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“This is about being smart, being aware, caring about your community,” adds the director of the four-episode docuseries, which is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday and on Showtime on January 30.
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Already one of the most anticipated offerings of this year’s virtual festival, We Need to Talk About Cosby uses a very large canvas to paint a portrait of Bill Cosby, the onetime imprisoned and convicted sex offender, including the creation of his posture as “America’s Dad” decades ago and the contradictions that linger after two trials and Cosby’s early release last year.
To that end, the United Shades of America host employs a number of circumspect techniques to tell the sometimes-sordid tale. Bell also speaks with a sprawling array of journalists, cultural commentators, comedians as well as survivors of Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults over the years.
Based on what many have termed a technicality, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in June 2021 vacated Cosby’s 2018 conviction for the 2004 rape of Andrea Constand, and the now 84-year-old actor walked free. Currently facing an effort by prosecutors to have the U.S. Supreme Court take up the matter and battling a number of civil suits, Cosby has been accused by more than 60 women of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery and other misconduct, with some of the alleged crimes dating back nearly 60 years.
Far from the slopes and coffee joints of Park City due to the latest Covid surge turning Sundance virtual again, Bell spoke about the making of We Need to Talk About Cosby and the struggles he faced internally and externally in this time of pandemic. We also talked about the worries he had about how Black America and White America will view the docuseries and the bigger picture he is seeking to illuminate.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on this project for ages. How does it feel knowing it is coming out into the world virtually at Sundance just a couple of days and then on Showtime on January 30?
W. KAMAU BELL: (laughs) I’m still at the point where I feel like most of the people who’ve seen it are people who worked on it.
We’ve been holding onto it for a while. I joked that I wanted Showtime to drop it like a Beyoncé album, to sort of put it out there to the world. So the hardest part is knowing it’s done and wanting people to see it.
DEADLINE: Why is that the hardest part?
BELL: Because I really do feel like the thing we attempted to do here is not something I’ve seen done with this kind of story before.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
BELL: It was like, once myself and the producers started to look into it, all of us had this thing of like I thought I understood this.
But we didn’t.
I really did not understand this, and I think it was important to me to do that same thing to the viewer. You know, I think a lot of times in docs like this, which I love, you can kind of lose track of where you are in time because you’re just taking in so much information. For me, this comes from what I like to do in United Shades. I wanted people to be locked into here’s the information you need to know to understand this and really understand what we’re talking about visually in terms of the timelines we show and the changing culture surrounding Cosby as he changed from a comic to more of a teacher.
So, for me, I can’t let you lose track of the timeline that we’re in because the information means more if you really are focused on the timeline. I really give Showtime a shout-out for really sort of embracing that, because like I think that stuff can be seen as like gimmicky or extra, but they really understood that no, this actually locks you in to the timeline of events.
So practically, I understand people who maybe don’t want to believe these women. I think they may have some idea that this all happened during The Cosby Show or it all happened later in his life. No, so once you realize that these accusations go all the way back to the early days of his career, I think it will change a lot of people’s perspective on what they believe or don’t believe.
DEADLINE: Well, you certainly explore the massive contradictions between the teacher and the lessons, so to speak …
BELL: For sure. For sure. Like I’ve said before, I don’t think Bill Cosby will want me to do this, but Cliff Huxtable would. The idea being if I’m to really learn the lessons of Bill Cosby then this is a part of that. This is about being smart, being aware, caring about your community.
It’s also calling out the industry about the idea of many of the structures in place that allowed Bill Cosby to be what I believe to be the guy that committed these crimes, a lot of that stuff is still in place. So, if we really want to be clear about this and we want to learn the right lessons, then a lot of this is about dismantling the power structures in place that allow this thing to flourish
DEADLINE: Big goal, no easy task.
BELL: No, and I think the one thing I’ve already been accused [of] a little bit and I’m sure it’ll come out more is this idea that I’ve been chosen by the white man to take a Black man down. Like the white man has anointed me the Black guy with a white wife because, of course, to take the Black man down.
But I would say that like if you watch the film, it is clear we’re talking about not just Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby is the way into the conversation, but we’re not just talking about Bill Cosby behavior. We’re not just talking about Black men behavior. We’re talking about the behavior of powerful men of all races — and that’s important!
DEADLINE: Having covered Cosby, the arrest, the trials, the appeals and last year the release, it has long felt to me that there’s a similarity in Hannibal Buress in 2014 ripping into Cosby in Philly as a self-righteous rapist and Seth MacFarlane calling out the predatory nature of Harvey Weinstein years ago while announcing the Oscar nominations – it was out there, but never put in the spotlight until they uttered the words…
BELL: Yeah. Kierna Mayo, who was at one point the editor-in-chief of Ebony, who was great in this and she talks about the idea that he left bread crumbs. I think a lot of what we were doing was sort of like turning these bread crumbs into a loaf of bread.
DEADLINE: Strong image, and one you play a role in baking as the voice of the series as well as the director …
BELL: Yeah, but I’m not like an omniscient narrator. I’m a person who’s also talking to you.
So, in the narration, I say we’ve all seen this clip of Larry King in 1991 with Cosby joking about Spanish Fly (the aphrodisiac) but did you know that there was a bit from his 1969 album about Spanish Fly? Did you play that? And then, did you know that on Larry King, he was floating a book about his life as a child that has several mentions of Spanish Fly and you just go wait a second. So, a lot of us were arguing about this one joke on Larry King without knowing all the things that connect to that one joke.
DEADLINE: In that, there’s some breaking of the fourth wall in the series, which give us a little insight into the making and filming of it, but what was it like? Especially with there being several Cosby projects out there at one point or another over the last few years?
BELL: First of all, like obviously a lot of this was made during Covid.
So, we had to shut down production at one point and not work for a series of months because there was just no way to keep things going. Even the act of like trying to figure it out on Zoom was just not productive at a certain point. We shut down, and there were points at which I thought maybe this will just be shut down forever.
I know there’s a lot of other Bill Cosby projects that I heard about that were going at one point or done, and some reason they didn’t come out. So, I know that there’s something about this that makes it hard to get it across the finish line, and it was hard.
So, when we finally started it up again, and then filmed, and then, literally in Philly, the last day we filmed or what we thought was going to be the last day is when he got out of prison.
DEADLINE: There is an irony in that, it being Cosby’s hometown and the place where Hannibal performed the now-famous stand-up show that went viral.
BELL: Oh yeah. That’s a day that none of us will ever forget.
BELL: Because we suddenly felt like we were surrounded, and also, we then broke crews off to go to the jail and see if we can get footage of him leaving or whatever. So, it was just a really surreal day.
You know, right now, I sit here going like this is still, as I know it to be, an unpopular subject for a certain percentage of people and for a certain percentage of Black folks. Like either they believe and they feel like the good outweighs the bad or they think all the women were lying because Bill Cosby is perfect in every way.
And so, I know that there are Black people right now who maybe are fans of my work or fans of United Shades or maybe fans who will turn their back on me once this comes out, I believe. I don’t know how many people that is. I don’t know how loud they’re going to be about it. I don’t know what level they’re going to be. It could be Black people in show business. It could be people in show business.
There’s a sense of right now for me of the not knowing how this is going to break.
DEADLINE: When you were making the series, and I’m not talking about being shut down because of the pandemic, but was there a time when you thought of pulling the plug?
BELL: Yes, but every time I thought I could pull the plug on this, I would think about those survivors who sat down for interviews. You know, we had more than we could use in the four hours of film. But all of them, they trusted me to get their story out there in a different way and I thought, I have to get this across the finish line for them.
DEADLINE: In that, I noticed you don’t spend much time on Cosby’s first trial, the one that ended in a mistrial. Of course, there is stuff you have to leave out, as you mentioned, but why such a major part of the legal process?
BELL: We need five hours or more!
Really, Cosby getting out of prison threw this film for a loop in a lot of ways. To Showtime’s great credit, we kept pushing them, asking can we have two more minutes? Can we have, can we have, and they gave us as much time as they could but it really became a thing about like making choices about what this film needed to do. One of the big choices we made early on is to keep the part in about the advocacy that a lot of survivors got engaged in to overturn statute of limitation laws for rape in some states.
To me, the trials were important when it was about the way in which this guy was put away, but once he got out, the story shifted significantly.
DEADLINE: So, after four hours of We Need to Talk About Cosby, where do we go to make it about more than just Bill Cosby and his ongoing legal battles?
BELL: The ways that I personally get past that is by actively working to create more diverse work environments, so it is not the old boys club that I think put a lot of these powerful men in place. So, if you look at the list of names of people who work on this project, it is not the typical types of people who work on these projects.
For example, Geraldine Porras who’s one of the producers on the Cosby series. She’s somebody I met on United Shades as a field producer, who I could tell was being relegated to the hard and heavy-lifting work and not being seen as somebody who’d do more than that. Now, since United Shades, this is our second project together and we’re working on more things. She’s somebody who would be overlooked because she’s a young Latina woman and I’m like no, no. no. I’m not overlooking you. We’re going to march this career together.
So, for me, that’s how I personally do it, by actively working to diversify the people in power. That’s the goal.
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