As W. Kamau Bell grew up, Bill Cosby was “the wallpaper of black America” and an inspiration, Bell said in a recent interview. Bell’s new documentary, “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” examines the star’s long career and cultural impact, as well as the sexual assault allegations that led to his conviction, about three aggravated indecent assault, in 2018. Cosby was escape from prison in June 2021 after an appeals court ruled that his due process rights had been violated.
The four-part documentary – which premiered on Showtime on Sunday – includes clips from his performances and stand-up acts, conversations with the women who accused Cosby and a parade of other interviewees who attempt to process the Cosby story and his legacy.
As a comedian and host of shows like CNN’s “United Shades of America,” Bell said he’s known as someone who’s willing to talk to tough times. But Cosby’s story was tougher than most, drawing criticism from both sides: Some of Cosby’s accusers had not spoken to him because they were unwilling to be part of a project that included Cosby’s accomplishments. . At the same time, Bell said, he was accused of breaking the black stereotype when he might have been checking white violators instead.
Last week, Cosby criticized the project through his spokesman, Andrew Wyatt, who added that Cosby continues to deny any allegations against him. Wyatt also praised Cosby’s work in the entertainment industry. “Mr. Cosby has spent more than 50 years standing with the excluded,” he said in a statement.
As a reporter who covered the Bill Cosby trials for The New York Times, I am familiar with the accusations against him. But the documentary puts those accusations in the poignant context of American culture and Cosby’s career.
I recently spoke with Bell via video call about making the film and about his belief that Cosby’s story is the story of America. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Hi Kamu. What are you doing?
[Laughs.] You’ve covered this story a lot, so I thought you might have some understanding of how I’m doing. And then add Black to it.
You have described to me the anxiety you feel when you engage in something potentially “toxic”. What do you mean?
We reached out to people and got a lot of “nos” quickly. At the time, he was still in prison, and I thought, Oh maybe we can finally have a productive Bill Cosby conversation. But with every note I get from people who do really well in the show business, what I hear is, “This is a bad idea.” Not that they would say it outright, but the feeling was, No, I don’t want to touch that. Maybe they don’t want to touch it with me, but I think in general they don’t want to touch it.
Why do they say that?
I mean especially for Blacks, whether you’re vicariously involved or not, it’s hard to have an effective conversation about Bill Cosby without discouraging some of your audience who aren’t. still want to support him, whether they believe he did these things or not.
How did the idea for the documentary come about?
The idea came very naturally in a conversation with [Boardwalk Pictures Production]. I liked their work, they liked my work, and we started talking about comedian documentaries. All in all, there aren’t enough documentaries about good comedians, and then over that conversation, “Can you make a movie about a fallen comedian?” There are any numbers to keep, but Bill Cosby is the one we talked about. And I’ve been thinking about this conversation with Bill Cosby for years.
What were you hoping to achieve?
When I started doing it, as we say in the docs, he was in prison. It feels like much of the Bill Cosby story is over. So maybe we can talk now, and that’s the conversation I’ve had in my head and with other people. Seeing people online trying to get it, the conversation didn’t work out.
We must learn something from this. If we don’t have a conversation, I don’t think we’ll ever learn. The guy I believed he was when I was growing up and when I was a young man – that guy is going to want me to learn something from this.
So to some extent your example, Bill Cosby, has me trying to figure this out.
So what did you find out?
[Kierna Mayo, the former editor in chief of Ebony magazine] said something that worked, “Bill Cosby is the key to understanding America.” For me, that’s what this is all about.
There are two oppressive forces on the run in America: One, the way we treat non-whites. The other issue is how we have treated women in the history of this country. And if you look at Bill Cosby’s career, you can see the things he’s done for this better and make this worse. I believe there is a lot to learn there.
You make powerful use of the timeline device that allows you to talk about the highlights of his career and also pinpoint the timing of the allegations against him.
I don’t like when documentaries tell a personal story but they don’t connect with history. Because you want to know what happened when it happened – that helps us understand why this is even more interesting.
It doesn’t make any sense to talk about Bill Cosby as if he were a loner in the world. You have to really see what boy culture would be like in Hollywood, specifically in the ’60s, which invited the kind of behavior that allowed predators to hide.
It also places this timeline in his career, the American timeline and the accusations timeline on top of each other, helping you see them in a new light.
You question who else knew at the time about the allegations against Cosby, but you don’t give many specific answers. Have you tried talking to senior figures in the industry?
Yes. but we don’t have access to any of those people. And I’m not an investigative journalist, so there’s a point where I have to accept that I’m here to take everything we know and start figuring out how it all went.
Ultimately, what’s bigger is that it’s clear the industry as a whole isn’t doing well, and the people who run the industry are probably still not doing the best job they can. That’s a bigger problem for me.
It sometimes seems like the “We” in “We need to talk about Cosby” refer primarily to Black audiences. Is there some complication in the Cosby case specifically for Blacks?
I would say “We” are those of us who feel a connection to Bill Cosby. Now it just so happens that a lot of those people are black. But let’s be clear: He’s America’s dad, not Black America’s dad. He was universalized. All the people who did this, regardless of their race, if they were of a certain generation, they would say, “Yes, I watched that show and felt like I was part of the family, too. that family”.
Even this interview is complicated: For many people, I would tear a Black man to pieces in a white newspaper in front of a white man. And the question is, why isn’t this interview about Harvey Weinstein, or Trump, or others who have been accused of sexual assault? Those are the questions that are asking me on social media – like, why this man?
What do you say to your detractors?
I’ve known for a long time that you can’t win those battles on social media, so I wanted to allow them to happen. I’ll handle it by talking to you and the other outlets, and by making sure I talk to the Black press outlets where those people are likely to be. But I don’t think there is any solve it. If those people watch it, they’ll know it’s a more nuanced conversation than I thought they’d think.
This is another petty thing to say, but we have to be on the right side of history here. This could be an opportunity for a large percentage of this country to actually work to make systems and structures better, from the very top levels of American business and corporate, through to the working class in the United States. America, to the way sex education is taught in schools? There are many levels of this – those of us who want to be on the right side of history have to do the work of rebuilding these systems.
You ask many times in the documentary, “Who is Bill Cosby now?” Did you draw your own conclusions?
Someone has always taught us about America and is still teaching us about America, even when he doesn’t want to. And it is very important that we learn all Bill Cosby’s lessons if we really become a better society.
Also embedded in there, and it’s hard to say it, but in larger context: [Cosby is] one of the major black and American figures of the 20th century. And one of the best comedians of all time. And the author of one of the best sitcoms of all time. And, throughout his career, an advocate for Black excellence. But if you want to interact with that, you have to interact with other things.
Cosby was released from prison before you finished the documentary. How did his release change everything?
I don’t want this, but it feels more immediate – this is a working situation again. He’s out in the world again, which means all the defenders are out in the world again and feeling encouraged. So it felt both more important to tell this story and more terrifying to tell this story, because people were invested in protecting him.
The most valuable conversation to me isn’t the movie – it’s the conversation we all have after seeing the movie. Regardless of what you think of Bill Cosby’s story, it’s important that we create a society that treats sexual assault survivors better.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/28/arts/television/bill-cosby-kamau-bell.html Kamau Bell: Bill Cosby is the key to understanding America