“The Racial Stakes of Talking Cosby”
Brandy Monk-Payton (Fordham University)
The docuseries begins with a question from off-camera: “Who is Bill Cosby…now?” Cut to various interview subjects, filmed individually sitting on a mix of different chairs and couches, all responding viscerally to the prompt. Some react with a long and heavy sigh. Others pause and close their eyes. One refuses to comment. Everyone seems to brace themselves to begin the process of contending with Bill Cosby – comedian, actor, educator, philanthropist, and rapist.
We Need to Talk About Cosby (2022) is a directive to join a conversation about a man who no one wants to discuss. The title of the Showtime docuseries suggests that a forum is necessary to examine our shared complicated feelings about the cultural icon. But who is this “we”? The program is primarily geared towards those of the so-called Cosby Generation, who grew up in the 1970s with his ubiquitous presence on television and came to know him as “America’s Dad.” Documentary director, executive producer, and stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell even states, “I am a child of Bill Cosby.” Much of this viewing demographic is African American; indeed, the Black community in the United States has had to grapple with the violent history of sexual predation committed by one of its heroes. Therefore, the documentary serves as an outlet for Black fans to commiserate over the demise of a beloved Black star. It is also addressed to a general public who witnessed Cosby’s transformation from a wholesome and trustworthy famed father figure to another prime example of disgraced male celebrity. The rhetorical gesture in the title implicates this broader (white) audience but the docuseries emphasizes that the stakes of talking about Cosby have always been racialized. Cosby’s intimate connection to Black folks across generations warrants further dialogue.
Divided into 4 one-hour-long parts, We Need to Talk About Cosby chronologically details his rise to fame as a Black entertainer during the 1960s and fall from grace due to numerous criminal charges of sexual assault in 2015. Cosby’s conviction in 2018 was ultimately overturned in June 2021, and the documentary also captures this shocking turn of events. The docuseries explores each decade of Cosby’s career via archival footage such as live performances of standup routines, audio recordings of comedy albums, and scenes from multiple television programs like I Spy, Fat Albert, Picture Pages, and The Cosby Show. As director, Bell articulates how Cosby’s fame is inextricably intertwined with the Black American struggle for, and achievement of, civil rights in the mid-twentieth century. In particular, The Cosby Show had an unparalleled impact on Black media representation and resolved tensions within the sociopolitical climate of the Reagan era, laying the groundwork for a vision of racial progress routed through the American Dream.
We Need to Talk About Cosby presents an eclectic mix of interview subjects that includes comedians, actors, journalists, critics, scholars, lawyers, a forensic psychiatrist, and a sex therapist. Importantly, women who are survivors of sexual assault at the hands of Cosby also appear on camera to tell their stories. These women each have their own approaches to divulging their harrowing experiences. Former Playboy Bunny Victoria Valentino describes in graphic detail her nonconsensual encounter with Cosby after he drugged her in 1969. In contrast, actress Lili Bernard comments, “I’m not interested in reliving trauma.” The informal testimonies of these survivors and those who worked with him on different projects are at the heart of the documentary, which highlights contrasting experiences with Cosby both personally and professionally.
The major stylistic device used in the docuseries is to record interview subjects watching old footage of Cosby on a tablet handed to them. Sometimes they smile or laugh nostalgically at past performances that showcase mastery of his craft. But the act of re-viewing moments from his career often generates discomfort as interviewees reflect on the sinister undertones of jokes that had been seen previously as innocuous. Interviewees grimace at a scene from The Cosby Show in which Cliff Huxtable refers to his special BBQ sauce as an aphrodisiac. “This is suddenly creepy,” Jemele Hill notes. Indeed, much of the program relies on these moments in which interviewees, and by extension, viewers, are encouraged to cultivate hindsight in order to identify disturbing patterns in his actions that slipped by us once before. No one featured is in denial of Cosby’s despicable crimes. There are no defenders of the entertainer and, while there is still a sense of awe amongst Black interviewees about what he accomplished as a pioneer in Hollywood, We Need to Talk About Cosby acknowledges that his idealized image of racial uplift should not and cannot be redeemed. Ultimately, the entertainer spent three years in jail out of a potentially 10-year sentence before being set free. In March 2022, the Supreme Court declined an appeal to Cosby’s overturned conviction.
Bill Cosby will die with his legacy forever tarnished. The docuseries takes great strides not to rehearse discourse on separating the art from the artist when dealing with men in the entertainment industry who behave badly. Instead, Bell attempts to get to the “root” of the Cosby question. However, viewers are left with not much more insight than perhaps what they started with after four hours of intense commentary. Bell discloses at the conclusion of the production in voiceover narration that “This is hard” and perhaps such a reflection is the primary takeaway of the documentary. Perhaps the story of Cosby can be boiled down to a basic fact: “He’s a rapist who had a really big TV show once,” Renee Graham says matter-of-factly in her interview. That show was, per Graham, a “monument to Black excellence.” It is scary to accept that Black folks’ specific need to talk about Cosby is because we must inevitably talk about what it means to feel deep cultural loss of an icon and who meant so much to our community through his creative work. It is scary to admit, as Bambi Haggins argues, that African Americans had already been losing Cosby since his infamous 2004 “Pound Cake” speech. We Need to Talk About Cosby confronts our fraught affective attachment to the star with a bit of levity and much dark humor. It frankly scrutinizes our collective investment in him steeped in a desire for racial recognition. If, as Rebecca Wanzo states, we must begin the painful work of breaking up with our Black male love objects, then the program can function as a therapeutic space, especially for Black people, to begin the process of documenting how to end a relationship with the Cosby who we thought we knew.
“Understanding Cosby through Collective Conversation”
Amber Hardiman (University of Michigan)
We Need to Talk about Cosby (2022) is a long-overdue four-part docuseries about the life and career of Bill Cosby, a Black comedian once hailed as America’s “TV dad,” now equally known as an alleged sexual predator. Directed and executive produced by W. Kamau Bell, the series tackles several challenging questions regarding how to best (re)interpret Cosby’s contributions to American culture, television history, and changing social attitudes towards African Americans, while closely examining how the accusations have impacted the Black community and the entertainment industry at large.
Bell is well-situated to explore the ramifications of Cosby’s double life for his fans and dozens of claimed assault survivors alike. Acting as the program’s main narrator, Bell inserts himself into the series unapologetically; he frames the documentary’s main inquiries through his personal experience as a Black man, as a stand-up comic, and as a “child of Bill Cosby” who grew up in the 1970s. The program’s title, We Need to Talk about Cosby, literalizes Bell’s narrative approach, as he frames the docuseries conversationally through a variety of interviews with prominent Black intellectuals, academics, critics, and media producers, as well as other experts, witnesses, commentators, and of course, survivors.
In the series premiere, Bell asks the audience: “How do we talk about Bill Cosby? And what do we do about everything we knew about Cosby, and what we know now?” The goal of the documentary is thus framed as an effort to collectively determine how to reconcile Cosby’s positive social contributions with his glaring hypocrisies, his moralizing self-presentation as a role model and educator with his purported history of drugging and assaulting women behind closed doors. After establishing this objective, the series proceeds chronologically from the 1960s through the present day, tracing Cosby’s enmeshment within the cultural politics of each decade alongside his rise to fame.
We Need to Talk About Cosby is a powerful docuseries that stands apart from similar and emergent programs within the genre, such as Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (2019) and Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (2020) that take a more survivor-centered approach. The series deftly explores the complexities of Cosby’s character, charismatic persona, and significance for Black televisual representation. It also thoughtfully examines the logics of power and wealth, and how the affordances of status and celebrity enable the normalization of sexual misconduct.
The documentary achieves its broader sociocultural critique both narratively and aesthetically, most notably through Bell’s invitation to Black interviewees to re-watch Cosby’s performances on camera using a tablet device. By showcasing highlights from The Cosby Show and profound moments in which Black love was arguably “on full display” for the first time in television history, Bell evinces both the pain and the pleasure evoked by remembrances of Cosby’s critical role in creating inroads for African Americans in the entertainment industry. However, this evocation of nostalgia comes at a cost: the docuseries occasionally de-centers survivor voices through its emphasis on Cosby’s professional achievements, which frequently overshadow Cosby’s acts of abuse from the perspective of survivors themselves.
This is not to say that Bell does not include survivor voices within the series; indeed, of the dozens of women who came forward with abuse allegations against Cosby, Bell recruits a handful to tell their stories on camera for the audience. And yet, the documentary melds multiple clips of survivors speaking to various news outlets together in its editing, which sometimes has the effect of de-individualizing those who did not participate in the series’ production.
The most complex aspect of the series lies in its premise, namely, its solicitation of community dialogue fostered through a conversational tone. Bell’s personal connection to the subject matter of the docuseries makes his arguments about Cosby’s psychic impact on Black viewers more powerful and relatable. However, this personal approach often runs against commonly held expectations about documentary as a form, as promises of objectivity, neutrality, and “realism” have historically been built into the mode.
Rather than indicating a weakness within the program itself, Bell’s self-insertion into the series points towards broader industrial changes occurring in the traditional terrain of documentary storytelling in the digital age. Several critics have noticed how documentary and journalistic modes of production have increasingly begun to bend and exchange narrative strategies and aesthetics. Contemporary documentary benefits from the prestige associated with journalistic practices, and news media increasingly derives value from utilizing the narrative tendencies of documentary. This shift has occurred alongside a surge in advocacy and emotion-driven storytelling that has risen in opposition to the news values associated with mainstream media.
We Need to Talk About Cosby demonstrates the convergence of these forms via its personal mode of narration and investigative, interview-centered approach. The docuseries achieves editorial credibility through its consultation of various experts that speak to the multiple litigations against him. It also offers an emotive analysis of what Cosby signified to various individuals on a personal level, and in so doing, plays with documentary notions of authenticity and “realism” at a moment when definitions of what “counts” as documentary are up for grabs.
Defined as both a trailblazer and as a monster throughout the series, the program concludes without any definitive answers about how we are to re-interpret Cosby’s importance to either African American or television history. Instead, Bell highlights the important activist work being performed by Black women who have come forward to share their stories about powerful men, as well as their persistent work protecting the Black community, despite the psychological burden and costs involved. It also highlights the failures of the criminal justice system, while interrogating the politics of believability that contribute to Cosby’s ongoing support, despite the various rape allegations against him.
Overall, We Need to Talk about Cosby effectively deploys conversation as a strategy to collectively grapple with the complexity of Cosby as both a great artist and a serial abuser. In so doing, it delivers on its promise to start this critical discussion, while painting a nuanced picture about Cosby’s legacy to-date.