When you set out to make a docuseries about Bill Cosby, you’re basically opening yourself up to be pummeled by people’s opinions. Many won’t be favorable, but all will be valid.
And yet, in addition to the heap of sexual assault allegations against Cosby over the course of several decades, he’s also venerated for being a groundbreaking comedian and activist — particularly in the Black community. So, to say this is a knotty, even infuriating, discussion to pursue would be an understatement.
But “We Need To Talk About Cosby” director W. Kamau Bell, himself a Black male comedian in a still-racist America who previously referred to Cosby as “my hero,” seems more than up for it. “I’m here for the whole conversation,” he told HuffPost.
If you’ve seen any of Bell’s stand-up or binged his wildly underrated CNN travel-cultural series, “United Shades of America,” you might already know that.
That’s because Bell, who is as affable as he is insightful and impassioned, has never been afraid to tackle difficult subjects that may leave some of his audience feeling, as they say, a kind of way. This is the same guy who initiated an open dialogue, at night, with a KKK member and met with reproductive rights advocates in Mississippi, a state where those rights are at risk, on “United Shades.”
With “We Need To Talk About Cosby,” though, Bell is not exactly in the conversation himself. Rather, he passes the mic to Cosby survivors like Lili Bernard and Victoria Valentino, cultural thinkers, former Black stuntmen as well as co-stars like Joseph C. Phillips for a fuller, more complex consideration of the many facets of Cosby: who he was, is, and always has been. And, perhaps most pressingly, what we do about him today.
And to think, “We Need To Talk About Cosby” started out as mere ideas Bell was throwing out in 2018 that stemmed from several Youtube rabbit holes highlighting Cosby’s career and public image. “There’s all these “Oh my God!” moments that happened before I was ever thinking about or had the opportunity to direct this, where you’re just like, “This is way more complicated than I thought,” Bell said.
The docuseries is ultimately a layered, sincere and sometimes maddening wrangling of issues even bigger than one of the most prominent entertainers in American history. Bell talks about coming to terms with his own feelings on his once-idol, Cosby’s overturned verdict, and taking a clear-eyed approach to helming one of the most talked-about titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
I’m fascinated by your trajectory as a comedian to what you’re doing now, including with “United Shades of America.” Did you always have an interest in eventually pivoting into this more serious, journalistic storytelling?
I mean, I think you sort of have multiple areas of your life and go, “I like stand-up comedy. I hate racism. I like documentaries.” And I remember, sitting on my wife — then-girlfriend — Melissa’s couch in Oakland watching Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel and being like, “Man, how do you get one of those shows?” There’s literally no place to apply to get one of those shows. So I was just like, “That looks great. I would love to do something like that. I’m a comedian who’s just trying to get on stage tonight. I don’t know how that happens.”
So, the one thing that I’ve learned about my career is the more I follow my curiosity and take steps into things where you go, “This isn’t what normal comedians do, but this is what I want to do,” and trust that if the work is good, if you feel like you’re being seen and supported, good things will come from it.
And so having said that, it’s like all of that added up to one day being in an office at CNN and they go, “We’re trying to develop new shows, like the show we have up with Anthony Bourdain, who’s now at CNN. Would you like to do that with us?” And then eventually they’d be like, “Your show’s going to follow Anthony Bourdain.”
So, these aren’t things that I would’ve never even thought to put in a dream journal. It was just things that were sort of existing that I liked. And I’ve just always been a fan of documentary filmmaking since I saw the story of the crayon factory on “Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood” on PBS back in the day. And my mom would sit me down and go, “We’re watching ‘Eyes on the Prize.’” And I’d be like, “We are?” “Yes, we are.” So, it is just a thing that has always been a part of my life.
And to end up in an office at Boardwalk Pictures and have a conversation about comedy and the #MeToo movement and … how do you talk about these things? Bill Cosby was my hero, as I’ve stated before and had to struggle with this. And we go, “Well, how would you talk about Bill? How would you do a doc about Bill Cosby?” And it was just a conversation that led to this project.
A question that was on some people’s minds was in response to the title, “We Need to Talk about Cosby.” Some have asked, “But do we?” Considering all that we know already about his case, what was the question on your mind as you pursued the story?
Is there something we can learn from all of this? Not a gossipy conversation about Bill Cosby. We don’t need to gossip about Bill Cosby. The title could be, “Do You Want to Talk about Bill Cosby?” Because I know a lot of people do not want to talk about Bill Cosby on all sides of this issue.
I think we understood this, and it took us forever to find the title because it was like, how do you have a title that captures the nuance we’re trying to accomplish in the four hours? So, for me it was like people who respond to that title well are the people who want to talk about Bill Cosby. People who don’t are the people who don’t want to talk about Bill Cosby, and thankfully, there’s lots of other things you can watch even on Showtime. “Yellowjackets” is great.
[Laughs] Yes, it is.
Because when you think about titles, sometimes you want something that’s super catchy or clever. It’s very much like the British expression, “It does what it says on the tin.” So, this is one of those titles that just is what it is. How I’ve seen people respond to the title actually makes me like the title more because some people are like, “Yes!” There’s so many people who are like, “Yes, I’m ready. I’m grateful that we’re finally about to have this conversation.” And the people who say no, this is clearly not a superhero movie. It’s not trying to capture everybody all over the world. It’s trying to capture the people who feel motivated by it. And, hopefully, then aim those people and me and part of this audience towards creating a safer and better world based on what we learned from the conversation.
“I feel like you get to see even the survivors in ways you don’t normally get to see them on the news or in a documentary that’s just about the thing that happened to them and their experiences with Bill Cosby.”
I watched the first two episodes one night and then turned around the next morning and watched the following two. And people were like, “What’d you think?” And I’m like, “It was a lot.”
[Laughs] I mean, I think that’s totally fair. It is a lot, and we are aware that we’re trying to bite off a lot because if you could just tell the story of, “We’re just going to talk about Bill Cosby’s life and career and how all the good things he did.” Or you could tell this story: We’re just going to talk about the survivors. We’re trying to capture some aspect of both of those things, which means there’s lots of tone changes and it’s also being done by a comedian who feels like humor does help even if the conversations are difficult.
But I think the great thing about it is some of the women who are survivors, maybe all of them at some point, are being funny. Because they feel like they can be funny with me, or they’re being strident in a way that they may not be with somebody else, because they know that I’m here for the whole conversation. So I feel like you get to see even the survivors in ways you don’t normally get to see them on the news or in a documentary that’s just about the thing that happened to them and their experiences with Bill Cosby.
So it is a lot, I agree. And I don’t know when you say that you mean it in a good way or a bad way, or just an “it’s a lot” way. But I respect that it is a lot.
It wasn’t good or bad. I mean, it’s a devastating subject on all fronts. It’s not going to be like, “That docuseries was really great.” That’s a really weird way to describe it.
For sure. And believe me, there’s a lot of weirdness I have right now. Normally when your project comes out, you celebrate its release. And I just feel very much like, I don’t think that’s what happens here. As much as I would’ve loved to have actually gone to Sundance in person, I don’t know how to celebrate the release of this thing because it feels like the work that I believe we put in is really good work and I hope that it gets out to the biggest audience who’s interested in it. But it’s not necessarily like, “Yay!”
Exactly. Something I really had to sit with as I watched the series was how it recontextualizes what we already know about Cosby, particularly that he played an OB-GYN whose office was in the basement of his home and that he joked about Spanish fly. All these things now hit differently. How did you come to arrive at this recontextualization?
Well, there’s that meme — I think it’s from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” where the character has all the different things on the board with all the different strings attached to it. [It] is a reference, I think, to “A Beautiful Mind.” It’s a little bit like that.
Before this documentary came up, every now and again, I would stumble across some piece of Bill Cosby thing on YouTube — because YouTube knows what I care about and what we all care about. You would click on a thing about, like, that barbecue scene from “The Cosby Show” and be like, “Oh, my God.” And I would just go, “Wow.” And I would be thinking about it. I would never forget it.
Many people are familiar with that Spanish fly clip from “Larry King Live,” but then you go, “Wait, he did a bit about it in the ’60s. Oh, OK. Wait, he was there promoting his book about childhood and that book has several references to Spanish fly. Oh, my God.”
There’s all these “Oh my God!” moments that happened before I was ever thinking about or had the opportunity to direct this, where you’re just like, “This is way more complicated than I thought.” The documentary is an attempt to go, “I know how this information came to me and how it was most effective and how I started to put it together. I’m going to try to recreate that for you.”
One of the big stories that first made me go, “There’s got to be a way to tell this story,” is when I saw the article about Nonie L. Robinson’s documentary about the history of Black stunt performers and how critical Bill Cosby was to it. A lot of people say he was the guy who changed the industry. Or, a lot of people involved in the stunt industry say that. I sounded like Trump for a second: “everybody’s saying.” He was the critical person. It wasn’t a series of people. It was him that took the stand. Well, that’s the history of Black folks. So, Nonie felt like she had to pull Bill Cosby’s interview out of it.
But it also sort of left the film in a little place. Like, how do you tell this story without talking about Bill Cosby? I just felt like we can’t lose that story. Also, you go, that’s an empirically good thing that Bill Cosby did that aligns with the Bill Cosby I thought I knew. But I understand that you can’t tell that story unless you also make room for the other parts. And reading that article was what led me to go, “If this story ever is told, it has to be told this way.” But at that point, I was just a guy with a TV show on CNN who nobody was going, “You should direct a documentary.” It just became over time. I ended up in a place where Boardwalk and Showtime felt like I could do it.
There are many different survivors interviewed in the series. Were you ever concerned with retraumatizing them?
First of all, I think the vast majority of these women (there’s over 60) have had some contact with the media at one point or another. All you can do is reach out and be clear about who’s doing it — me — and that we’re actually talking about Bill Cosby’s career and good things from his career and the assaults. So, I don’t want you to show up and think it’s just a film that’s about his crimes.
So for me, at that point, those women are all sophisticated enough and grown enough and are intelligent enough to say yes or no to that ask. A lot of them of course said no, and I have no ill will towards them. I understand. Also, a lot of them are like, “I’ve done all I want to do with this. I just want to live my life now.” Because a lot of negative comes out of being a woman who accuses Bill Cosby of sexual assault. So, I wrote these letters to all of them and laid out: “I just want to be clear about what we’re doing.”
The thing that I had on my side is that a lot of them were familiar with my work with “United Shades of America.” So, they sort of felt like I could pull off this thing that was being pitched. Then some of them — you write the letter and you never hear back. You don’t want to bother them too much, because you don’t want it to be a thing where you feel like you’re hard-selling them on this.
So, we were very lucky with who showed up. And more showed up than we were able to use in the film. COVID made this hard to pull this off in some way. We weren’t able to do the things we thought we were going to do. We weren’t able to fly around the country and go to people in the same way. So, this is my best way of describing it: It just ends up like the TV show, “Chopped.” This is the challenge, these are the ingredients. How do you put them together?
Did you reach out to principal actors from “The Cosby Show?” I know Joseph C. Phillips is interviewed.
We reached out to everybody you would think you would reach out to in a project like this. So if they’re not in here and they are connected and they’re principal cast from the show, they said, “No, thank you.” I had some incredible conversations with some of them and I’m not going to reveal who those people are. That’s up for them to reveal. And at the end of the day, I totally understood the no. First of all, it’s not like I’m America’s most celebrated documentary filmmaker. So even if you want to be in this, maybe you don’t think I know how to pull this off.
And second of all, a lot of people — even people who never worked for Bill Cosby, just Black people in general and white people — feel like this is a hornet’s nest. Even if you’ve spoken out about it before, it doesn’t mean you want to speak out about it again, because you’re just poking the hornet’s nest again. And I understood that. There was some sense from people that, I’m not strong enough to deal with this. I’ve been through this before and I’m not strong enough to deal with it again. And I totally respected that. And it’s not a subpoena, it’s an ask.
“One of the things that became really important to me that I didn’t know before we started working on this is the advocacy that many of the women have engaged in to take down the statute of limitations on rape laws around the country.”
Something that stood out to me were the optics. The survivors are mostly white women. The perpetrator is a Black man married to a Black woman, taking advantage of the type of power that mostly only white men had and have. Did you also consider that?
I mean, we definitely included the narrative that it’s all white women, and it’s not all white women. I think Lili Bernard says a third of these women are Black women or women of color. We also tried to show, even in some of the archival footage, that these are not all white women. And many of the survivors showed up to talk — and maybe it’s because I’m Black — were Black women. So, we definitely wanted to address it in a way to sort of dismiss this argument. I think it was really about dismissing the argument that it’s all white women and that this is a takedown of white women versus a Black man.
But I think so much of this could have been five hours. It could have been seven hours. If it was directed by you, it would be different from how it was directed by me. I think that there’s more to be told of this story. I don’t think I’m the one to keep going down this road, but I really felt like at some point, I can’t get every argument in here that I want to get in here. But I need to at least let some people know that I’m aware of the arguments.
I also want to be able to be like, “Let me just slap this one down real quick. There’s more to discuss here, but I want [viewers] to understand for the purpose of this [that] I’m aware of what some of you are thinking. So, let me try to knock it down while we get to the conclusion.”
Because I think one of the things that became really important to me that I didn’t know before we started working on this is the advocacy that many of the women have engaged in to take down the statute of limitations on rape laws around the country. That became like, “Oh, my God, this is a story that has not been told at all.” So, that ends up taking time away from other things. At that point, I really prioritized wanting to make that advocacy clear because it served as another argument against the idea these are a bunch of — and these are not words I would use — opportunists who are trying to get money from this man. Many of the survivors are actually engaged in advocacy to create a safer world for all of us.
True. And I appreciated that you included that in the series because we really don’t hear enough about that facet of their stories.
Yes, that makes it be like: If this was just some sort of opportunist move, why would you spend so much time and work and also pay to travel around the country to strike down statute of limitations laws? Gloria Allred is in [the docuseries and] is like, “This is not a thing that is going to happen.” This is a Sisyphean cause that these women were engaged in, but they’ve had lots of success around it. So for me, that was the thing that at some point it was like, “Do we need this? This isn’t really about it.” But you may walk into this doc thinking, “It’s just about Bill Cosby,” but it is so much bigger than him. That is a key piece to saying this is bigger than him.
Right. In the final episode, we see the reaction to the overturned verdict play out in real time. You’ve pretty much finished wrapping the series and talked to everyone. What are you feeling at that moment after you put in all this work and how do you feel now?
I don’t know how many there are — it’s hard to keep track of what’s what — but there have been other attempts at Bill Cosby documentaries and documentary series that are out there. They’ve all sort of stalled at some point. Some, I think, were with his approval, some, I think, were not. So, at some point, I was like, “This is going to be another one of those that stalls” when he got out. Be clear, and I still feel this way now: Like, maybe that’s better because this is way more complicated and going to be way more controversial than I realized going into this. I knew it would be, but the deeper you get into it, the more you’re like, “Oh, this is really ugly and hard to figure out how to serve all the audiences you want to serve because you only have four hours.”
There’s been many times where I was like, “Maybe Showtime will call me and cancel it, so I won’t have to quit.” Because it just got so hard to navigate, and we had shut down for COVID for months. That last day of filming was our return to filming. Like, All right, we’re going to finish it. Then that happened and nobody saw that coming. None of the survivors saw it coming. That was not on anybody’s radar. So, there was a point at which you suddenly go, “Oh, the film’s going to be about this now. The film needs to open on him getting out of prison or whatever. This is going to be the story now.”
Then you take a breath and you look back and go, “No, all this work still applies. We just need to now address this.” And that’s another thing: the space to address it and also the weirdness that he got out of prison when we were in Philadelphia filming the project. You go, “Well, you can’t not use this” because it also shows how I was taking it personally at that point. And that ends up pushing time for other things.
So it really became, again, like the “Chopped” basket. I guess I’m going to use more of this than I thought I was going to use. But relevance is really important to me — seeing us who are making the film have our own personal experiences with this and knowing that that’s going to be one of those moments that people talk about forever, the day that Bill Cosby got out of prison.
That day for the crew was hard. Some of the crew went to the house to suddenly become breaking news reporters. I went to the hotel and got in a Zoom meeting with everybody who was working in LA and around the country on the film to just be like, “We need to talk about this, everybody.” It was not a production meeting. It was just about venting and crying and confusion and no conclusions. But then we took a breath and looked at this thing and felt like the work is still here. We’re just going to have to now bring in, like, Michael Coard, who can help us understand why he got out of prison.
To somebody else’s point in the docuseries: Is prison even the answer?
And this is where my Bay Area activism, hanging out with prison abolitionists thing, comes out. Because I don’t want people to think that the criminal justice system — in whatever form it is now, whatever it did for him — is actually working. Michael Coard, the way he put it: “It’s a good decision for a bad man.” What we also are recognizing in that moment is a bad man who had tremendous privilege and power to get to a good decision.