Public Media Arts Hub

New documentary explores America's 'complicated' relationship with Bill Cosby


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In 2018, comedian Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault and given a three-to-10-year prison sentence. Last year, that conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled that prosecutors had improperly used an earlier deposition by Cosby in which he admitted to drugging women.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said he had done so in a civil lawsuit, with an agreement that he would not face criminal charges.

Now a new documentary series looks at Cosby, the allegations against him, and his role as a major figure in American cultural history.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Woman: We thought we knew Cosby. We never knew Cosby.

Jeffrey Brown: "We Need to Talk About Cosby." It's the name of a new four-part documentary series that premiered recently at Sundance, and begins this weekend on Showtime.

And for director W. Kamau Bell, the title expresses the urgency and importance of the subject.

W. Kamau Bell, Director, "We Need to Talk About Cosby": For me, it's like, he was a transformative cultural icon. There's very few people on the planet who've ever gotten more famous than Bill Cosby. So, he's a big figure, so I think we can ask some big questions.

Does it make you uncomfortable that I'm Black?

Jeffrey Brown: As a stand-up comedian and host of the CNN series "United Shades of America," Bell is used to addressing race and other big issues in his work.

W. Kamau Bell: Bill Cosby had been one of my heroes.

I'm a Black man, a stand-up comic. I was born in the '70s. But this?

Man: The accusations just keep coming in.

W. Kamau Bell: This was complicated.

Jeffrey Brown: In the new series, it's also personal for a 48-year-old who grew up watching "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" and then "The Cosby Show."

W. Kamau Bell: I was born into a world where Bill Cosby was a part of the wallpaper of Black America.

Jeffrey Brown: You say, in this, you're a child of Cosby.

W. Kamau Bell: Yes, that's the way I put it, because I was, like, how do you describe the relationship? When I'd watch "The Cosby Show," I felt like I was right in there with the family.

And then to become a stand-up comedian in large part because of his inspiration, to try to do good in my career because I saw him doing good in his career through philanthropy, and he's an example, I was as confused as everybody else when all these stories came out.

Jeffrey Brown: In "We Need to Talk About Cosby," Bell gets people to do just that, try to make sense of Cosby's game-changing place in American popular culture as comedian, actor, educator, philanthropist, role model, but all set against, at every point, the horrific acts detailed here.

He interviews people who knew or worked with Cosby, Other comedians, sociologists, and writers on popular culture, experts on sexual violence.

W. Kamau Bell: Did you tell anyone this story?

Woman: Never told anybody.

Jeffrey Brown: And at length to women who tell their stories of betrayal and violation, with chilling similarity, often involving being unknowingly drugged.

W. Kamau Bell: When I first started looking into this, I didn't know nearly enough about this. And I think that's another thing we're trying to do, is show people, like, you may think you know this story.

Even if you are a supporter of him, or you are somebody who is a supporter of the survivors, you may think you know that story, but there's probably a lot you don't know. I didn't realize they went back so far into almost the early days, to -- not the first -- beginning of his career, but like very early in his career, that these allegations went back that far.

Jeffrey Brown: Over time, some 60 women have came forward, though Cosby only ever faced the one criminal trial that led to the 2018 conviction that was later overturned.

Cosby has consistently publicly denied all accusations. And, this week, a spokesman denounced Bell's documentary, saying, in part: "Let's talk about Bill Cosby. Mr. Cosby has spent more than 50 years standing with the excluded, made it possible for some to be included, standing with the disenfranchised. Mr. Cosby vehemently denies all allegations waged against him. He wants our nation to be what it proclaims itself to be, a democracy."

There are people, of course, who still support him, who still believe him.

W. Kamau Bell: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: You have no doubts?

W. Kamau Bell: I have no doubts. And I'm hearing from those people on all my social media platforms.

Jeffrey Brown: And what do you say to them?

W. Kamau Bell: I think I'm engaging with it, in say -- talking to them through this project.

I feel like a lot of people who are going to hate this will never watch it, which I understand. But I fee like, if you watch it, you will see that I think there's a worry that I'm destroying his legacy. And I think this is the only way you can actually approach the legacy of his good work, is if you have the whole conversation.

Woman: The reality is, is he needed to go to prison. He's a criminal. But was I at home cheering? No. I was like, this is one of the worst -- this is just a sad day in the history of Black culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Bell makes clear this is an especially fraught conversation in the Black community. On the one hand, Cosby, known as America's dad, was beloved.

W. Kamau Bell: America's dad, not Black America's dad, but America's dad. But Black people always knew we'd been down for this guy since before "The Cosby Show," so he's still ours. White people can enjoy it, but this is for Black people, and the fact the show was aspirational.

It didn't reflect the every Black family, but, as I say in the doc, I don't care. It was aspirational. So you felt like it was sort of helping you believe in a life that you might be able to get to.

Jeffrey Brown: But Cosby also became a divisive figure beginning in 2004, when he began to speak out critically of what he saw as irresponsible behavior, including language, clothing, and a prevalence of single-parent families, in what many took as a moralizing tone.

All of this, Bell says, plus the history of racist, false accusations against Black men, played into the story.

W. Kamau Bell: The whole thing is like, this is a third-rail conversation maybe for every American who grew up with Bill Cosby in their life. But, for Black people, it's like we keep adding more electrified rails to the conversation, like it -- because it's just -- there's so -- there's also the thing about not wanting to tear down any Black person in public and not airing dirty laundry, and, you know, even not -- why -- didn't why don't I do this on a Black network, or these thing, the questions of, like, where it is appropriate.

So, just, it's a complicated, divisive conversation on its best day.

Jeffrey Brown: There's also a larger indictment here of a society that Bell sees as too often complicit in violence against women.

W. Kamau Bell: We have to be able to learn something from this situation. And, like I said, it's bigger than Cosby.

We need to create a country where survivors of sexual assault and rape not only feel like they can speak up, but they want to speak up, because they know that they live in a society that is supportive and will help heal them and help them seek justice.

Jeffrey Brown: The very first question in this is, who is Bill Cosby now? You're asking others.

What's your answer?

W. Kamau Bell: The answer that makes the most sense to me is one that Kierna Mayo gives at the end. She was the ex-editor in chief of "Ebony" magazine.

And there's something to the effect of, Bill Cosby could be key in understanding America.

And so, for me, that's why this is worth talking about. Like, Bill Cosby is like a catalyst to understanding this American experiment in many ways, through the lens of racism, and through the lens of sexism, misogyny, rape culture. He is the key -- could be the key to helping us see, diagnose and hopefully solve these problems.

Jeffrey Brown: That's asking a lot.

W. Kamau Bell: For sure. For sure. But don't we have to ask a lot? Aren't those problems big enough to ask a lot?

Jeffrey Brown: "We Need to Talk About Cosby" begins Sunday on Showtime.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.