‘We Need to Talk About Cosby’ gives Bill Cosby’s complex legacy a nuanced look
Bell also provides necessary context by juxtaposing the discussion of Cosby’s accomplishments with interviews featuring several of his alleged victims of the more than 60 that have come forward, detailing strikingly similar accounts of how Cosby had gained their trust, and the confusion and shame that silenced them until the floodgates opened in the 2010s.
As the Boston Globe’s Renee Graham notes, Cosby in the ’60s “wasn’t ruffling any feathers,” becoming so popular by crossing over to a White audience with broadly universal material, winning Emmys for “I Spy” and headlining comedy clubs. (An interesting anecdote involves Cosby insisting on hiring Black stuntmen to double him, which wasn’t commonly done at the time.)
Although he starred in several short-lived series during the ’70s and had a hit-miss run in movies, he also produced “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” a children’s show that heightened his status as a moral authority.
Still, his crowning achievement would come in the 1980s, shifting his comedy to parenthood with the concert film “Bill Cosby: Himself,” followed by “The Cosby Show,” an enormous hit that cemented his status as “America’s dad,” and which made the later allegations all the more jarring to those who associated him with that image.
Interviewed by Bell, Cosby’s one-time admirers share many of the same conflicted thoughts, particularly in watching a beloved Black personality dislodged from his pedestal.
That includes the shock upon hearing about the sexual-assault allegations, which journalist Jemele Hill calls “impossible to comprehend.” Author/educator Jelani Cobb says, “You don’t often learn that your heroes are really the worst sorts of villain.” And Bell, functioning as narrator and interviewer, says, “I wanted to hold on to my memories of Bill Cosby before I knew about Bill Cosby.”
Graham, more bluntly, joins others in redefining Cosby’s legacy, calling him a sexual predator “who had a really big TV show once.”
Fundamentally, though, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” isn’t strictly about Cosby, but rather what happens when reality collides with the well-crafted images churned out by Hollywood and magazines. Even today, Bell says, “It feels like we haven’t gotten to the root of the discussion.”
“We Need to Talk About Cosby” won’t end the conversation, since Cosby was hardly the first celebrity to experience a fall from grace and won’t be the last. But in presenting the issue with a level of nuance that’s often elusive, Bell and company have significantly advanced it.
“We Need to Talk About Cosby” premieres Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.