‘We Need To Talk About Cosby’ Confronts The Hypocrisy Of “America’s Dad”

Elijah C. Watson Elijah Watson serves as Okayplayer's News & Culture Editor. When…
Bill Cosby we need to talk about cosby
In the docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby, director W. Kamau Bell examines how Bill Cosby became such an impactful figure for Black people living in America, so much so that he earned the title "America's Dad" — all while leaving a trail of abuse and harm that spans decades. Photo credit: Mario Casilli/mptvimages/Courtesy of Showtime.

We Need to Talk About Cosby examines how Bill Cosby became larger than life as a likable and upstanding public figure — all while abusing that power behind the scenes.

In the second episode of We Need to Talk About Cosby  Columbia University professor and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb offers a succinct summary of what Bill Cosby represents today:

“You don’t often learn that your heroes are really the worst sorts of villain… or that this this person who you think of as a hero has fooled the entire country about what their character really is.”

This summation is at the heart of the four-part documentary series, as director W. Kamau Bell examines how Bill Cosby became such an impactful figure for people (especially Black people) living in America, so much so that he earned the title “America’s Dad” — all while leaving a trail of abuse and harm that spans decades.

Throughout its four episodes, which premiere on January 30 at 10 pm on Showtime, Cosby does a great job of unpacking the duality of Cosby — the man who defined and redefined Black representation in Hollywood, and the man who has been accused by 60 women of sexual misconduct — to provide a larger commentary on race and patriarchy in America.

As Cosby’s rise and fall is told chronologically, it’s contextualized in American society from the ’60s up until the present. Viewers see how Cosby became a comedic darling and surpassed counterparts like Dick Gregory by being non-threatening, his clean, anti-profanity routines making him palatable to white audiences and safe enough for white Hollywood gatekeepers to invest in.

As a result, his early career ascent occurs almost rapidly: he’s releasing comedy albums and starring in TV shows like I Spy, where he’s changing the norms of production practices in small but very significant ways (like demanding that Black stunt performer Calvin Brown be his stunt double for the show). On the other end, he’s also performing in settings that wouldn’t be considered family-friendly — like the Playboy Club — in the ’60s. Now, the doc including this is less about the connection between Cosby and Playboy and more about how a space like that is indicative of the “boys will be boys” mentality that manifests in everything from unwanted and unprofessional sexual comments to sexual violence.

Cosby’s transgressions related to the latter occur from almost the very start of his career, as the docuseries highlights. The moments, which come in the form of audio clips and on-camera testimonies from the victims, all show how predatory Cosby was, using his access, power, and public persona to abuse and harm women as his career continued to blossom. In showing how parallel these two Cosby’s are, the series doesn’t just tackle Cosby’s wrongs and how he was able to continue doing them for so long, but his hypocrisy, too. A part of the doc addresses the irony of his respectability politics, which comes to a head when the series spotlights the Hannibal Buress joke that played a part in the renewed interest in Cosby’s sexual assault allegations.

“It put the lie to his sanctimony,” Boston Globe Associate Editor Renée Graham says about the joke during the series’ fourth episode. “How dare you criticize anyone else? Yeah my pants might be sagging but I’ve never raped nobody.”

In addressing the hypocrisy, the doc also addresses the betrayal of Cosby, too. It’s heart-wrenching and infuriating to see someone like Lili Bernard recount how she worked hard on her role in The Cosby Show, only to have to question if she was given it as a means of silencing her, or see Eden Tirl — who grew up watching The Cosby Show and wanting a father like Dr. Huxtable — get the chance to act on the show, only to be assaulted by the man whose work once brought her so much joy.

“Being known as ‘America’s Dad’ can really disarm someone from being tapped into and tuned into what their intuition is telling them, because this brand is overriding,” sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar says in the series’ second episode. “We trust someone without really taking the time it requires to trust someone.”

We Need to Talk About Cosby provides a nuanced look into what Cosby meant (and still means) to a lot of people. It’s understandable that many of the guests interviewed for the series speak of him in a past sense, or when they’re shown something from his career — author and academic Marc Lamont Hill watching the opening for Cosby’s Picture Pages, or Santa Clara University assistant professor Danielle Morgan watching the “Happy Anniversary” Cosby Show episode, where the Huxtable family lip-syncs Ray Charles’ “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” — it comes with an acknowledgment of what we know about Cosby now.

“There are a million reasons we don’t want what we know to be true about Bill Cosby to be true, and I think that clip highlight so many of them,” Morgan says as she finishes watching the clip during the series’ third episode. “It’s just such a bright and warm scene, I think many of us don’t want to lose the way that those kinds of scenes make us feel and what they meant for us watching at the time. But the reality is, the reality is the reality.”

There’s no denying the impact Cosby had on America, especially Black America. But there’s also no denying the wrong he committed, too. We Need to Talk About Cosby acknowledges both, jumpstarting a necessary conversation that encourages its viewers to confront Cosby’s complex legacy rather than ignore it.

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