Sundance Review: We Need to Talk About Cosby Unravels the Man and the Monster

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The post Sundance Review: We Need to Talk About Cosby Unravels the Man and the Monster appeared first on Consequence.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The Pitch: For fifty years, Bill Cosby was America’s Dad, a trailblazer for Black culture on film and television, and comedy. I Spy, The Electric Company, The Cosby Show: All pioneering examples of Black excellence and a guiding light to generations of Black people who yearned to see themselves depicted on screen with grace and intelligence. And then, we learned about the man under those comfy sweaters: someone with credible accusations of sexual assault and rape of dozens of women.

For standup comedian W. Kamau Bell, and many Black people across America who’d grown up revering Cosby, those accusations were a tough pill to swallow. What do you do when a man whom you’d idolized, someone who carries seismic importance to visibility and excellence in the Black community, shows this other side of them. “Who is Bill Cosby…. now?” he asks.

Over the course of four hour-long episodes, Bell seeks to answer that question, with the help of journalists, scholars, some of Cosby’s friends and castmates, and — most importantly — first-person accounts from several of the hauntingly large number of women who’ve accused Cosby of sexual assault.

I Am a Child of Bill Cosby: It’s more than a little strange to see this documentary now, especially in the wake of Cosby’s recent release from prison after his 2018 conviction for aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, after a due process technicality forced the Supreme Court to vacate his conviction. But the doc knows that; one of its greatest strengths is that it doesn’t know the answers to its questions, and would prefer to live in that squicky middle-ground between admiration and revulsion that most people exist in, now knowing who he is. Scratch that: Who he always was.

Instead, We Need to Talk About Cosby acts as an examination of the two sides the man exuded: hero and villain, man and monster, icon and predator. The first three episodes of the docuseries tackle a different phase of Cosby’s lengthy career — his early rise in the world of standup to his TV stardom in I Spy; the death of MLK driving him to become an activist and childhood educator, albeit only on TV; the all-encompassing success of The Cosby Show. 

Along the way, Bell interviews a bevy of experts both white and Black, from Cosby costar Doug E. Doug to journalist Jemele Hill to sex therapists and lawyers galore, to elucidate the impact Cosby had on the pop culture landscape.

Cosby Was LIke Our North Star: For all the barriers he broke (paving the way for Black stuntmen, building an education apparatus for Black children to make up for an inadequate, white-centric education system), Bell’s doc establishes early that there was a different Cosby behind the scenes. In fact, We Need to Talk About Cosby posits that so much of Cosby’s humanitarian work, from donating scores of money to HBCUs to his public persona as the squeaky-clean Black comedian, was a smokescreen to lend his predation of women (usually with the help of Quaaludes and other drugs) some plausible deniability.

Then again, Cosby establishes early how the man’s rise to fame came in an era when patriarchy and chauvinism were king: He was a close friend of Hugh Hefner and spent many a night performing at The Playboy Club. He grew up around (and many many poorly-aged bits about) the ’70s horndog fascination with Spanish Fly, joking and bragging about it right up to the ’90s with Larry King.

It’s those bits of unsettling hindsight, and the uncomfortable reactions from his interview subjects when shown clips of old Cosby bits that don’t age well now (the “barbecue sauce” joke from The Cosby Show, a kids’ song about the dangers of “downers”), that Bell is most interested in — the little glimpses of a man who simply didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.

More than litigating what happened between Cosby and his alleged victims, though, Bell wants to explore what it means for those who’ve invested so much social and emotional capital in the icon — those who looked to him as their cultural hero, their father figure, their savior, and are now figuring out what to do with the lessons he taught them.

I Am Not Stopped: And then, of course, there are the victims, many of whom come forward for stomach-turning accounts delivered right to Bell’s camera. Woman after woman, the same details, the same modus operandi, the same internalized shame at not coming forward earlier. The first time, it’s disquieting; the seventh time you hear it, it’s overwhelming. When one victim chokes back the phrase, “The horrible thing is, I said thank you,” it’s enough to chill the air.

It’s in the fourth episode that Cosby really starts grappling with difficult questions about how Cosby’s true self resonated among a Black community resistant to disrupt what crumbs of uplift they get in mainstream society. The fall of Bill Cosby is not just the failings of one man, Bell argues, but of a society unwilling to believe women when they come forward with allegations, a community unwilling to hold the powerful to account, and the uneven levers of racist justice systems that make Black protectionism possible.

The Verdict:“[Cosby] is seen as America’s dad, but America has a rape problem,” a sex therapist argues late in the docuseries. The Quaaludes, the throngs of beautiful women walking in and out of Cosby’s dressing room on The Cosby Show, the handlers and fans who looked the other way or made excuses when they finally saw? All ingredients of a system that needs to be dismantled to make sure a Cosby doesn’t happen again. It’s to Bell’s credit that he makes this argument with such clarity and conviction, while also centering the voices who need to be heard the most.

Where’s It Playing? Following its Sundance premiere, We Need to Talk About Cosby asks some difficult questions about America’s Dad, and the pedestal on which we put him, on Showtime starting January 30th.

Trailer:

Sundance Review: We Need to Talk About Cosby Unravels the Man and the Monster
Clint Worthington

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