Comedian, activist, and United Shades of America host W. Kamau Bell’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, is arguably the most controversial project to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Ahead of the docuseries’ premiere on Showtime January 30, a slew of think pieces have already emerged, with Bell, himself, penning the article “There’s So Much More To Say About Bill Cosby” for Time.
His intention, he has shared, is to look at Cosby, who greatly impacted his life in both childhood and as a role model in his own comedy career, by fully assessing Cosby’s cultural impact without ignoring the shocking sexual assault and rape allegations against this one-time Black cultural icon and American success story.
To be sure, the Philly native’s impact has been vast. Black-ish creator Kenya Barris is among the many in his generation who have cited The Cosby Show as their #BlackFamilyGoals. And think about it, without the the show’s spin-off A Different World, many Black kids would not have considered a Black college or, truthfully, any college at all. That’s a hard legacy to reckon with, but Bell took on the challenge. For inspiration, Bell admits to modeling much of his docuseries, which he directed and produced, after the Oscar-winning 2017 doc O.J.: Made in America and the culture-shifting Lifetime docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, which was spearheaded by the distinguished writer dream hampton.
EBONY caught up with Bell and discussed what compelled him to explore the subject matter and why some avoid it, what role race and racism played in Cosby’s rise and fall, and whether he thought the former Black icon was a product of his times.
EBONY: Why did you need to talk about Bill Cosby?
W. Kamau Bell: My hope is, if we have a more open and inclusive conversation about all of Bill Cosby that includes his career, the things that we can point to that’s incredibly good, and also point out the things I think he did that I believe are bad and criminal—the sexual assaults and rapes, then we can learn something from it that we can then apply in the real world to create a safer place. If I go back to the little kid who used to watch Bill Cosby and Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids, I think what he wanted me to do is to help create a better world.
In the docuseries, Temple University professor and Black News Tonight host Dr. Marc Lamont Hill talks about a volatile exchange he had with Cosby, but it seems that very few of the people who are interviewed actually knew or met him.
I guess, if I think about it, we don’t have people from his current circle. As I’ve said to lots of people, more people said “no” than said “yes.” If I were to stack the number of people who said yes versus who said no, the no’s are a lot bigger.
Why do you think people declined?
The Bill Cosby conversation is a hornet’s nest. We talked to Kierna Mayo, who is the former editor in-chief of EBONY, and that 2015 cover of EBONY of the shattered Cosby Show portrait, which revealed that not all Black people were and are ready to have this conversation in the same way—that we’re not all on the same page about this. And I think some people understand that, even if I’ve been public about this in the past, I don’t know that there is a point in being public about it again. It just seems like Cosby stirs up a lot of bad feelings and toxic behavior. It’s an easier conversation not to have no matter what side of the issue you’re on.
How difficult was it to get the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape or sexual assault to speak?
We reached out to a lot of them. Many of them said no because they feel like they’ve said their peace. Many said no because they feel like, when they do speak out about it, that they suffer verbal attacks and sometimes their lives are threatened. But the women who said yes, a large part of them said yes, because they are familiar with my work and felt like I was somebody who could handle this conversation in a new way that wasn’t going to turn it into a soundbite. That was one place where my reputation helped me because they already knew my work from United Shades of America.
What impact do you think race and racism have on the Bill Cosby story?
I don’t think you can tell the Bill Cosby story from any perspective if you’re not talking about Americans’ opinions on race and racism. And, also, you can’t tell the Bill Cosby story, for the most part, without talking about how his level of fame, his level of power, and his level of financial freedom is attached to it. For example, you could look at the court case that got him out of prison as justice for Black men because it you look at it as just a legal decision—it’s a good decision. But if instead of being super, super famous, super rich, Bill Cosby had been just another guy from North Philly, he [wouldn’t] have access to that same level of justice. So I think you can’t help but look at how race plays a role in that. But you also have to understand that he’s not your average Black man in America. And, I certainly believe there are white people who are excited for a Black man’s downfall. And, whether he did the thing he’s being accused of or not, they’re excited to see [the downfall] and don’t care. So, I don’t want those people to feel vindicated by the fall of Bill Cosby, but I also believe Bill Cosby did what he’s accused of.
So often, when Bill Cosby has been discussed, the anti-woman and misogyny of our entire culture is ignored. Was this a concern you felt you had to address?
Yeah, I mean that’s why there’s the whole section about the Playboy Club; we have Gloria Hendry—that section was about the ‘”boys will be boys” culture of the time. And then we have the segment where we show clips from movies from that era about how Sean Connery turns a woman around from him and says some man talk, and then slaps her on her ass and pushes her away, and hits her so hard he rubs his arm, which is crazy to think about. You couldn’t do that in a movie today. But we’re trying to say this is the era that Bill Cosby emerged in; to say, again, how this is bigger than Bill Cosby.
The critical role Bill Cosby played in breaking down barriers for Black stunt workers in Hollywood will surprise many. How did you learn of it and why did you include it?
After Hannibal Burress’ Cosby joke went viral and women started coming forward and telling their stories of sexual assault and rape, I read a story about how there was a documentary about how Bill Cosby changed the stunt industry that has an interview with Bill Cosby and how the filmmaker Noni Robinson is removing him from the film because of all these allegations. For me, that was where I was like, “oh, that’s an incredible story of history that involves a lot of people’s opportunity that Bill Cosby made possible: but we may never tell that story because of what we’ve now come to learn.” And so it felt like, “how do you tell that story? How do we learn from that good thing that happened while also recognizing that things are not as we thought they were?” So, at least for me, it’s sort of like all the dust-up around Critical Race Theory. The thing to do is to tell the whole story and try to learn from the whole story.
You also include Cosby’s 1968 special Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed where he talks about the devastation of slavery and speaks of Africans being stolen people. Why was this important?
I hadn’t seen Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed until I stumbled across it on Michael Dennis’ Reelblack YouTube channel and you just go, “that is such a turn of Bill Cosby that I think most people have never seen before and aren’t aware of.” And, when you put it up against the Pound Cake Speech [where Cosby called out Black people for not attending to their children and speaking about what he considers “poor English” during the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board decision], it just shows you how complicated Bill Cosby is. And that’s even before we start talking about sexual assaults and rape. So the guy in Black History: Lost, Stolen and Strayed is aware that he’s talking about systemic racism even if he never says it; but by the time you get to the Pound Cake Speech, he’s blaming Black people for our own crap and for the problems we have, which is how I perceive it.
How will you deal with the backlash that’s coming?
It’s already happening on my Instagram page and on Twitter so I don’t really know. I do know that generally the backlash for men is not as severe as the backlash for women and specifically it’s not as bad as the backlash for Black women when I think about Surviving R. Kelly—the death threats and shutting down screenings and things that they had to endure. [Because We Need To Talk About Cosby] is about real things that involve real people’s lives and people have lots of intense feelings about it, I just have to sit here and go: “This is the work that we have done. This work that I led us to do, I feel is good” and I really, really hope that whatever backlash happens to me that the takeaway is we need to do a better job of creating a world that is safe and supportive of women, specifically Black women, and people who have survived rape and sexual assault.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.