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‘We Need to Talk About Cosby’ Review: W. Kamau Bell Reckons with Legacy in Forward-Thinking Docuseries

Covering Bill Cosby's life and career from every conceivable angle, the four-part Showtime project prioritizes learning from history over relitigating the past.

Bill Cosby. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY. Sundance Showtime documentary series

“We Need to Talk About Cosby”

Mario Casilli / mptvimages / Courtesy of Showtime

We Need To Talk About Cosby.” Rarely does a title give such clear instruction and still earn its declarative urging. The four-part Showtime documentary isn’t called “I Want to Talk About Cosby,” since director, executive producer, and host W. Kamau Bell makes it clear he doesn’t like dwelling on Bill Cosby. Few do. Even if the project had been named “Let’s Talk About Cosby,” it would bypass the clear hesitancy people have, especially in 2022, to discuss a once-beloved comedian, actor, and philanthropist who’s been accused by more than 60 women of rape, sexual assault, and further misconduct. The experts brought in to unpack the life and legacy of “America’s dad” are often flummoxed, uncomfortable, and upset when asked for opinions about the now-freed man.

But they, like the documentary, understand why we still need to talk about Bill Cosby. As Bell states in his opening narration, plenty of people make passing comments on the matter — whether it’s celebrities on talk shows or posts on social media — without getting to the root of what his actions exemplify in American culture. Over four hours, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” details the indisputable contributions he made to the world without ever drifting too far from the toxic behavior inflicted on the many, many individuals he hurt. It’s an exercise in extremes, handled gracefully. One section may focus on his significance, the next on his scandal, but Bell balances the seemingly disparate parts and even blends them with purpose. Foremost, he maintains a clear focus on the future.

This discussion is pressing not because we have to decide, once and for all, how to define Bill Cosby; it’s necessary because it may be the only way to avoid history repeating itself.

The first episode sets not only the structure for the remaining three hours, but also the intent. Starting from the beginning, Bell and his guests remember Cosby’s rapid rise to fame as well as the immediate impact he had on television, especially to Black viewers and colleagues. Bell asks a few guests if they know about Cosby’s insistence on using a Black stunt performer in “I, Spy,” which helped end Hollywood’s common policy of using white stunt people (often dressed in blackface) for Black actors. Those who weren’t aware of his influence there aren’t surprised. Cosby was a trailblazer and advocate for Black Americans, both on and off the screen.

But just as the adulation starts to feel like a bit much, Bell smoothly pivots into early signs that Cosby may not be the trustworthy hero he made himself out to be. Stand-up comics like Wayne Federman and Chris Spencer recall Cosby’s jokes about “Spanish fly” on his early comedy albums, where he talked about dropping the supposed aphrodisiac in women’s drinks. “If you listen to that Spanish fly joke, the motherfucker tells on himself,” says Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor at USC, shortly before Kierna Mayo, former editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine, argues it can seem like Cosby is “leaving […] bread crumbs throughout his career, pointing to his guilty conscience.”

The episode also talks about Cosby’s friendship with Hugh Hefner, his time at the Playboy Club, and interviews former Playboy Bunnies about their work. Here, Bell introduces varying perspectives, where some defend the club and its practices while others emphasize the demands and discrimination. Throughout “We Need To Talk About Cosby,” Bell makes sure to highlight differing opinions — including when showing guests a clip from “The Cosby Show” where Cliff Huxtable talks about his BBQ sauce as a love potion; some see it as another way he’s telling on himself, others think it’s a stretch. But where Bell allows zero contention is with each survivor. Every woman who comes forward to discuss her harrowing experience with Cosby tells their full story, uninterrupted. Some have been telling it for years now. Some choose not to tell it again, but to talk about its affects. Either way, Bell makes sure their voices come through in every episode.

Bill Cosby The Cosby Show

Bill Cosby and Malcolm Jamal-Warner in “The Cosby Show”

Courtesy Image / PMC Asset Library

“We Need To Talk About Cosby” follows a rather linear timeline tied to Cosby’s rise and fall, but even though most people weren’t aware of Cosby’s alleged misconduct until many years later, Bell makes sure to insert the survivors’ stories as they happened. A scrolling timeline keeps track of the 60-plus women who’ve come forward, steadily building to an appalling total by the series’ ending. Certain subjects even remark that his growing number of public accolades in the ’80s and ’90s are mirrored by the growing number of accusations levied against him in those decades.

The middle hours examine Cosby’s pivot from TV action star and stand-up comic to an educational force and moral authority figure. “The Cosby Show” doesn’t hit until Episode 3, but the documentary smartly tracks Cosby’s shifting public image and how it helped solidify his status as a hero to generations of children and an infallible figure to many adults. “Without ‘Fat Albert,’ kids like me don’t grow up loving and trusting Bill Cosby,” Bell says in the second episode. “We don’t turn into teens who love and trust Bill Cosby, and then adults who love and trust Bill Cosby.” Similar feelings are shared about “The Cosby Show,” and always with the caveat that these images of him carry a lasting power that affects reactions to the allegations that surface years later.

When Episode 4 arrives, there’s plenty of time preserved to reckon with the allegations, rather than merely recount the public outcry and ensuing trial. Bell and his interview subjects discuss how some Black people were more prone to defend Cosby because of Black protectionism; that Black men are so often wrongfully accused, imprisoned, or murdered in America, there’s a built-in desire to shield all Black men from any accusations at all. The episode also breaks down the instinctual distrust of Cosby’s accusers: People feel like they know Cosby because of all his years in the spotlight, not to mention all the goodwill he earned on- and off-camera. But these women are unfamiliar faces. Why trust people you’ve never heard of over someone you feel so close to?

Bringing these kind of biases to light is part of what makes “We Need To Talk About Cosby” such a significant continuation of a conversation that’s just getting started. If you’ve already sought out an array of perspectives on these subjects, or simply listened to the many discussions generated by the #MeToo movement, then watching the four hours may feel familiar. Bell’s conclusion is similarly unsurprising; he even cites the overly simplistic, yet oft-asked question, “Can you separate the art from the artist?” But the series’ triple-underlined thesis statement isn’t about whether you should feel bad about enjoying an old “Cosby Show” episode or good about erasing him from your memory. It’s that we have to recognize the systems still in place that allow criminal behavior to go unchecked; that we, as a society, have a long way to go before we separate our reactions from those systems, and that Hollywood is a reactive organism built to make a buck as fast as possible rather than serving the long-term health of art or society.

You may not want to talk about Bill Cosby right now. I sure don’t. But we still need to, and Bell’s series provides an accessible, perceptive, and thorough way to move the dialogue forward.

Grade: B+

“We Need to Talk About Cosby” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Showtime will release the four-part docuseries on Saturday, January 30 at 10 p.m. ET.

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