We Need to Talk About Cosby | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 31st, 2023  

We Need to Talk About Cosby

Showtime, January 30, 2022

Jan 25, 2022 Photography by Mario Casilli/mptvimages/Courtesy of SHOWTIME Web Exclusive
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I learned how to program a VCR because of The Cosby Show. The top-rated NBC series, which ran from 1984 to 1992, conflicted with a Thursday night college class I had. The thought of missing even one episode was enough to make me consider dropping out of school. Like most of America, I was enamored of this family and everything about their lives. I felt like Cliff and Clair could be my parents. I wanted to be Denise. I wanted a brother like Theo. I wanted to live in the brownstone. I was fully invested in the whole Cosby package.

From the start of W. Kamau Bell’s four-part four-hour docuseries, We Need to Talk About Cosby, it’s clear that Bell felt the same. Not only that, but as a Black Gen X comedian, Cosby had a marked impact and influence on Bell’s life. There is so much unwillingness and discomfort in talking about Cosby. Ruining the public image of him is like putting a giant, ugly, indelible tag over the landscape of our youth.

Bell approaches the sensitive and polarizing topic of his docuseries with balance. In part one, he traces Cosby early beginnings in 1964 on Tonight Starring Jack Paar as a groundbreaking comedian, and Cosby’s sleek contrast with his predecessor, the much more confrontational Dick Gregory. His multiple award-winning starring role on I Spy, the first series that showed a Black character as cultivated, cultured and intelligent. He highlights Cosby’s championing of Black stunt performers, a first in Hollywood. He turns the spotlight on the picture-perfect Cosby family.

And then the docuseries turns dark as the focus is put on one of Cosby’s best-selling comedy albums where he speaks of dosing women with Spanish Fly to make them do what you want. From here he moves to graphic accounts from various women who were sexually assaulted and raped by Cosby from 1964 until he was formally accused in 2014. The visual timeline that accompanies this is jolting and upsetting, in part because you start really accepting that it’s true.

The series recalibrates in part two to speak of Cosby’s addressing of racial issues, uncomfortably and head-on, using his high-profile platforms and various mediums to educate all of America. He had three television shows in the ‘70s, an achievement for any entertainer. Then the see-saw tips to more and more accounts of sexual assault. These come one after the next with the main through-thread being that when they came to after the drugs Cosby dosed them with wore off, these women felt ashamed and embarrassed by their behavior. They say that they blamed themselves.

Talking heads are the primary way We Need to Talk About Cosby is told. From journalists to professors, comedians to actors, they are mainly offering opinions rather than facts. In many cases, Bell’s research and knowledge about Cosby is far deeper than theirs, even though they are considered experts on Cosby. When Bell shares information they weren’t aware of, it’s their reactions the viewer witnesses. The other talking heads are professionals in the areas of pharmaceuticals, sex and the law. These individuals’ input gives clear explanations that clarify the situations being discussed, speaking to predators’ behaviors in general, all of which match perfectly with Cosby’s behavior through his 50 years of being a predator. Visibly absent are any Cosby cast regulars, bar Joseph C. Phillip’s who played Denise’s husband. Phillip has been outspoken on Cosby’s sexual misconduct for a while now. Also present are Doug E. Doug and Michael Jai White who appeared occasionally on the show.

This brings us to part three and The Cosby Show. Like every aspect of Cosby’s life that Bell explores, the cultural and historical background is defined. This helps in understanding the impact of Cosby’s positive influences as well as the challenges and improbability of the fact that he was able to achieve all that he did. Prior to the launch of The Cosby Show, there was a definite distinction between Black celebrities who ruled pop culture: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and real-life Black people who the media portrayed as criminals with broken families.

Then comes The Cosby Show, a whole show with Black people. It is impossible not to smile at the scenes from the series that are interspersed throughout this part of the docuseries. To paraphrase one of the talking heads, Danielle Morgan, assistant professor at Santa Clara University, “Many of us don’t want to lose the way we felt watching those scenes.” Seeing Black people with money, in school, displays of Black excellence, affirmation of Blackness, made Cosby a cultural icon, and not just for Black people. He was America’s dad, someone to believe in. As another one of the talking heads, comedian Godfrey, who warmed up the studio audience for the series points out, you believe in the character more than the actual person. Cosby was directly making the lives of Black people better.

Meanwhile there are horrifying accounts from women who had walk-on roles on the show. Their experiences of inappropriate behavior and sexual assault, being bullied by a man in power are minutely recounted, like they happened yesterday.

All along, there are allegations of sexual misconduct, but it isn’t until a work-in-progress Hannibal Buress joke went viral, which was not his intention—that people started to pay attention to the accusation. Then one of his sexual assault survivors, Barbara Bowman, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post. The accusations kept coming, over 50 women. It made the cover of the New Yorker. But that was just a bunch of white women accusing a Black man, the docuseries offers. Then the explosive Ebony Magazine cover story came out with a shattered image of the beloved television Cosbys.

At this point is when the docuseries addresses the uncomfortable matter of “when Black protectionism goes bad.” “Black men have to be protected.” “Black people, especially Black men, don’t believe Black women.” And then there are the images of an elderly Cosby in handcuffs, which is still upsetting, even if it is what justice looks like. But as the sex therapist says, it’s not about an old man going jail, it’s about the women. This is all the more true since Cosby was released on a legal technicality. He’s not exonerated, but he is a free man. And he has destroyed everything he accomplished with The Cosby Show.

Conflicted is the key word when it comes to We Need to Talk About Cosby. The filmmakers, participants and viewers, everyone who ever had any kind of exposure to Cosby in his storied career is affected by what has happened. Not the least of these is Bell himself, who despite how much he has clearly been upset about Cosby, provides an agenda-free and wide-reaching perspective on the man and his actions, both positive and negative. Bell examines the effect this has had on Cosby’s individual survivors, on his fans, on all survivors of sexual assault, on the normalization of rape culture in our society. We Need to Talk About Cosby is difficult to watch, but it is absolutely necessary. (www.sho.com/we-need-to-talk-about-cosby)

Author rating: 8/10

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