At the beginning of the new documentary series We Need to Talk About Cosby, director W. Kamau Bell asks what should be a simple question: “Who is Bill Cosby now?” Few of his interview subjects are able to answer it.
They all sigh. Heavily sigh. One subject makes a point to label hers: “deep Black-girl sigh.” One person just says, “Fuck,” a one-word answer to the unanswerable.
But there are a few who manage to form a response. “He is known as America’s dad.” “Or a quote unquote monster.” “The juxtaposition is just bananas.” “He was someone to believe in and someone to trust.” “He wasn’t the nice person everyone thought he was.” “An example of the complexity of humanity.” Then things get a bit more blunt. “He was a rapist who had a really big TV show once.” High-profile attorney Gloria Allred is quick and direct: “I look forward to seeing Bill Cosby again,” she says. “In a court of law.”
We Need to Talk About Cosby is a four-part docuseries directed by Bell, an Emmy-winning TV host and producer and a stand-up comic. It begins airing Jan. 30 on Showtime, but all four parts premiered Saturday afternoon at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It’s a natural fit for the festival that has, in recent years, hosted the first screenings of buzzy and controversial documentaries centered around the sexual assault allegations against Michael Jackson (2019’s Leaving Neverland) and Russell Simmons (2020’s On the Record).
The series is a comprehensive, harrowing, and exhaustive look at Cosby’s rise in the entertainment industry, his strategic self-branding throughout the decades of his career, and the unimpeachable impact he had in changing Black culture and how Black Americans are viewed in this country. It also examines how he so strongly built his reputation as “America’s dad” and a global powerhouse that, even when accusations and rumors against him became well-known, he was still booked, celebrated, and protected.
The series also painstakingly builds the other pillar of Cosby’s legacy, brick by haunting brick: the graphic detail of the dozens of assaults alleged by his survivors, the crumbs that he laid in plain sight over his entire career suggesting he enjoyed drugging women in order to have sex with them, the fortress around him to enable his predatory behavior, and his flippant lack of remorse when it all came to a pass.
Because of the thoroughness of this four-hour documentary series, each of those two pillars is allowed to compete for the sun, casting a shadow on the other as they duel for its position as the answer to what Cosby’s legacy should be. But We Need to Talk About Cosby–through that meticulous history, careful consideration of both sides, and explicit recounting of the details of his assaults–makes the point that neither pillar topples the other. They stand together, inextricable from each other in a way that has been too complex and maybe too disturbing to understand or acknowledge.
Cosby’s cultural influence and importance is undeniable. So is his vile behavior. What was too hard to see was how those things fed each other.
“Cosby’s cultural influence and importance is undeniable. So is his vile behavior. What was too hard to see was how those things fed each other.”
After the montage of interview subjects struggling to answer the question of “Who is Bill Cosby now?” Bell puts another video slideshow on screen. There are comedians talking about how they can still separate his comedy from his allegations. There are others swearing they’ll never be able to listen to his work again. There are pundits condemning him. There are victims disgusted by him. There are cultural experts defending the way he changed the world, and the importance of that. There are TV hosts screaming that he’s innocent until proven guilty. There are others unleashing tirades that amount, essentially, to “lock him up.”
“While we said a lot of things, it feels like we haven’t gotten to the root of the conversation,” Bell says in a voiceover. “What do we do about everything we knew about Bill Cosby and what we know now? So even though it scares me, I feel like I have to have this discussion. Why? I am a child of Bill Cosby.” He pauses, and, with a little humor in his voice, clarifies: “You know what I mean.”
What does it mean to be a child of Bill Cosby?
The episodes of We Need to Talk About Cosby are organized chronologically. The premiere focuses on the start of his career in the ’60s. Episode two tracks his pursuit in the ’70s to be viewed as an authority figure and educator on Black issues for a large mainstream audience, culminating in his masterpiece comedy special Bill Cosby: Himself, which positioned him not just as that titan of culture, but the upstanding, relatable family man that essentially served as the pitch for The Cosby Show.
Episode three tracks his stratospheric run in the ’80s through the early 2000s, when the allegations against him started to become public. As more women came forward, Cosby was convicted, spurring a cultural reckoning over how to square the grotesque pattern of abuse with the hero who meant so much to so many, with the final episode attempting to figure out how to think, let alone talk, about this icon in a post-#MeToo society.
From the start of Cosby’s career, a cannon-blast onto the comedy scene in the ’60s, he was making and affecting history. After a breakout set on the The Jack Paar Show, he was the rare Black comic on the A-level stand-up scene.
Unlike other more provocative, race-focused Black comics, he was “clean, but not corny,” Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill says. He didn’t talk about the turbulent civil rights movement of the ’60s. “That was a big part of the appeal of Bill Cosby. You could watch him and enjoy him as an educated and cool Black man. You just didn’t see a lot of Black people on TV,” Renée Graham, a Boston Globe editor, says. In fact, he was at one point labeled “raceless”—a compliment, at least to the white mainstream media.
When he booked I Spy, he battled lingering, racist stereotypes about Black people on television; when the series started, believe it or not, the controversial sitcom Amos ‘n’ Andy was still airing in syndication. On I Spy, Cosby was the smart one. He was a Rhodes scholar and karate expert who spoke multiple languages—everything you never saw from Black characters on TV then. Behind the scenes, he was quietly changing the industry in other ways. He fought to end the practice of stunt doubles for Black actors being white stuntmen painted with Black—not even brown—makeup.
It’s after outlining that indisputable influence that We Need to Talk About Cosby establishes a format that will repeat over the next few episodes—a format that is as viscerally upsetting as it is necessary.
Using the simple visual cue of a timeline, the series reveals that from the very beginning of his career, this ’60s breakout, he was alleged to be raping and assaulting women, no matter what project he was working on, where in the country he was, and how wholesome and trustworthy his image had become.
Some of these accounts are told on camera in detail. Victoria Valentino delivers the first testimony, recounting when Cosby gave her and her friend pills to take after meeting them at a bar. When they became drowsy, he put them in his car. She remembers coming to in a haze, realizing he was about to assault her friend, and, slurring her words and barely able to move, trying to stop him. This annoyed him, so he came over and, allegedly, pushed her to her knees. “He orally raped me, and then he stood me up and bent me over and did me doggy-style and split,” she says. On his way out, he told them to call a cab to get home. “The horrible thing is, I said thank you.”
Other accounts are delivered in rapid succession via video and audio clips on that timeline. It’s breathtaking, both the sheer volume of encounters and how violent and predacious Cosby’s alleged attacks were.
Take this ’60s sequence alone: Kristina Ruehli in 1965, when she was 22, coming to after being drugged and finding him trying to force her to perform oral sex. Sunni Welles in 1966, age 17, who ordered a soda with him and woke up naked in a bed. In 1967, Carla Ferrigno, who was 18, was forcefully kissed by him. In 1969, Louisa Moritz says he forced her to perform oral sex in a dressing room. Linda Brown, who was 21 when she met Cosby, woke up on a bed and he sexually assaulted her. Three more testimonies are given from 1969 alone, ending with Joan Tarshis saying, “I thought, in an instance, people were going to find a naked body in a canyon somewhere.”
This narrative structure continues effectively. It’s impossible not to concede that, yes, what Cosby accomplished in his career was unparalleled and beyond valuable. We wouldn’t be who we are as a people—forget about entertainment—without his contributions. But then we revisit with that same breathlessness and excruciating detail his pattern of assault, not to mention the way, in hindsight, he almost bragged about it over decades.
In the ’60s, Cosby did a comedy set in which he fetishized a substance called “Spanish Fly,” which was branded as an aphrodisiac but was, essentially, a date-rape drug. His adulation for it is uncomfortable to hear. But even forgiving that set so long ago, when standards were different, he then talked about it again on Larry King Live in 1991. (By the way, he was speaking with King to promote a book called Childhood. There was an entire chapter about Spanish Fly, which is mentioned in the book 15 times.)
Later in the series, a clip from an episode of The Cosby Show makes all of the interview subjects wince when they see it. In the clip, Cliff Huxtable talks to Claire about his barbecue sauce and the sexualizing effect it has on anyone who eats it. Essentially, he’s talking about it as if it was Spanish Fly. To call it creepy would be an understatement.
There are other details about The Cosby Show that startled the interviewees. Cliff was an OB-GYN whose office was in his basement. Cosby was creatively in charge of every detail of that show, and he chose to make his character a women’s health doctor who brings vulnerable patients to his home.
“Cosby was creatively in charge of every detail of that show, and he chose to make his character a women’s health doctor who brings vulnerable patients to his home.”
At the same time, this was The Cosby Show. It’s almost redundant to talk about what the series meant to Black people and how it changed culture. But it’s necessary to this narrative. And, frankly, it’s a lot of fun. Revisiting the “Night and Day” musical scene is joyous. “This scene is for Black folks,” Bell says. “It’s Black love on display. We hadn’t seen that before.”
Adds Jelani Cobb, a writer and professor at Columbia University, at that time, “The cultural conversation is about Black men as absentee fathers. Bill Cosby is being called ‘America’s Dad.’ Not ‘Black America’s Dad.’ He’s being called ‘America’s Dad.’ I don’t think it’s overstating it: Cosby almost single-handedly expands the vista of what people think Black people can be in American society.”
But yet again, clues to his behavior were hiding in plain sight. On tape nights of The Cosby Show, there would confusingly be a section of about 20 models and aspiring actresses who would reliably show up. After the taping ended, they would line up outside Cosby’s dressing room and go in one by one. There were also beautiful actresses and models who he would hand-select for bit roles and put them in their own dressing rooms for the week—while regular cast members would be siloed to storage closets—and then visit them there with certain expectations.
“A lot of people knew,” Eden Tirl, one of those actresses, says. “Because you can’t do what he did if you don’t have a lot of people supporting.”
In recent years, some of Cosby’s defenders argued that it was unfair to hold him to the standard of “America’s Dad,” to the utopian ideal of a Black family man like the fictional Cliff Huxtable. But Cosby was able to become who he was because of that standard. He wanted that standard. He carefully and meticulously created that standard for himself, through the autobiographical nature of the show, his public appearances, and his decades spent establishing himself as a trustworthy man. And it was that trust that enabled him to prey on so many women.
Listen, that Cosby was a powerful force in American culture isn’t new information. Most of the accounts shared by his survivors in this series have been given before. But there is something unshakable about internalizing those two separate narratives as one, over the course of a series this detailed and, yes, this long. It’s imperative to watch We Need to Talk About Cosby in its entirety because it’s imperative to consider the entirety of who he is and what he did in order to grasp where we need to go as a still-misogynistic, still-victim-blaming, still-bigoted society.
It’s a grand and messy endeavor, and perhaps that’s the point. Because that’s the reality. Remember after watching all this: In June 2021, Bill Cosby was released from prison and his sexual assualt conviction was overturned.