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Q & A: Comedian W. Kamau Bell Talks About The Many Difficult Questions His Bill Cosby Documentary Asks

A still from the documentary has three rows of film, the first, on the far left is in blue and reads: "We Need." The second is yellow: "To Talk About." The third is pink: "Cosby"
A still from the documentary "We Need to Talk About Cosby."
(Courtesy Sundance Institute)
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Bill Cosby is a free man.

Last summer, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court threw out Cosby’s sexual assault conviction after he served three years in prison, ruling prosecutors reneged on a deal not to charge the 84-year-old comedian.

Cosby previously admitted using powerful sedatives to drug women, and 60 women have said they were groped, sexually assaulted, or raped by Cosby. The former “Cosby Show” star has denied the allegations.

Yet even if Cosby is no longer behind bars, that doesn’t mean he’s innocent, which is central to the new documentary “We Need to Talk About Cosby.” Directed by comedian and “United Shades of America” host W. Kamau Bell, the four-part series just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It debuts on Showtime this weekend.

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Photo of W. Kamau Bell, director of the documentary series "We Need to Talk About Cosby"
W. Kamau Bell, the director of "We Need to Talk About Cosby." The documentary series premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and debuts on Showtime on Jan. 30
(Aundre Larrow
/
Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Bill Cosby was calculating. There really were no accidents and no mistakes.
— W. Kamau Bell

“We Need to Talk About Cosby” examines Cosby not only as a stand-up comedian and television performer, but also his more than 50-year history of alleged sexual assaults —and worse. The first episode concludes with a harrowing account from Victoria Valentino, who says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1969.

Bell’s series isn’t narrowly intended to retry Cosby. It also aims to explore Cosby’s complicated history as a Black celebrity and activist: he desegregated stunt performers while starring in the TV series “I Spy,” but Cosby was averse to speaking about civil rights.

“Bill Cosby was calculating,” Bell told me. “There really were no accidents and no mistakes.”

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After “We Need to Talk About Cosby” premiered at Sundance, Cosby’s publicist issued a statement that read in part:

"Mr. Cosby continues to be the target of numerous media that have, for too many years, distorted and omitted truths … intentionally. Despite media’s repetitive reports of allegations against Mr. Cosby, none have ever been proven in any court of law."

Edited excerpts from my conversation with W. Kamau Bell:

Horn: It’s one thing to read about accusations of sexual assault or sexual harassment. It's another thing to hear those people tell those stories. I want to ask you about hearing [Valentino] tell that story face-to-face.

This is not the easiest thing to ask a survivor to talk about. And especially when you make it clear that this series aims to talk about the good things from Bill Cosby's career and the good things he contributed. And not just that, but the assault allegations and the rape allegations, too. That was the very first survivor interview we did. We were all basically on pins and needles. It was a very revealing conversation; it gave me the scaffolding for how to have those conversations going forward.
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Bill Cosby is buttoning a white suit jacket with black pinstripes. He stands next to President George W. Bush, who is smiling.
Then-President George W. Bush shares a laugh with Bill Cosby before awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
(Shawn Thew
/
AFP via Getty Images)

Q: Cosby chose a path that made him kind of a safe Black comedian for whites.

Earlier in his career, he was basically called ‘the young Dick Gregory.’ He was talking about race and racism, and at some point, there's some sort of calculation that is made that he's not going to do that anymore. But he's still trying to figure out, ‘How do I stay Black in this process? How do I not give up all my Blackness as I do this?’

Q: A former editor of Ebony magazine, Kierna Mayo, says in the film, ‘We thought we knew Cosby, we never knew Cosby.’ And I think part of what she's getting at is that we elevate celebrities to a certain point, and Bill Cosby was pretty much as high as you can go. I'm wondering if that's kind of a dangerous path for any celebrity — we either choose to ignore or don't want to hear about the things that might take them down?

He was still a part of a system where your public image is heavily controlled, by your team and by Hollywood. It’s all about shaving off the rough edges. You're talking about an industry that is built on, ‘We create magic and dreams.’ And we also party super hard, doesn't mean it's always illegal, doesn't mean it's always criminal. But it means that there is a certain invitation to hedonism in Hollywood, and the more power you get, the more hedonism.
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Q: I'm going to add one thing, and that is you look the other way. If somebody's successful, it could be Harvey Weinstein — name your sexual predator — you look the other way, because they're successful.

Those whispers about those people become so ubiquitous, that I'm hearing about them, even though I'm a young comedian, and I'm not close to Hollywood and don't have five minutes of material that's worth a damn. And I'm still hearing about it? In Hollywood, if you're No. 1 on the call sheet, you have access to power and privilege that is different than if you're below the line. So when we talk about ‘The Cosby Show,’ and you're a gaffer on the show — your job is just to make sure everything stays plugged in — and you see something, you have been acculturated to look the other way. And there's no system in place to let somebody know, and we will investigate it. And the more you go up that call sheet, the higher you get, the more you're also trying to protect the moneymaker. Right?

Q: One of the more disturbing parts of the documentary for me isn't that Cosby is making jokes about drugging women 50 years ago, but that people found it funny and laughed along with him. ‘Yeah, let's sneak some Spanish Fly and have somebody drink it and see what happens.’ Or what Hugh Downs says about Barbara Walters. She’s a young reporter and becomes a Playboy Playmate for a story. And Hugh Downs looks at her after she does this piece, and basically says, ‘I enjoyed seeing you in that skimpy outfit.’ I know times have changed, but it's still appalling what was acceptable not that long ago.

There are so many ways to go with this. There's a direct line between that and Matt Lauer turning to Anne Hathaway and shaming her for her quote unquote, wardrobe malfunction. [A paparazzi had taken a picture up Hathaway’s skirt as she was getting out of a car. Lauer brought it up and said to Hathaway, ‘Seen a lot of you lately.’] Like, I'm here to address your body, and in a sexual way. And I think that’s what rape culture is. Lauer didn't wait until he was off camera. He didn't just tell his friend about it. He told her on camera, on TV.

Q: When you're putting together the interviews, you have, I assume, two basic challenges. You’re trying to talk to survivors about something unspeakably horrible that's happened to them. And you're also talking to people who might not have been sexually assaulted or raped by Bill Cosby but are still aware of the power dynamic — they didn't want to rock the boat.

The Bill Cosby conversation for everybody who grew up in Bill Cosby's America, when he was at his height of power, is a third rail conversation, forever — to try to figure out how to talk about this. But if you're Black, there's like eight more electrified rails added to the conversation. And if you're Black and you're a public figure, or if you worked with Bill Cosby closely, then there's about 20 more electrified rails. For those people, I think it becomes that no matter what I say, I'm angering somebody who I don't want to anger, either because they're a family member, or a community member or a paying member of my audience who I rely on to pay the bills.

Q: One of the things that also struck me is how we compare the art to the artist. Can we still listen to R. Kelly's music, or watch Woody Allen's movies or look at the art of a painter like Chuck Close? In other words, can you separate the work from its creator? Can you still think that Bill Cosby's jokes are funny?

We separate art from artists all the time. Eric Clapton is a great example. Nothing criminal is happening with Eric Clapton. But he has been revealed to be an anti-vaxxer and a COVID conspiracy theorist and more. And yet, if that classic song comes on, we're all going to air guitar. So we do it all the time. And I do it, too. I'm in that group. So when I watched these Bill Cosby clips, when I watched the [Huxtable family singing the Ray Charles song] ‘Night Time is the Right Time’ scene from ‘The Cosby Show,’ or when I watched Bill Cosby himself, I'm still appreciating the art, but I'm not losing the context of who this man is. I would never go out into the public square and go, ‘Bill Cosby is the greatest standup of all time.’ Because that's not sensitive to the fact that there's a lot more going on. I feel like I had to work really hard to get you to understand why Bill Cosby himself is great. But it also leads to how this man was accruing power, power that he would then abuse.
What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.