Can we separate the art from the artist? In our modern times, no other question seems quite as prescient, especially in regards to legendary “America’s dad,” Bill Cosby himself. An icon to many families that helped bring black culture to the forefront in popular media, Cosby left an indelible imprint on the television landscape—but how does this commingle with the tragic facts that he was a sexual abuser for decades? The series initially tries so hard to be subjective that it appears to go light on Bill Cosby; however, it saves the truly hard-hitting realities for episodes two, three, and four. If there is one thing Showtime’s documentary series, We Need to Talk About Cosby, manages to accomplish over the course of its four hour-long episodes, it does definitively provide proof of Cosby’s awful exploits. The haunting stories and damning evidence loom nearly as large as the celebrated comedian’s body of work.
How will Bill Cosby ultimately be remembered? Judging by who you ask, opinions vary wildly from one person to another. Since Cosby’s imprint and education for America’s youth in the 70s and 80s, his thrall quite literally formed a whole generation of kids. They are the ones most likely to still look back upon him fondly; meanwhile, one expert says plainly of Cosby that he is “a rapist who had a really good television show once.” We Need to Talk About Cosby is at its best when examining both sides of this complicated question. It examines his entire body of work, and celebrates accolades, including Cosby’s multiple Emmy wins, the revolutionary way Cosby insisted upon having a black stuntman for his works, and how he weaved black stereotypes the world had never seen before into the cartoon, via Fat Albert. Cosby’s powerful status made him practically untouchable when The Cosby Show single-handedly rescued NBC. 65 million viewers were blind to what was really occurring behind the scenes.
By far the creepiest aspect of this documentary to me is that for years, Cosby was blatantly getting away with his abhorrent behavior without any repercussions. He made tasteless jokes out of drugging women, inserting poor comedy skits about drugging them with Spanish Fly. Over 60 women would eventually come forward with allegations against Cosby, and those are just the ones who spoke out. The actual number could be double or even triple that. In a disgusting, depressing reality, there are even accusations from the set of Picture Pages, a literal children’s show. Harrowing stories and firsthand accounts from those victimized by Cosby, forced to hide their truths for years, made my skin crawl. How can anyone who worked on The Cosby Show come to terms with allowing a predator to perfect his craft? Seeing your hero become the villain is never easy. Whilst I had very little experience with Bill Cosby projects personally, he had worked his way into pop culture in such a way that it was impossibly to not know of him.
Editor’s Note: In contrast with Josh, I did grow up with Bill Cosby. I think I discovered Cosby very young from Kids Say the Darndest Things, at around 8-10 years old. It was a show for my family and I to watch together and bond, despite the fact that I was too young to appreciate some of the jokes. As I grew older, Cosby brought on the laughs each night I turned on The Cosby Show on TV Land or Nick at Nite. Given the show was now in syndication, I deemed myself one its younger fans, as I was somewhere around age 14, around the same age at the time as Raven-Symoné who played Olivia on the show. I began collecting autographs by writing letters through the mail, and Bill Cosby was one of my first received. His autograph meant so much to me that I framed it. I felt a sense of pride for someone I adored to acknowledge me.
When the news came out, I found it almost unbelievable. His public persona was so wholesome, it was hard to see him in that light. I had people close to me deal with similar claims that proved to be not only untrue but ludicrously impossible, so I hoped for the best. As each new accuser spoke out, it was clear that Cosby was not the person I believed him to be.
This docuseries has been enlightening for me both as an ex-fan and a woman. W. Kamau Bell tenderly balances an analysis of Cosby’s positive contributions to society with his tribulations. I did not realize Bill had such a strong influence in civil rights in America. Yet, I had also never seen the breadcrumbs he left in public interviews over the years demonstrating his apt to misuse date rape drugs. Cosby’s hints by way of content choices are particularly alarming. These encompass the fact that Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable worked as a gynecologist with an office in the basement of his own house (which seems not only unsanitary, but also questionable), the BBQ sauce written into the Cosby script that makes everyone “huggy-buggy,” and his album, Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs, which includes music painfully slowing down to demonstrate the effect of downers. The final straw for me is his admittance in the court case’s deposition. Cosby clearly knew what he was doing was unethical, but his ego dismissed it.
I still stand by the opinion that this extensive documentary could likely have been trimmed to get to the true meat and potatoes of the story significantly faster. Perhaps it was necessary in order to see Bill Cosby’s devolution from “America’s dad” to “Black America’s angry grandpa,” but it still would be better served with a stricter, tighter focus. Some of the biggest celebrities that have crossed paths with Cosby are sadly absent from participation. How can one hide their frustration when certain interviewees (I am not naming any names here) seem less than qualified to weigh in their two cents, yet there are glaring omissions in the selection. Even with minor faults, though, We Need to Talk About Cosby is well worth watching. The fact-based deep dives into Cosby’s career, as well as breaking down the survivor stories into clear and concise timelines, make it nearly impossible to look away.
We Need to Talk About Cosby provides a final word on Cosby—he is a truly awful person that remains fiercely talented and hugely influential in helping to bring black culture into the mainstream. He drugged women, raping dozens upon dozens of them, and often using his celebrity status to gain access. To fuel his habit, Cosby would specifically have sex with only unconscious women. He is the type of person who decides to go on tour in the midst of a whirlwind sexual assault scandal. No matter how much one might worship at the altar of Bill Cosby prior to watching this series, facts are facts. It is a sad reality, but “America’s dad,” should rightfully be held responsible for his actions. That said, Bill Cosby’s body of work will still be around for those willing to overlook his troubling real-life persona.
We Need to Talk About Cosby premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The four-part docuseries will air on Showtime on Sunday, January 30th.