W. Kamau Bell Wants to Keep the Cosby Conversation Going

W. Kamau Bell behind the scenes with Tressie McMillan Cottom on We Need to Talk About Cosby. Photo: Showtime

What do we do with everything we thought we knew about Bill Cosby, and what we now know? This question haunts W. Kamau Bell’s four-part docuseries, We Need to Talk About Cosby, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and premieres January 30 on Showtime. Cosby, the artist and the man, puts the maxim about separating the art from the artist to its severest test. He is indisputably a towering entertainer, but now fans are beginning to grapple with the reality that some of the greatest comedy and most prestigious television of the 20th century was created by, as two interview subjects in Bell’s documentary observe, “a fucking monster” and “a shitty-ass person.”

Ahead of its Showtime premiere, the Cosby camp released a statement in response to the documentary that read in part, “Mr. Cosby has spent more than 50 years standing with the disenfranchised; and standing with those women and men who were denied respectful work … because of race and gender … within the expanses of the entertainment industries.” This is true, and Bell acknowledges it and more of the plus side on the Cosby ledger: His crossover success as a stand-up comedian (he won a staggering six consecutive Grammys for Best Comedy Album between 1965-70), becoming the first Black actor to win an Emmy for his star-making role as the globe-trotting agent in I Spy, and his iconic stints as a pitchman for Jell-O, Pudding Pops, and Coke. This is not to mention his efforts as a champion of childhood education and prodigious financial contributions as a philanthropist and benefactor.

In 2014, a Coke executive told CNN, “The three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Cosby.” That was also the year comedian Hannibal Buress went viral with a stand-up riff on Cosby’s hypocrisy, referring to him as a “rapist.” Suddenly, after years of accusations, “everybody heard,” Bell states. Sixty women ultimately accused Cosby of heinous sex crimes, and in 2018 he was convicted and jailed. His sentence was overturned on a procedural issue in 2021.

Bell calls Cosby’s story one of the biggest disappointments in American history. “What do we do with that?” he asks in the documentary, which chronologically follows Cosby’s career and includes commentary and context by a distinguished roster of academics, journalists, Cosby Show cast members (none of the core ensemble) and creative staff, comedians, and — most powerfully — several survivors of Cosby’s predatory behavior, who share chillingly similar stories of being groomed, drugged, and sexually assaulted.

Bell, a three-time Emmy winner for his CNN docuseries United Shades of America, spoke about this emotionally charged project, which he admits he wanted to abandon several times over the course of its production, but could not bring himself to quit.

This project makes your Ku Klux Klan episode of United Shades of America now seem like comfort television.
Yes — I said to my best friend, “At least I won’t be just known for talking to the Klan anymore.”

Why did you want to have this conversation about Bill Cosby now?
As journalist Roland Martin says in the documentary, you can’t talk about Black people in the 20th century without talking about Bill Cosby. He was a transformative figure. I’ve been thinking about Bill Cosby all my life in very different ways, for a large part, just as a Black hero. When the allegations came out, I read a story about how the director of a documentary was pulling an interview with Cosby out of it. In that doc, he was credited as being the single force to integrate the stuntman industry by refusing to work on I Spy without a Black stunt performer. If we throw that all away, we’re losing a big part of our history.

You were born in 1973. Was your introduction to him via his children’s programming?
One hundred percent. I would imagine the first thing I saw was Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. As far as I understood, Bill Cosby was just the host of the show. I didn’t know he created it. I didn’t know he did the voices. He was talking directly to the camera in a way that communicated, This guy cares about me.

When did you become aware of him as a comedian?
Bill Cosby: Himself. At the time, I was like, This is better than the other stand-up comedy I’ve seen. I was young, so I wasn’t really watching Richard Pryor or George Carlin. But I was aware that this was different, this was better; this man had some sort of presence I’d never seen before. I saw him perform live twice in the 2000s. He did two hours and at the end, he goes, “The dentist …” and the place exploded. It was 20 years after he had done it on Bill Cosby: Himself, and we laughed like we’d never heard it before.

What was your reaction when you heard Hannibal Buress’s Cosby riff in 2014?
Everything Hannibal said, I knew, but I wasn’t facing. There were a lot of us. In 2004, when the allegations came out, the media landscape was very different. It wasn’t like opening your phone and going, “Look what they’re saying about Bill Cosby.” These were inconvenient truths we didn’t want to put together. Hannibal wasn’t even trying to break any news. He was frustrated about Bill Cosby’s hypocrisy and thought we were all frustrated with it, and then was surprised when everyone went, “What?!”

You state in the documentary that many people you approached did not want to participate. What was the most common reason?
Some people feel like we have to let Bill Cosby go completely, so why was I bringing him up? Some people feel we can’t afford to lose a Black role model because we don’t have enough of them. It’s true — we don’t have enough representation. And some people feel like, How can you for a second talk about any of the good things he did when there are more than 60 women who claimed he sexually assaulted or raped them? That’s a difficult line to walk. Discussing Bill Cosby is a hard conversation for everybody, but for Black people, it’s the third-rail conversation, and electrified rails keep getting added to it.

You also mention in the documentary that there were several times you wanted to abandon the project. What kept you going?
Whenever I thought about quitting, I would think about these interviews I had with these survivors. I was so pleased to be able to show that they could be funny, they could all be angry, they could cry about things that had nothing to do with Bill Cosby, they could clearly explain themselves. If I quit this, those things go away. There are lots of Bill Cosby documentaries I’ve heard about that have gone away. It felt like a betrayal to those women if I didn’t put this out there.

At what points did you feel like quitting?
Specifically, the day he got out of prison. You hear me say in the doc, “I don’t know what this is anymore. This was originally about a guy who is in prison and we now have the space to have the conversation, and now he’s not in prison.” It felt radioactive.

You include a clip of Stephen Colbert telling Jerry Seinfeld that he can no longer listen to Cosby’s albums. Jerry seems surprised by this. What about you?
I listened to and watched a lot of his work to make this doc, and when I did, I would often connect to it, like [the 1968 documentary] Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed. I’d never seen that before; it’s incredible. Separating the art from the artist would be if I blindly posted on Twitter, “Look at this great Bill Cosby thing,” neutral of any context. In the privacy of your own home, you can do whatever you want. When we take it into the public square, it’s time to be sensitive. You can’t act like the bad parts aren’t there.

Have you found attitudes toward Bill Cosby are generational?
Generally, people who are the generation before me have a harder time letting go, because they’ve lived with him longer. If you’ve seen his whole career peak, it’s like, I can’t throw that away, even if I believe these women. People of my generation are in the struggle. We were around for the ’90s, which in a way was like the ’60s all over again in learning to be more sensitive, that “no” really does mean “no,” and trying to put it all together. A new generation asks, “Why are you protective of this man who committed all these crimes?” This film isn’t telling you how to react; this film is showing these other reactions exist.

What do you hope comes out of this conversation?
That the conversation doesn’t end when the doc ends. A real good talk happens when we all turn to each other and talk about what we just saw, what we disagreed with, what we learned, or what surprised us.

What surprised you in the making of the documentary?
It seems like he worked as hard at his predation as he worked at his career. There was nothing casual about it.

So the ongoing conversation begins with Cosby, but in the end looks beyond him?
When we think about the men who fell during the Me Too era, they were not anybody’s heroes, let alone childhood heroes. This is way bigger than Bill Cosby. It’s about creating new structures and new levers for safety and protection, and limiting the amount of damage and harm that a predator can do. We need to figure out a way to make sure that if someone is sexually assaulted or raped, there is a place they can go for healing and a place they can go for justice. And right now, sexual-assault and rape victims generally do not feel that way. They underreport.

What is your response to Cosby defenders who say you’re attacking a Black role model and iconic figure in the community?
Ultimately, it was Bill Cosby who taught me as a kid to be a good member of my community, and to help if I have privilege and power. Because I learned those lessons from him, then I had to make this documentary.

W. Kamau Bell Wants to Keep the Cosby Conversation Going