There’s a sense of inevitability to W. Kamau Bell’s new four-part documentary about Bill Cosby. Given recent well-received docuseries addressing the predations of Michael Jackson (Leaving Neverland), Russell Simmons (On the Record), and Woody Allen (Allen v. Farrow), it was only a matter of time until some brave soul tackled the sullied legacy of the entertainer who was once known as “America’s Dad.” The title of Bell’s series, We Need to Talk About Cosby, points to both the necessity and the challenges of such an airing, but it also reveals the filmmaker’s approach. This isn’t a biography or an exposé, but a conversation – one that is long overdue and incredibly difficult, particularly for Black Americans.
Bell is a novice as a documentarian, but he’s an experienced stand-up comedian, activist, and radio host, and probably best known as the co-host of the Politically Re-Active podcast with Hari Kondabolu. Bell’s style – funny, relaxed, and socially conscious – serves him well as an interviewer. It also suits the film’s approach, for while WNtTAC makes liberal use of archival photos and video, it is foremost an interview film. For this particularly fraught conversation, Bell has corralled an impressive roster of interviewees: actors, comedians, writers, journalists, academics, attorneys, and even a forensic psychologist and a sex therapist. Many of them are Black, and the implicit question that often hangs over Bell’s interactions with his subjects is one of betrayal and bewilderment: How, brothers and sisters, do we reconcile This with That?
Bell divides this marathon discourse into four chapters, each examining a different phase of Bill Cosby’s career: his early stand-up and I, Spy period; his re-invention as an educational figure; The Cosby Show heyday; and his late-period moral finger-wagging and outing as a sexual predator. Bell narrates throughout, reflecting on his own memories of Cosby’s ascent into the ranks of American pop-cultural royalty. The warm, informal tone of his voiceover underlines the extent to which Black Americans became personally invested in Cosby’s success – which, of course, only heightened their eventual disgust and disappointment (and, in a few cases, denial). Crucially, however, Bell refrains from making this story all about himself.
Relying on a cavalcade of talking heads is often the hallmark of uninspired documentary filmmaking, but Bell turns this approach into a feature rather than bug. Editors Jeremy Lusk and Meg Ramsay create a brisk, almost dizzying pace during the film’s four-hour running time by quickly cutting between the dozens of interview subjects. Bell and his crew bestow their wealth of knowledge, insights, and recollections with a propulsive rhythm. Often, the interviewees will simply be handed a tablet computer playing a clip of a Cosby stand-up bit, sitcom scene, or media appearance, while the film scrutinizes their reactions. In another filmmaker’s hands, this sort of material could have been lifeless – Who wants to watch people watching? – but the subject of WNtTAC is not really Cosby himself, but how we perceive him. Its concern is the tension between the wholesome persona and the malevolent man. Why does the legendary dentist bit from Bill Cosby: Himself still make us laugh, despite ourselves? Why didn’t we see the comedian’s strange fixation on Spanish fly and other aphrodisiacs as a huge red flag?
Where the brilliance of Bell’s methods truly snaps into focus is his treatment of Cosby’s victims. Rather than holding the man's crimes in reserve for the final chapter, where they might have been presented as the impetus for an abrupt public downfall, Bell weaves them into the film’s chronology. Within the familiar biopic timeline marked by personal landmarks and public achievements, he inserts the names and faces of women – as well as a legion of unnamed silhouettes. Repeatedly, Bell slows down his film’s lively pace to let one of the victims tell her story, often in graphic and emotionally wrenching detail. He stops cutting away and forces the viewer to sit and contemplate Cosby's horrifying deeds. The consistency of the man's M.O. is arguably the most unsettling aspect of these stories, except perhaps for the regularity with which the victims blamed themselves after the fact.
The effect is akin to a bucket of cold water thrown on the viewer every 10 minutes. It’s as if Bell knows exactly when fond memories of Fat Albert or the Huxtable clan might threaten to overcome our anger and revulsion. In integrating Cosby’s predatory behavior into the entire story of the man’s career, the director clarifies the trickiness of separating the art from the artist, particularly in this scenario. This wasn’t a solitary misdeed marring an otherwise illustrious public life. It was a crime spree that unfolded over decades, in which Cosby intentionally used his fame, wealth, and reputation to debase and destroy. As one of Bell’s interviewees vividly notes, this wasn’t Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it was Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde.
In other words, America’s charming, sweater-clad Everydad did not have a secret life as a serial rapist. He was a serial rapist, full stop, which is a damning indictment of the patriarchy if there ever was one. Bell’s documentary illustrates that the distinction is important, but his purpose isn’t just to make viewers feel retroactively awful about the affection they might have once had for a widely beloved comedian. WNtTAC is a cautionary tale about falling for illusions, about identifying too closely with a celebrity’s public-facing persona. It’s a grim acknowledgement that the Black community is so hungry for excellence that it might not always see what’s right in front of its nose. Most importantly, it’s an entreaty to listen to women, even (especially) when they are saying things we don’t want to hear.
We Need to Talk About Cosby is now available to stream from Showtime.