WE NEED TO ABOUT COSBY
"What do we do about Bill Cosby?" W. Kamau Bell asks. We talk about him, and confront reality.
To say that director W. Kamau Bell's four-part series We Need to Talk About Cosby is a well done documentary is a massive understatement. I have never seen a doc packed with so much information and such a variety of characters that still makes sense. A catalyst of the docu-series is Kamau's reflection on being "a child of Bill Cosby." This personal narrative is interwoven throughout the series grounding the episodes in a personal yet political framework from another Black comedian.
There’s a timeline, but it’s not so prescriptive because something Cosby did or said in the '60s might shine a light on something that happened in the early 2000s. "He’s been leaving breadcrumbs," says one interviewee (wait till you hear him talk about Spanish fly), and when you watch him speak, you can tell he's implying he's covering up his evil self. Kamau expertly juxtaposes the Bill Cosby 'We Know', that is the affable, intelligent comedian and teacher from TV, to the Bill Cosby we don't know -- the one who deviously drugged, sexually assaulted, and raped women. The best move made is the variety of people interviewed for the documentary: Black male comedians and actors heavily influenced by Cosby, the brave women he drugged and raped, ready to tell their stories in painful detail, a forensic pathologist, a sex therapist, the former editory-in-chief of Ebony magazine, etc... It allows for a deeply compelling and well-researched documentary that does not victim blame at all, and does not revere a man who let millions of people down.
What more, the documentary delves into general American history and connects it to how and why Bill Cosby was not only so deeply loved, but also what he did that changed media history -- and how Hollywood enabled him to commit crimes for decades. As one person says, "The Machine that creates Hollywood, that allows for Cosby to come forth, is ripe with misogyny." Cosby's crimes only worsened as his fame grew; but he was getting away with it easily. He was assaulting women in his dressing room on the set of the family comedy, The Cosby Show. There were sexual allegations in the late '70s against Cosby on the set of the kids educational show Picture Pages. You can't do what he did unless you have other people supporting what you're doing.
There was absolutely no way people didn't know what was happening. And nothing happened. For years.
But what about Bill Cosby was so great? As a white woman who didn't really grow up with him, all I knew were his funny faces, his ugly sweaters, and that he was 'America's Dad'. I couldn't quite grasp why one man was so important. But he was, and despite the gross feeling I got every time I saw his face in the docu-series, I actually felt okay listening to his former admirers speak of their love of him because he did make a huge positive influence on so many.
Bill Cosby changed the industry. He broke into comedy at a time when there were basically no black comedians -- and white and black Americans both loved him. Early on in his career, he cemented his non-threatening public persona which stuck for decades (the irony hurts). He was a masterful comedian, considered "clean but not corny" who initially played to white audiences, but he did talk about race and soon into his career he became a radical educator. After "becoming someone that everyone could trust," his voice made waves amongst white and black communities. In his pursuit of educating the public, he exposed the whitewashing of American History. By the 1970s, he became an authoritative educational figure.
He was a hero to so many in the black community. For example, The Cosby Show targeted changing the "ghetto" "criminal" "drug-addicted" image so many had of black Americans; people felt seen. They felt hope and joy. Cosby worked so hard to foment himself as a moral figure -- which made it even harder for women to expose his atrocious crimes. It made it harder for America to believe these women. I am so deeply grateful for Kamau for this series. Each episode is equally split between Cosby's good and Cosby's bad -- the survivors of Cosby’s crimes are centered, they’re seen and heard. Watching them is powerful.
We Need to Talk About Cosby is heartbreaking. No, you don't feel any shred of compassion for Bill Cosby -- but for everyone who's life he changed whether it be through TV, through breaking barriers and paving the way for Black Americans to work in Hollywood, or through drugging and raping them. His tarnished legacy is a huge letdown, but a lesson can be learned from all of this.
You should watch it if you love(d) him. You should watch it if you hate him. You should watch it if you know nothing about him or if you [think] you know everything about him. It's more than just Cosby you'll learn about: It's the history of racism in American media, it's misogyny and the powerful hold it has on our culture -- and the system that allows particularly powerful figures to continue committing sexual crimes. You'll watch women share their stories of assault and understand why they took decades to share their stories. Perhaps you can learn to stop victim blaming, and start to hold predators accountable -- no matter their positive influence and squeaky clean public image.