For about three years, it seemed as though Bill Cosby would die in prison. His 2018 conviction of indecent sexual assault against Andrea Constand was an ugly, shameful end to the comedian, actor, and philanthropist's celebrated and unimpeachably influential career. Of course, that guilty verdict did not deliver justice for the more than 60 other women who accused him of rape and sexual assault over the years, but it felt like some kind of closure — at least he'd spend the remainder of his days paying the price for being a rapist.
Comedian and CNN host W. Kamau Bell was just about to wrap production on We Need to Talk About Cosby — his docuseries premiering Jan. 30 on Showtime — in June of 2021, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Cosby's conviction, citing a "due process violation." Cameras capture the moment Bell learns the news, which he handles with a kind of bemused bewilderment. "I don't really know what this film is anymore!" he says, laughing.
But Cosby's release from prison actually strengthens Bell's judicious and humane docuseries, because it underscores the inescapable truth of Bill Cosby himself: He is a man who did tremendous good and tremendous bad. We may hate it when two opposing concepts exist at once, but there it is. We Need to Talk About Cosby allows us to explore that discomfort while also giving us permission to make peace with a harsh reality: We will never be able to reconcile the man Bill Cosby told us he was with the man he really is.
NBCU Photo Bank Bill Cosby
Over the course of four one-hour episodes, Bell uses archival footage and a variety of interviews — with academics and cultural analysts, comedians and Cosby's former costars and colleagues — to grapple with the question of Bill Cosby's legacy. But this journey goes beyond separating the art from the artist, because from the earliest days of his career, Cosby did so much more than create art. After breaking through as a stand-up in 1965, the comedian earned a costarring role in NBC's thriller iSpy, making him the first Black actor to headline a TV drama. Less well known is the fact that Cosby used his position to lobby the network to use Black stunt performers as his double on the action series — rather than white stuntmen wearing Blackface. The star got what he wanted, and in doing so helped open the door for other Black stuntmen and women in Hollywood. In the premiere, Bell tells this story to Annette John-Hall, host of NPR's Cosby Unraveled podcast. She'd never heard it, but she's not surprised. "Bill Cosby was doing what he could do to affect change on behalf of Black people," she says. "He made a huge impact."
It's true, and We Need to Talk doesn't shy away from acknowledging the many accomplishments of its titular subject. But Bell also contextualizes Cosby's rise to greater and greater fame by interspersing his accusers' stories chronologically — starting in the 1960s. In the same hour that we hear from Calvin Brown, the Black stunt performer who Cosby hired for iSpy, we also hear from Victoria Valentino, a former Playboy model who says the star drugged and sexually assaulted her in 1969. The second episode covers Cosby's "radical educator" era in the 1970s, a period when he created the groundbreaking Fat Albert cartoon, became an indelible presence on the Electric Company and Picture Pages, and even got a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. (Doubts about the authorship of his dissertation remain to this day.) It's also the decade that former UMass student Patricia Leary Steuer says Cosby invited her over to his house to discuss her potential music career. "The next thing I knew, I was waking up at two in the morning," she recalls. "I was in a bed, naked, and [Cosby] was standing over me in his bathrobe with a toothbrush, waking me up and telling me I needed to go."
Proffered pills and spiked drinks, lost time giving way to confusion, humiliation, and shame — the women's stories follow a damning, devastating pattern. Through them, Bell produces a comprehensive and incriminating portrait: The real Bill Cosby spent years painstakingly crafting his image as the "voice of moral authority," which he wielded as a shield and a weapon. Notes sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar, "He is seen as America's Dad, but also, like, America has a rape problem." (Cosby, now 87, continues to deny all accusations of wrongdoing.)
We Need to Talk isn't able to answer the daunting "why" of it all. What drove Cosby — a wildly successful celebrity who presumably could have had consensual sex with any number of partners — to drug women (which he admitted to doing in a 2007 deposition)? Like many cultural hindsight docuseries (Surviving R. Kelly, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Allen v. Farrow), Bell's work collects a variety of clues that we as a culture either missed or flat-out ignored: Cosby's repeated jokes about "Spanish Fly," for example, or a Cosby Show bit about Cliff Huxtable's special barbecue sauce that will make your blood run cold. There were hints behind the scenes of the venerated NBC sitcom, too — like the parade of models who lined up outside the star's dressing room each week — but Cosby was so much more powerful than anyone else on that set, the only action taken was a few raised eyebrows.
Narcissism, misogyny, deviance, all three and more — whatever drove Cosby to do what he did isn't as important as what came after his actions were exposed. We Need To Talk concludes with an emotionally powerful look at how the survivors coped with coming forward, and the tangible progress their stories helped create, including changes in several states to statute of limitations for sexual assault. Good emerging from bad and bad emerging from good — that's the contradiction of Bill Cosby. We don't have to like it, but Bell proves we don't have to be afraid of it, either. B+