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From Bill Cosby to Kanye West, Long-Form Documentaries Help Us Grasp the Downfall of Pop Culture Heroes

Both "We Need to Talk About Cosby" and "jeen-yuhs" use multiple episodes to wrestle with the troubling nature of fame and power.

Bill Cosby, "We Need to Talk About Bill Cosby"

“We Need to Talk About Bill Cosby”

"We Need to Talk About Bill Cosby", Sundance

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Until recent years, Emmy and Oscar campaigns only intersected in the documentary categories, as Oscar favorites often continued their momentum into Emmy season. Oscar winners “O.J.: Made in America” and “Free Solo” both won Emmys, launching debates about category fraud and the porous TV vs. film distinction that felt like exercises in futility. That has changed a few times over: First, the TV Academy ruled that Oscar-nominated documentaries didn’t qualify, and then updated its policy this year to clarify that any documentary placed on the AMPAV viewing platform was disqualified from Emmy consideration. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of documentary achievements to go around. Two of this year’s Emmy nominees in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series Category clarify the value of multi-part non-fiction undertakings that are better suited for the episodic domain. These deep-dive investigations into pop culture icons aim to refine, challenge, and contextualize our collective understanding of their significance with far-reaching implications unique to the long form. 

Beginning with its title, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” confronts a difficult subject head-on, even as it spends several episodes building up to its troubling raison d’être. As host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” comedian W. Kamau Bell breaks down America’s inequalities one episode at a time, and as the director of this four-part Showtime special, he takes a similar piecemeal approach. Yes, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” confronts the horrible circumstances that led Bill Cosby to be accused of multiple rapes by the time he was convicted for sexual assault in 2018. However, Bell doesn’t begin to dig deep into those charges until halfway through the movie, once he’s established a historical foundation for Cosby’s early fame and calculated transformation into the “America’s Dad” figure that helped shroud his crimes. 

Several survivors share their stories on camera, and Bell traces the rise of the date-rape drug in the Playboy comedy clubs where the “Spanish fly” ran rampant. (Cosby even joked about it on an early record.) Yet even as these transgressions come into play, Bell piles on a hodgepodge of comedians, former Cosby collaborators, and academic experts to unearth the essence of Cosby’s legacy. 

His crimes are never sidelined, but Bell explores them in tandem with the way Cosby morphed into whatever comedic form was called for in the moment, from the apolitical material of his early years to the righteous sentiments of his post-Civil Rights era to the didactic, fatherly role that dominated the 1980s. The result is a fascinating meditation on the machinations of celebrity that have contributed to power structures in the entertainment industry across generations. The series offers few new revelations; instead, it crystallizes the fundamental challenge involved in reconciling talent with moral failings, and what happens when separating the art from the artist becomes an insurmountable hurdle. 

Which brings us to Kanye West. 

In “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” co-directors Coodie and Chike cobbled together decades of footage that Coodie (aka Clarence Simmons) shot of the rapper starting when he was 19. With Coodie’s measured voiceover as guide, the three-part archival-based undertaking parses the essence of West’s complicated relationship to fame and power (even as it doesn’t mention Kim Kardashian once) and breaks down the idea of “old Kanye” vs. “new Kanye” as if they didn’t exist on a continuum from the same person. A remarkable early sequence finds the young music producer wandering the halls of Def Jam Records attempting to show off his rap skills to anyone willing to pay attention. That naive figure only transforms into the confident performer over the course of many hours and a depth of storytelling only possible through the time-spanning depth of the project. 

jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy. Kanye West in jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy. Cr. Netflix © 2022

“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy”

Netflix

West’s early assertiveness is both amusing and predictive of the trajectory that set him up for success, but it also helps explain his transformation into a provocateur so keen on paving his own path that any sense of compromise pushed him to further exacerbate his relationship to the rest of the world. West tweeted that Cosby was innocent the same year that he cozied up to new president Donald Trump, and “jeen-yuhs” shows us how such egregious behavior was immaterial to a man hellbent on controlling his narrative at all costs, including the potential destruction of his career. 

There’s a stunning moment late in the series when West, having just delivered a rambling press conference to launch his bizarre 2020 presidential campaign, watches a clip of Tucker Carlson on his phone. The Fox News anchor unleashes his usual inane, belligerent wordplay to make the case that West isn’t as out-there as he sounds, and a look of utter redemption crosses the rapper’s face.

For all the pathetic tragedy of the moment, there’s beauty in it as well — the sense of a man on a mission for validation at all cost, even the very stature he spent years building up. “jeen-yuhs” takes us on that journey with him, one step at a time, and makes the case by implication that America’s hero complex may be just as much a problem as the heroes themselves. That’s an epic story that demands a whole lot more than feature length.

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