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Bill Cosby Scandal Stalls Legacy Biodoc

Bill Cosby Scandal Stalls Legacy Biodoc

New revelations are coming out about Bill Cosby every day. Mark down yet another casualty of the ongoing Cosby scandal: an extended portrait of the comedian, eight years in the making, costing untold thousands of dollars, remains unseen.
This one doesn’t come from an accuser. It is an untitled documentary film that tracks the intersecting journeys of Cosby and the Civil Rights movement from Mississippi to Philadelphia and beyond. 
 
The Cosby legacy documentary, a would-be monument to the man, probably won’t be shown anywhere, in spite of what could have been all the elements of a mega-event at an eventual unveiling–it was said to have been originally heading for Sundance 2015. 
 
The documentary project dates back to 2007, according to Filmmaker, which flagged the project as a doc to watch. Its initial aim was, it seems, to survey the overlap of Cosby’s long career with the struggles of the Civil Rights era. Its world premiere would have had the makings of a major confab, with life-achievement tributes, performances, panels, maybe even mentoring – if not, that is, for the long list of Cosby accusers, 47 at last count.  
 
And the doc’s history would have had accurate elements at its core. As an entertainer with huge crossover appeal in the 1960’s, Cosby traveled the country to raise money for the NAACP, despite criticism from some militants for not being ‘black’ enough. Cosby later played as crucial a role in challenging showbiz-as-usual in television as his contemporary Robert Redford did in cinema.
 
The now-stalled project celebrating Cosby and retracing his steps would have been the feature doc debut of Jamey Phillips, a photographer and a first-time director. Cinematographers Bradford Young (“Selma,” “Pariah,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and Lol Crawley (“Ballast,” “Four Lions”) were part of the team. Producers Anonymous Content (“Winter’s Bone,” “True Detective”) and Participant Media (“An Acting of Killing,” “An Inconvenient Truth”) greenlit the bio-doc. Neither company would discuss the film.

“We never talk about our films before they come out,” said Participant documentary exec Diane Weyermann in January. She referred questions to the firm’s head of press, who also wouldn’t discuss the Cosby doc. Steve Golin of Anonymous Content did not return calls. Phillips has not responded to messages left at her website on which the only image is a still photograph from the film.

 
While some on the indie scene have known about the stalled project for a year now, reports on it have been few. Filmmaker magazine featured it as a forthcoming project In January and showcased Jamey Phillips among 25 emerging talents to watch in 2014, followed by Buzzfeed, in February, with the first public mention that a Cosby tribute might go sight unseen.
 
Any Cosby tribute doc faces a snarl of conflicted legacies. There’s Cosby’s stature (eroding fast) as a television and civil rights pioneer (and a lesser-known funding angel to black indie filmmakers in need, such as Spike Lee on “Malcolm X”) and then there’s the tsunami of testimony that the veteran comic and moralizer to black teens has been a serial sexual assailant for decades.
 
From what we’re told, the positive portrayal of Cosby (filmed with his cooperation) can’t be released as is. To whom is Cosby now a hero, as Spelman College, CAA (who dropped him as a client), and celeb friends who blurbed enthusiastically for his recently published biography have now severed ties? Yet what can be done with the doc? Word also came last week that Cosby had been cut from a forthcoming documentary on black stunt men. The real stunt might be for Cosby to convince anyone of his innocence.
 
Yet there’s still eight years of assembled footage about the man during a tumultuous time in US history, and even a well-funded company like billionaire Jeff Skoll’s Participant doesn’t want to lose a hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. But can an official monumental salute to Cosby withstand anyone’s smell test, given the information and allegations that are now public?
 
For a while such a tribute held its ground last year, but not for long. Mark Whitaker, a former CNN journalist and Newsweek editor, published “Cosby: His Life and Times”(with a major publisher, Simon & Schuster) without exploring the sexual predation allegations and the settlement of at least one lawsuit that alleged sexual abuse. Critics have been jabbing at the book, dubbing it “Cosby: His Lies and Times.” Whitaker’s bio reads like a commissioned campaign biography, just as the doc seemed to promise a lifetime’s victory lap celebrating decades of struggle.
 
Faced with questions about his research on the Cosby book, a sheepish Whitaker responded in interviews that he couldn’t find enough evidence to confirm the charges — even though he knew, as so many others did, that woman after woman had spoken of being drugged and/or assaulted by Cosby. You have to wonder how hard Whitaker looked for that evidence, and how hard his editor pushed him.
 
No film distributor today wants to sell Mark Whitaker II.
 
What about the alternative route, that taken by Alex Gibney in “The Armstrong Lie,” in which Gibney, who had completed Sony’s favorable jock-umentary on the cyclist, confronted Armstrong with the evidence of performance-enhancing blood-doping and with Armstrong’s denials of drug use before that evidence proved him a liar? Sound familiar?
 
Confronting Cosby in person about allegations of sexual predation has been near-impossible. Remember Cosby’s silence in an NPR interview, in which even host Scott Simon – normally a soft-baller —  raised the issue?
 
Cosby, who cooperated with Phillip’s unseen doc, would be unlikely to help any accuser get a hearing–35 lined up en masse for a July 26 New York cover story–and certainly not on camera. Yet if a contextualized revision of Philips’s original footage were to be made, it would have an instant audience, more than any Cosby canonization.
 
An inconvenient truth indeed. One indication of what any producer would face in contextualizing a flattering Cosby tribute is the ongoing slash and burn campaign against Cosby’s accusers by Cosby, Inc., principally bulldog Hollywood lawyer Marty Singer.
 
And then there’s Cosby’s legal relationship to the unreleased film. Does Cosby, now 78, have the right of review, or some version of final cut, or some pre-emptive right to the footage in perpetuity, in order to avoid a possible posthumous investigative autopsy? Any savvy lawyer knows what he doesn’t want a film or any other public document to say about a client.

Lost then is another opportunity to examine the man in full, including – to be fair – Cosby’s noble work on behalf of civil rights.

 
It’s embarrassing for Participant and Anonymous Content, but not as embarrassing as any hagiographic doc would have been if the slow-working Phillips had completed it and presented it without exploring the dark side of her subject.
 
As with so many well-meaning projects, the Cosby doc must have seemed the right thing to do at the time. Now it’s another honor that’s been stripped away from the comedian who’s still fleeing accountability.
 

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