The title of W. Kamau Bell’s Showtime docuseries, We Need To Talk About Cosby, is both provocative and self-aware. Unlike the bore at a party who’s pinned you into a corner and drones on incessantly about an uncomfortable topic, Bell understands that the last thing most of us want to do is discuss Bill Cosby, whom 60 women have credibly accused of sexual assault. However, Bell insists that we have the conversation, and over the course of four powerful installments, he justifies the presumption. He doesn’t subject us to a hagiography of the disgraced comedian or a simple condemnation of one horrible man. We Need To Talk About Cosby is instead an insightful yet sobering examination of how a monster fully infiltrated our cultural DNA.
Bell admits up front that he’s hardly an objective commentator. Like myself, he’s a Black man born in the 1970s who was raised on Fat Albert, Picture Pages, and The Cosby Show. Bell’s documentary seeks to “wrestle with who we all thought Cosby was and who we now understand him to be.” This is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story where Jekyll existed only to serve Hyde’s desires. Separating the art from the man is difficult when Bell makes a compelling case that Cosby’s fame and wealth provided him with the power and opportunity to prey on dozens of women throughout his career. The documentary and this review believe those women’s accounts.
We Need to Talk About Cosby charts the comedian’s groundbreaking career from early stand-up appearances to TV stardom, while also detailing a sinister act conducted behind the curtain. The documentary depicts a malice spiked with tremendous arrogance, as if Cosby seemed almost compelled to commit his alleged crimes despite his growing fame. Bell observes how the number of Cosby’s alleged victims skyrocketed during 1980s when he was a household name. He acted as if his fame and wealth insulated him fully. Cosby had become the master on the Hollywood plantation.
Kierna Mayo, the editorial director at Ebony magazine, suggests Cosby left a “trail of bread crumbs to his guilty conscience over the years.” This includes the shocking-in-retrospect “Spanish Fly” from his 1969 album, It’s True, It’s True (yes, that’s really the title). In the routine, the noted “clean” comic nonchalantly jokes about drugging women and having sex with them, which is rape both now and then. We Need To Talk About Cosby shows it wasn’t a one-time thing, either. He brought it up again during a 1991 interview with Larry King and he was creepily specific about the dosage. Bell shares a clip from a 1990 Cosby Show episode where Cliff Huxtable boasts that once his homemade barbecue sauce “kicks in,” people start to get “huggy buggy.” It’s truly disturbing to watch.
However, it’s not clear from the documentary that Cosby wanted his misdeeds exposed, even unconsciously. His accusers describe him as a malignant narcissist and a straight-up psychopath. Bell draws a clear link between the real-life predator and the pudding pop pitchman from TV. It’s chilling to consider how Cosby’s worst traits could have enabled his success. Psychopaths are often superficially charming, funny, and charismatic. They’re good conversationalists who share stories that put themselves in a flattering light. Does that sound familiar?
The Cosby Show was must-see TV for a generation that resonated with families from all races, but it’s hard not to feel complicit when you learn how Cosby used the show to exploit countless women. Accuser Lili Bernard’s experience on the series is more suited for a horror film than a sitcom: She describes how he tortured her professionally, under the guise of perfectionism, before assaulting her physically. All the while, he convinced her to trust him. It was a common pattern, where he’d feign an interest in mentoring young women, playing on their hopes and dreams.
Bell doesn’t focus much on Cosby’s “downfall,” such as it was. Cosby had a full productive career. He was well into his 70s and far past his creative peak when Hollywood finally started to distance itself from him. A theme Bell explores well is how Cosby skirted the line between “race-less” and “race-conscious” work. With the notable exception of 1968’s Black History: Lost, Stolen & Strayed, Cosby studiously avoided overtly political commentary. That changed in 2004 when he attacked poor Black families like a white conservative talk show host with his so-called “pound cake” speech.
Cosby had become the old rich Black guy yelling at Black kids to “pull their pants up.” This perhaps led to a generational split between those of us who fondly recalled Saturday morning Fat Albert reruns and younger Black people who considered Cosby a smug moral scold who wasn’t very funny. Comedian Hannibal Buress had no problem puncturing the Cosby myth during his 2014 stand-up tour—it’s probably not a coincidence that he’s younger than Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played the youngest Huxtable daughter, Rudy. Once Buress started discussing the multiple rape allegations, it seemed as if a spell had lifted. Justice, many believed, finally arrived in 2018 when a Philadelphia jury convicted Cosby for the 2004 assault of Andrea Constand.
Cosby’s defenders have miscast him as a victim of racial persecution, focusing specifically on his white accusers while ignoring the many Black women, such as Lili Bernard, who’ve also accused him of sexual assault. Cosby’s publicist, Ebonee Benson, gallingly compared him to Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Cosby was born four years before Till and was accused of far more than whistling. It’s both absurd and insulting to imagine that 60 different women, all with similar stories, would conspire together to take down “America’s Dad.” We Need To Talk About Cosby shows his accusers as both the young women he preyed on and the older women who live through the aftermath of his assault. Their stories are compelling and their humanity undeniable. They’ve fortunately moved past blaming themselves or accepting Cosby’s gaslighting.
Bell addresses last year’s unwelcome surprise when Cosby’s conviction was overturned after he’d served just three years in prison, a paltry penalty given the magnitude of his alleged (and admitted) offenses. However, while Cosby might die in relative comfort, he no longer has control over his legacy, which We Need To Talk About Cosby dismantles with precision plus receipts. The monster isn’t just Bill Cosby, the man, but also Bill Cosby, the legend. If we’re now unable to watch Cliff Huxtable or Alexander Scott without also seeing Lili Bernard, Carla Ferrigno, Louisa Moritz, Linda Brown, Cindra Ladd, and so many others, that’s not a tragedy. It’s an enduring justice that Cosby thought he could avoid.