We Need to Talk About Cosby: Director W. Kamau Bell on his Docu-Series

Director W. Kamau Bell on Dealing with Bill Cosby’s Legacy

The comedian and filmmaker discusses how his feelings about his subject changed over the course of making the docu series.

Like many others, Bell grew up watching Cosby’s Saturday morning show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and the “Picture Pages” segments on Captain Kangaroo. One of the first VHS tapes he rented from a video store was Bill Cosby: Himself. Bell, like tens of millions of people, watched The Cosby Show on NBC when it debuted in 1984.

“I feel like he’s a part of the wallpaper of Black America if you were born in that era,” Bell says. “In the same way that Sidney Portier was a part of the wallpaper of Black America, but we had way more access to Bill Cosby because of television and because of how he ran his career. And also, Portier wasn’t for kids. Bill Cosby was for both kids and adults.”

Bell describes his younger self as “a comedy nerd before that was a thing. I felt the closest connection to him and Eddie Murphy. These are people who look like people I would know,” he said. “Eddie Murphy felt like he was the same age as me, even though he wasn’t. Bill Cosby felt like the kind of guy you wanted to grow up to be.”

Bell heard stories about Cosby having extramarital affairs, but “we file all this under showbiz, fame, fortune and everything that goes with it.” As allegations of sexual assault against Cosby piled up — eventually 60 women came forward — Bell began to reckon with the scope and weight of the accusations.

“I don’t know when I believed, but I was like, ‘This is real,’” Bell said. “This is too many women with too many stories. And I also understood sort of implicitly, there is no reason to lie about this because there is no material gain, as much as we think this is all about money for some of these women. There is not enough money in the world to want to be in the public square and be identified as somebody who is accusing a famous man of rape.”

Separating artists from their art

Bell tackles his feelings about Cosby, as well as the comedian’s legacy in American culture and the question of separating an artist from their art, in We Need to Talk About Cosby, which premiered at Sundance and has its TV debut at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.

The four-hour series takes viewers through Cosby’s long and influential career and features detailed stories from several of his accusers, along with interviews from other comics, academics, cultural critics and people who worked with Cosby.

Bell, who also hosts and executive produces CNN’s United Shades of America, spoke about the people who didn’t agree to be interviewed — though he didn’t name names, why he didn’t feel the need to give Cosby a voice in the series and how his feelings changed after making the documentary.

Cosby as presence in your childhood?

My first experience with him was as the host of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But I was definitely aware that he was approved by my parents, that watching Bill Cosby was not only an OK thing to do, it was a good thing to do.

I watched Super Friends and I watched Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and I knew that there was a difference between those two, that these kids were Black and the other cartoons didn’t have as many Black people on them. Also that the guy who hosted the show wanted me to learn something and be a good person, One of the first videos I ever rented is Bill Cosby: Himself. I think that was the first time I understood him as a stand-up comedian. Even as a little kid watching that, I was like, this is better than the other stand-up comedy.

America’s Dad

Then The Cosby Show happens, and he becomes all-encompassing. He becomes not just something that Black people enjoy, he becomes America’s Dad, and I was right there for it every week for years.

Realizing Cosby’s public persona was not all there was?

There are steps to this. Like people started to go, “Oh, this is not exactly what I thought it was,” and it’s not all the same level as the allegations and the sexual assaults that I believe happened. When I first started doing comedy, suddenly other comics] were like here’s the state secrets of stand-up comedy– Robin Williams steals material and Bill Cosby cheats on his wife. I remember learning this as an open mic comedian.

Then in 2004, he does the pound cake speech, and I remember being really disappointed by that and thinking why is he doing this? It just felt like such a betrayal — you spent all this time lifting us up, and now it feels like you’re putting some of us down. I was also aware that not every Black person felt the same about that. He split the Black community amongst people who felt like it is time for some tough talk and people who felt like this is a betrayal and you’re not recognizing structural racism when you do that.

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Marc Lamont Hill in ‘We Need To Talk About Cosby’ COURTESY OF SHOWTIME

I was sort of bummed out. It’s like when your grandpa becomes cranky. You’re like, aww, you used to be so cool before you got cranky. … And then  I did start to hear stories, like Andrea Constand’s, of sexual assault. But at that point, it felt filed under celebrity gossip. So I was not early to understanding that. It really wasn’t until first Hannibal Buress does his joke, in which he called Cosby a rapist, that went viral and refocused attention on allegations against Cosby. I had weird perspective on that because I knew Hannibal enough to know he didn’t intend for that to be a defining moments of his career.

Many people said no to appearing on camera

We asked all the people you would expect us to ask. There are people connected to him, people who worked on The Cosby Show, cultural figures, comedians who you would have an opinion about this. I’ll let them decide if they want to come forward.

But If you put the stack of nos next to the stack of yeses, the nos dwarfed the yeses by far.

Reasons people gave for saying no?

It sort of goes back to that hornets’ nest thing, that people feel like no matter what I say about this, I’m going to get criticized or attacked. And if you’re a woman, it’s actually an attack that feels like it’s threatening your safety. I can’t begrudge anybody for being like, “It’s just too thorny.” It pointed both to the need for the conversation and also how hard it was going to be to execute this project. If we can’t get the people who are closest or know the most or the people with the biggest voices, are the people we get going to sustain this conversation? The people who showed up really came ready to do this.

Getting buy-in from survivors who have been through the wringer on this and also are quick to say no when people call them. Enough of them said yes to us, and a lot of that is because of the work I had done on United Shades of America. They were able to say I trust you with this because I have seen your work before and how you’ve handled these kinds of conversations

Structure of docu: Cosby’s career and its impact and spotlighting the survivors’ stories?

When I look at the films that are tentpoles that inspired this, one is Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in AmericaThat has a similar format to this. I hope he feels flattered and not like I stole his intellectual property. Another one is Dream Hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly, which is also like, let’s look at how these things were happening all at the same time.

Disclaimer that the filmmakers reached out to Bill Cosby and his attorneys?

When we started this, Bill Cosby was in prison, which we talk about. At that point it felt like the story is over, he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison, we are just talking about how to reckon with all this that we know now. Then when he got out of prison it became like, do we do that? But then it became that Bill Cosby, first of all, still has his money. He also started talking about working on his own documentary.

We have heard his version of this many times. I’m not trying to create anything like, “Who do we believe?” and I own from the top that this is what I believe and I know what he wants us to believe. But also, after you sit down and talk with the survivors, it was like, there is no way to make this make sense by putting him in this. I feel like it would have been betrayal to the time they spent with us to suddenly cut to him discounting what they said.


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Lili Bernard in ‘We Need To Talk About Cosby’ COURTESY OF SHOWTIME

Cosby’s release from prison is covered in last episode?

At the moment that it happened, it felt like it was going to change everything and maybe was going to cancel the project. Other Bill Cosby documentaries have been announced that have never come out. So it felt like this is just what happens with Cosby projects. They get to a point that they can’t go on. To be honest, part of me was like, maybe that’s good. Maybe I’ve taken on more than I should have. Part of me sometimes would be like, “Maybe Showtime will call me and say thanks for trying, but we’re going to move on from this.”

We had a lot of meetings where we just talked on Zoom calls with people all around the country who are working on the project to talk about what do you feel, what does this mean, what are you feeling. Everybody was really on an emotional journey because they’ve been working on this for years. Then once a couple of days go by or a week goes by, you stop being a prisoner of that moment of him getting out of prison and go, we are still telling the same story. It just has a twist in it we weren’t expecting. But that’s not the end of the story.

We were talking about do we need to, or how much do we need to, talk about the advocacy of the survivors. And when he got out it was like, oh no, we need to make it clear that these women aren’t worried about Bill Cosby, they’re not focused solely on Bill Cosby in the criminal justice system and how it processes him. They want to work to create a safer world for people and specifically women who are sexually assaulted and raped. I don’t want to for a second lead people to think that these women are just caring about whether or not Bill Cosby is in prison. It is a much bigger story than that. So it changed that. It became clear that this thing that we thought was maybe a coda was now in the meat of the project.

Using clips from Cosby’s career?

We definitely kept checking in with the fair use laws and what we could use and what we couldn’t use, and how many seconds. We were surprised that we would get stuff, but also things would happen where we’re like how come we can’t have this?

Emily Cofrancesco, the archival producer, is the real MVP of this, and the lawyers who had her back. I would just aim for the stars and see what happened. But we were able to get a lot more in here than I thought we may be able to.

Docu’s impact 0n your feelings about Cosby’s work and place in culture?

It helps me contextualize his work. I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m never going to watch some piece of Bill Cosby’s work again in my life. Somebody asked me if Bill Cosby released a comedy special, would you watch it? And I would — but I’d watch it differently now than I would’ve watched it 25 years ago. I’d watch it now as somebody who’s like, “What is he trying to do here?”

As we made this project, many of the producers and editors working on it would be like, “I found myself laughing at stuff and then wondering why I was laughing.” I think we all take in content that we would not want anybody at work to know we were taking in. It’s not because it’s illegal. It’s just cause you’re like, I want people at work to think I’m smart and savvy and politically correct at all times, or whatever. And in reality, we are complicated human beings.