithy, so socially acceptable to laugh about it — that it was the equivalent of boss-chasing-the-secretary-around-the-desk jokes — only underscores how he was able to get away with what’s he been accused of for decades. And when Bell is seen wrapping up an interview on camera, only to hear that Cosby has been released from prison, you feel as if the wind has been knocked out of both him and us one more time.

But We Need to Talk About Cosby knows that, in order to reckon with the then and the now of this story, the conversation can’t be swept under the rug. The title gives you the film’s modus operandi in plain sight, and the fact that Bell’s postscreening Q&A included a number of survivors talking about why they needed this forum, and not just “to separate the celebrity from the reality,” speaks volumes. “Honestly, there were times when I was making this that I wanted to quit,” the filmmaker admits near the end. “I wanted to hold onto my memories of Bill Cosby. But if we really follow the lessons of that Bill Cosby — to be smart, to be moral, to not just be good but to do good — then we can all help create a world that makes this Bill Cosby, and others like him, impossible to happen.”

From Rolling Stone US