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Cosby's legacy is a third rail conversation we need to have. W. Kamau Bell is ready

<em>We Need to Talk About Cosby</em> examines the tainted legacy of comedian Bill Cosby.
Mario Casilli
mptvimages/Courtesy of Showtime
We Need to Talk About Cosby examines the tainted legacy of comedian Bill Cosby.

Comic W. Kamau Bell takes Bill Cosby's fall from "America's dad" to sexual predator personally.

Bell grew up in the 1970s, watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Picture Pages and the standup special, Bill Cosby: Himself. He says that when The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, it felt revolutionary: Here was the top-rated sitcom about a Black family that all of America could relate to.

"As a Black person, we are still — and always have been — under a deficit of role models who are promoted to stardom," Bell says. "It doesn't mean that we don't have them in our communities. But as far as ... America allowing them to take the public microphone and be celebrated, we're not represented well."

But Cosby's TV persona as a funny, loveable dad who just wanted to do good in the world was just that — a persona. About 60 women have since come forward, accusing the comedian of drugging and raping them. In 2018, Cosby was convicted of three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault, though that conviction was overturned on a technicality in 2021.

"Bill Cosby's fall is about more than just the fall of a funny comedian," Bell says. "It's just like: Why? Why do you have to be this guy? Why does this have to be the case?"

In the four-part Showtime documentary series, We Need to Talk About Cosby, Bell grapples with Cosby's tainted legacy and his larger betrayal of the Black community.

"I really do believe that for anybody who was sort of alive during the height of [Cosby's] power or for the rise of his power, it's a third rail conversation," Bell says. "If you're Black and you were alive for that, you're just adding more electrified rails to the conversation. I think it's hard for anybody because, as we say in the series, he was America's dad during The Cosby Show — not Black America's dad, America's dad."

Bell also hosts the CNN documentary series United Shades of America, in which he travels to communities around the U.S., talking to people about the challenges they face.

Interview highlights

On watching The Cosby Show as a kid and relating to the TV family

I was a part of the Huxtable family. ... I was Vanessa's age, but, of course, I felt like Theo. You could just imagine yourself — and I think a lot of kids my age did — in that family, because there was some kid you were sort of close in age to. And this show looked like it was welcoming you in. ... As much as it got criticism for not reflecting the "average Black family" — whatever that means — there was Black music, there's Black art. [Cosby]'s putting Sammy Davis Jr. in roles. It just feels so Black in the way that Black people can relate to, and that the people who aren't Black just sort of go, "Oh, this is good, I enjoy this."

On how Bill Cosby forced the integration of stunt work in Hollywood

Apparently, the story goes that on the set of I Spy in the first season, [Cosby] gets to the set and he sees a white man being painted black and they called it "painting down." But this white man was literally being painted black — not being painted brown, like the color of Bill Cosby, being painted black. And he asks, "What's going on?" And they say, "That's your stunt double for the stunt that we're doing today. That guy's your stunt double, this white man being painted black." Apparently, Bill Cosby sees this stunt man being painted black and says, "If you don't get me a Black stuntman, I'm not going to work on this show anymore. I'm done."

And this is a story that has been told specifically by Nonie Robinson, whose family was in the stunt industry, and she was working on a documentary about the stunt industry and how Bill Cosby revolutionized it and changed it in that one act. ... Bill Cosby, at that point, he's new to a TV show, feels like he has enough power or enough intestinal fortitude to go, "I refuse to be on this show if you don't find me a Black stunt performer," and they did.

On Cosby understanding the importance of having Black people behind the camera

[Cosby] understood at a time when nobody understood this and people still understand this, that the true powers behind the camera and that diversity on camera doesn't mean anything if you don't have diversity behind the scenes.

Especially once he got to The Cosby Show, he understood at a time when nobody understood this and people still don't understand this, that the true power is behind the camera and that diversity on camera doesn't mean anything if you don't have diversity behind the scenes. And also, on a Black show, you want to have Black people behind the camera, because it will make the show be authentic, you'll feel it on camera. Black makeup artists know how to do makeup for Black people better than white makeup artists do. So a lot of people in Hollywood who are working and have worked for 30 years can point to them being hired on The Cosby Show as the beginning of their career.

On cast members and staffers of The Cosby Show remembering that models were brought to the show rehearsals

During rehearsal you would look out into the bleachers where people sat and there was clearly a section where there was just nothing but young model-looking women, and when rehearsal ended, they called it "the parade." There would be a line of them parading to Bill Cosby's dressing room, and they would go in there one at a time and the door would close and we don't know what happened in there, but that's what would happen regularly on the show, and they called it "the parade."

We heard [about] a man named Frank Scotti, who was one of Bill Cosby's main assistants, that there was some level of coordination with modeling agencies to send them over there, the idea being that like, he's a big star, the big star gets what he wants. He's the biggest star at NBC. ... A lot of bad behavior can be hidden in these situations like show business because the star gets what the star wants and then the whole infrastructure of the project is trained to look the other way. ... You've been acculturated to look the other way. ... When they built Hollywood, they didn't start with the human resources department, so there's no place for you to go where you can safely go, "I saw something, please help me," without feeling you're going to get fired.

On America's rape culture and how many of the women blamed themselves

This is how rape culture works, and this is how women have been trained to respond even when they've been sexually assaulted or raped. We have taught and promoted the idea that like, well, what were you doing there? Why were you with this man? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you go there at that time? ... It's very easy because of how we — society — works in America for the victims to start blaming themselves. ... And so the idea being that like, "I've done this to myself" ... so I must have done something wrong, because he's Bill Cosby.

A lot of the women seem to think that they had a weird experience with Bill Cosby or a weird few years with Bill Cosby, not understanding that they were one of many. And I think, again, that's how rape culture works. This is how we don't do a good job of sex education instruction in this country, full stop, so that we're not talking about how there's not generally talk in sex education class in schools about how predators act, when really that's what we need to be talking about.

On comic Hannibal Buress' 2014 bit about Cosby being a rapist during a comedy set, which brought attention to the story

Hannibal, a Black man comedian standup comic, is performing in Philadelphia, Cosby's hometown, and who knows what happened before this, but this is the early days of cell phones recording video. And apparently he started talking about Bill Cosby and someone in the back of the room, I believe, [who] was a reporter, pulls out his cell phone to record it, because it's Hannibal in Philadelphia talking about Bill Cosby. And Hannibal just does a bit, that's clearly, I can say as a standup comedian that is not a finished, fully formed bit. He's just sort of talking his way through these ideas. But the basic idea is he's tired of Bill Cosby telling Black people to pull up their pants and stop disappointing the race, while at the same time Bill Cosby is raping people. He's tired of Bill Cosby being called "America's dad," while Bill Cosby is also raping people. And the reaction of the audience is one of those like, "Oooooh, I can't believe he's saying this. What are you talking about?" And so Hannibal does the thing that, I think, seals the deal. He goes, "When you go home tonight, Google 'Bill Cosby, rape,' there's more results for that than Hannibal Buress." And that video got put online and it went viral. ... And it goes all around the world, and many of us did that thing. We went home and googled "Bill Cosby rape" and you see stories that way. But then shortly after that, Barbara Bowman writes an op-ed, one of Bill Cosby survivors who's in our doc, and her op-ed at The Washington Post is what seemed to be the thing that spurred other survivors, all the other survivors, to come forward.

On his personal sadness as a Black stand-up comic over revelations about Cosby's abuse

I just felt like in mourning over who I thought Bill Cosby was, and I was always aware that I couldn't just sort of cut him out of my cultural DNA. ... When I started to make it in show business and they would ask me, "Who are the comics that you really liked when you were coming up?" And I felt like I couldn't say Bill Cosby, but I felt like I couldn't not say Bill Cosby. So it became this thing was like, Well, how do I play this? Because I can't deny that I was inspired by this man. But I also can't deny that if I say that, it sounds like I'm somehow like ignoring all of these sexual assault and rape allegations. So I just felt confused and conflicted and was having this conversation well before I ever thought I would be put in the position to direct the series about it.

On Cosby's overturned conviction

Bill Cosby is still a rich, powerful, important person. And so he can use that to get what he wants out of the justice system in ways that if he was just William Cosby from North Philly, they wouldn't be looking at this case this hard.

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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