‘It was bigger than Cosby’: W Kamau Bell on reckoning with an icon’s fall

In the docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby, the comic and TV host examines how a once-loved comedy star fell from grace, and the system that supported him

When word reached W Kamau Bell that Bill Cosby was home from prison, the United Shades of America host could have torn at his trademark salt-and-pepper afro.

Bell was in Philadelphia, Cosby’s home town, wrapping up interviews for a documentary project on the legendary comedian when Pennsylvania’s highest court tossed out the 84-year-old’s 2018 aggravated indecent assault conviction. The surprise ruling, which came just two years into a decade-long sentence, didn’t just have Bell reconsidering the premise of his film; it left him wondering whether he even had a film at all. “It felt like we could have this conversation because the arc of Bill Cosby’s life is concluded,” Bell said to the Guardian. “So when he got out, it’s like if the premise is ‘now that Bill Cosby’s in prison, we can have this conversation,’ what does it mean now that he’s out of prison? Can we still have the conversation?”

This twist ending is the jumping-off point for We Need to Talk About Cosby – a four-part Showtime documentary series that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. Cosby supporters are bracing for the worst. Music supervisor Vitaly Shenderovsky, leaning on the neat bass licks of the Living Colour frontman Vernon Reid, certainly does his part to strike an anxious tone.

Even though uncomfortable conversations are stock-in-trade for Bell, who directs and narrates each hourlong episode, this project was particularly upsetting for him, too. “I consider myself to be a child of Cosby,” says the 48-year-old. “I cannot remember a time in my life when Bill Cosby wasn’t a part of the wallpaper of Black America. So then to find out what we find out, and what I believe about the assaults … I don’t know. Trying to reconcile that or learn something from that was very important to me.”

Cosby was more than America’s Dad™. Until more than 60 women came forward and accused him of sexual impropriety, Cosby was a paragon of Black male virtue: athletic in his heyday, intellectually curious at his core and hilarious throughout – a singular voice in the zeitgeist before an unpolished Hannibal Buress rant struck him down from Olympus. Barry Jenkins, in his underrated indie drama Medicine for Melancholy, theorized that every Black man has a Cosby impersonation; a worn-out cassette tape of Bill Cosby: Himself, the comic’s peerless 1983 special, bespeaks my own feeble attempts. But they’re nowhere near as good as the much more effortless ones by Godfrey, the master impressionist and former studio audience warm-up act for Cosby’s shows. While his perspective provides We Need to Talk About Cosby with timely levity, sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar girds it with emotional intelligence. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, University of North Carolina sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, Cosby alum Doug E Doug, Gloria Allred and others fill in the remaining expert witness slots; tellingly, each begins with a deep sigh before grudgingly going about the task of weighing Cosby’s disparate halves.

We Need to Talk About Cosby does well to remind viewers of the man’s resonant impacts as a game-changing standup comedian, blockbuster TV star and pro-Black philanthropist. A large chunk of the first episode is devoted to the story of Calvin Brown, the stuntman who opened a barricaded lane in Hollywood for Black performers when Cosby hired him as his double on the seminal 1965 TV drama I Spy. (Before that, white stuntmen would literally paint themselves black to mirror African American actors.) But then ex-Playmate Victoria Valentino pulls the rug out with another story alleging Cosby emotionally leveraged the death of her six-year-old son to drug and rape her in 1969.

What the Showtime docuseries does more effectively than any newspaper or magazine article is sync up the accusations against Cosby with his career arc, making the case for his alleged sexual behavior as a disturbing entitlement that was in many ways typical of Hollywood playboys of his generation. In one Larry King Show clip, the host, a renowned playboy himself, can be seen laughing along to a protracted Cosby aside about Spanish fly; if that doesn’t grab you, consider: it was part of a promotional interview for Cosby’s 1991 autobiography, Childhood.

W Kamau Bell, host of the United Shades of America.
W Kamau Bell, host of the United Shades of America. Photograph: Aundre Larrow/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As We Need to Talk About Cosby’s slates for release on Sunday the A&E network has already begun unfurling a 10-part docuseries called Secrets of Playboy that paints Hugh Hefner as the host with the most … drug-aided sexual assault parties in Hollywood. “I think it was bigger than Cosby,” Bell says. “Because if it was just him doing this without any sort of industry scaffolding, he can’t pull this off. When they built Hollywood back in the early days, they didn’t start with the human resources department. It’s a dream factory. And the result of making those dreams is living a hedonistic lifestyle. That’s how you get to hide in plain sight.”

At one point in We Need to Talk About Cosby the comedian Chris Spencer speaks for all Cosby sympathizers when he recalls how easy it was for him to dismiss the consistency in the Cosby accusers’ stories because each could just watch the last’s big interview and adjust accordingly. But the docuseries hits back by showing the eerie parallels in the way Cosby’s accusers say they were groomed.

Apparently, Cosby’s seductions weren’t limited to lavish trips, promises of showbiz breaks or opportunities to pal around with fellow A-listers; in some instances, he ingratiated himself with family members, making it that much more difficult for accusers’ loved ones to believe America’s Dad had been anything less than a gentleman Huxtable. In others, accusers say Cosby had a knack for blaming his roofie-ing on them and tarrying in their lives until they no longer believed the lie or could felt the urgency to go public with allegations. “We couldn’t even really tell some of these stories,” Bell says. “There’s times when [accusers] don’t hear from him for months or longer, and then suddenly he pops back up. So for someone like yourself or someone like me who’s not studying all these cases and just sort of reading the headlines – even if you think it’s wrong and you believe all the women, you can sort of file it as 60 one-night stands that turned into rape. And that’s bad. But it’s different than when you talk to these women and you find out that this went on over the course of years.”

The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

Still: there are some things in We Need to Talk About Cosby that, well, aren’t talked about. It glosses over the funnyman’s upbringing, which was a good deal rougher than his comedy made it seem (as Michael Eric Dyson keenly observed in his thorough Cosby biography). And at points the docuseries strains to capture the demon in his art, as if a room full of guild members didn’t write a massive chunk of his material. Worse, the doc skips quickly past the fact that Cosby was never found criminally responsible for any allegation – an uncomfortable conversation well worth having. Cosby only ended up in prison because of his testimony in a civil case was unsealed. That’s why Pennsylvania’s supreme court ultimately chose to vacate his conviction.

Bell cites Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America and dream hampton’s influential Surviving R Kelly docuseries as inspirations. His film slots somewhere in the middle. It isn’t critical race theory or advocacy journalism, but one lifelong fan’s futile attempt to reckon with the unreckonable – how a childhood hero comes to be remembered as a monster. By the end of We Need to Talk About Cosby, you’re left sighing even more heavily than the experts were at the beginning – as much for what Cosby supposedly did as for the cultural legacy that’s definitely done and dusted.

  • We Need to Talk About Cosby starts on Showtime on 30 January with a UK date to be announced


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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