W. Kamau Bell steps on the third rail with Cosby doc

A man in a red sweater in front of an orange fabric background

W. Kamau Bell.

(Lauren Segal / For the Times)

W. Kamau Bell claims he never tires of talking about Bill Cosby, although one could easily understand it if he were.

With “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” a four-part documentary series that premiered on Showtime earlier this year, Bell called together a group of cultural critics, comedians, and sexual assault survivors to process their complicated feelings about the pioneering black entertainer who was due imprisoned on a sexual assault conviction that was later overturned. About 60 women have accused him of rape and other crimes. Cosby maintains his innocence.

Though the story of Bill Cosby could arguably be told as a showbiz saga, a dissertation on race and mass media, or a decades-long quest for justice, Bell chose to frame it as a chaotic, searching conversation.

“The history of America and sexual assault is clearly an ongoing story,” says Bell, speaking over the phone from his Oakland home. “The way America takes sides and how powerful men are often viewed as victims is an ongoing story. So for me, all of these things are opening a conversation, but not the work of actually changing laws and creating new mechanisms of justice.”

Bell, a comedian, essayist, and television host best known for the Emmy-winning CNN series United Shades of America, says this approach is his trademark. “In all mine [projects]it’s about leading the conversation so we can get to work.”

Cosby was in prison when Bell began recruiting participants for the project, and Bell figured many would be eager to talk about both his career and his alleged crimes. But many of Bell’s requests were turned down.

“During this time, if anyone wants to speak out for or against Bill Cosby, they can do so on their own social media,” Bell says. “You don’t have to come to me. In many ways, this is still a third-track conversation. And if you’re a black entertainer, there are multiple third rails.”

“But the people who showed up really showed up,” he continues. “And that was more important than getting the most notable people; [we got] People who had something to add to the conversation.”

Surveying Cosby’s career as a comedian, children’s entertainer, and star of perhaps the most popular family sitcom of all time, We Need to Talk About Cosby portrays the subject as a disgraced cultural figure whose legacy cannot be easily ignored. The confidence Cosby earned as a moral authority covered what his accusers are calling decades of abuse.

Sonalee Rashatwar speaks into the camera "We need to talk about Cosby."

Sonalee Rashatwar in We Need to Talk About Cosby.

(SHOW TIME)

Renee Graham speaks to the camera "We need to talk about Cosby."

Renee Graham in We Need to Talk About Cosby.

(SHOW TIME)

“For a lot of younger people who just see Cosby as this guy who’s been accused and convicted of sexual assault, they’re like, ‘Why are you making such a big deal out of this guy?’ And I think it’s important to tell the story of how he gets all this power, how he gets the public’s trust, and The Cosby Show is the epicenter of that. And it’s the part of the story that makes everything else so painful. He wasn’t Black America’s father. He was America’s father.”

Each time the series reflects on Cosby’s considerable influence on and off screen, it quickly swings back to interviews with the female survivors. The story isn’t strictly chronological, and Bell never lets audiences fully get used to Cosby’s appeal.

“We really talked about it during editing, and I said it’s like a pendulum that has to keep moving,” says Bell. “It can never stay on one page for too long.”

This was clearly a difficult project, for both emotional and practical reasons. At one point in the documentary, Bell says, “There were times when I was doing this show that I wanted to quit. I wanted to hold on to my memories of Bill Cosby before I knew about Bill Cosby.”

Bell’s project was already deep in production when Cosby’s conviction was overturned, and he struggled to incorporate the new development into the series’ ongoing conversation.

“There’s all that too [other] Cosby documentaries,” says Bell. “I heard there were several that were either finished or in the works that people put on hold because they didn’t know how to tell the story. So I was like, is this just going to be one of those Cosby projects that’s being shelved?”

Additionally, Bell felt the stress of pandemic parenting and the weight of the national reckoning over the murders of George Floyd and so many others.

“But like us [sometimes] Joke, that wasn’t a documentary about pasta. This was real S—, and it was really important that we got it right,” says Bell. “It was really important to me that the survivors in the film didn’t feel like we wasted their time.

“And that ultimately got me going. I couldn’t have sat down with all these survivors and then said, ‘We decided not to do the film because it was becoming too difficult for me.'”

In an infamous 2016 episode of “United Shades of America,” Bell sat down with members of the Ku Klux Klan in an unabashed confrontation with racism. But when asked if he would ever speak to Cosby, his answer is unequivocal.

“No. I wouldn’t,” he says. “I’m pretty aware that this is a conversation around Bill Cosby, no talk With Bill Cosby – he has laid out his side of the story many, many, many times.”

A man in a red sweater in front of a wall of vines

“There were times when I was doing this show that I wanted to quit. I wanted to hold on to my memories of Bill Cosby before I knew about Bill Cosby.”

(Lauren Segal / For the Times)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-21/w-kamau-bell-faced-third-rail-element-of-cosby-documentary W. Kamau Bell steps on the third rail with Cosby doc

Sarah Ridley

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