Black History Month Review: We Need to Talk About Cosby
I didn’t want to start Black History Month like this.
My plan was to sit down and have some fun watching some Blaxploitation films and start a column with a funny name, like Movies Against The Man or something like that.
But We Have To Talk About Cosby.
It’s both the title of the docuseries from Showtime and W. Kamau Bell and, well, something we do need to talk about, no matter your race. The series is presented in four parts and while it doesn’t quite break down as one episode per decade (it’s pretty close though) it does very much follow the blueprint of a standard Greek tragedy: the start (his beginning in stand-up and early TV roles), the rise (70s films and the beginnings of his ‘educator’ role), the apex (the height of his power as ‘America’s Dad’ and moral authority) and the fall (the rise of the allegations and his eventual prosecution). Throughout the series, you have interviews with a cross-section of just about everyone: actors that had worked with Cosby, stuntmen, reporters that covered him, psychology and sex experts and, of course, some of the rape survivors that came forward to shatter the image that we had all built up around this man.
I think the first thing I admire about this docuseries is that it really is a conversation on film. It does show you the conclusion that some of the participants have come to regarding Bill, but even Bell, who narrates the piece as well, openly admits that he doesn’t have an answer to the questions raised here, that in some ways, it’s a conversation that changes daily…and that maybe there is no answer here. Bell doesn’t make the classic mistake of many documentaries in trying to tell you what to think. Oh, to be sure, there’s plenty of evidence provided here by the rape survivors that paint a very sinister picture. And if you look a certain decisions Cosby made throughout his career, some of them just hit a little too close to the mark…as though he might have been subtly signaling to us all along that yeah, he WAS doing this all right in front of us, just in the shadows.
But the questions contained herein are not easy ones to grapple with. I mean, what if Superman really turned out to be Lex Luthor? That might sound hyperbolic, but you’re going to learn things from this documentary that probably flew under your radar for over 50 years…and not all of them bad. For example, did you know that Cosby was responsible for the first black stuntperson? Prior to Bill, they were all white guys in blackface. For as much as people have been critical of how slavery is taught in schools now, did you know that Bill Cosby took this head on, unflinching, in a CBS special in the 70’s? Penned by the ever-annoying Andy Rooney no less? Then, of course, a more fleshed out perspective is given on all the educational works of his that are fairly well known to my generation: Picture Pages, Electric Company, Fat Albert and so on. And here’s where the other question arises: can you, or should you, separate the art from the artist?
And here’s where, from here on out, the review is going to get personal. I’m going to share my own conversation about Bill Cosby in which I’ll talk about the two questions above. Throughout my growing up, there was always a black presence, whether it was via family friends or media…and a huge part of that media was Bill Cosby. I remember listening to Cosby comedy records with my best friend over and over again. I remember watching Fat Albert, catching it as often as I could, digging the Brown Hornet segments. Then, of course, you couldn’t be a family in the 80s and NOT watch the Cosby Show on NBC. He was everywhere and I was fine with that. Between him and my family friends, I never saw black people as “The Other”. They were different from me, yes, but they were just as normal…and CERTAINLY nothing to be feared. Even in my adult life, I find I’m more likely to speak to someone of color than I am a white person…whitey is usually too boring or too two-faced that I just don’t want to be bothered. And, you know, I owe that to Mr. Cosby. He helped me avoid the hatred that so many seem to be falling for these days.
And yet, he’s a rapist.
While I can’t take away the good lessons I learned from him, I do admit that it’s hard for me to go back to his work. Of course I find his stand up hilarious and there are some bits I’d love to go back and revisit, but I do have to confess that they ARE tarnished. They’re hard to go back to and, if I’m being perfectly honest, I still really can’t just yet. This being a movie review site, I’d love to review the nigh-universally reviled Leonard Part 6, especially since it foretold the militant veganism of today way back in the 80s! But I can’t. I still can’t look him in the face…not only for what he did, but for how many times and how long he successfully kept it hidden.
Maybe I’m wrong on some level. After all, we’re learning more and more with the advent of social media and our current voyeuristic society so wrapped up in celebrity worship that we should not hold these people in the spotlight up on a pedestal. I can certainly admit that. But I’m not entirely sure I can be faulted, again, given the lessons above that he did indeed have some hand in.
The same hand that put pills in drinks.
So what if Superman had been Lex all along? Well, for me, heck, for everyone, it’s complicated. Of course I tip my hat to him, I have to. As I said before, Cosby helped me get over the whole race thing, see people as just that, people…and it truly is a precious (and increasingly rare) lesson. But everything he touched is now stained…and I’m still not in a place where I feel comfortable going near it right now. But here’s the one thing I will admit: I think I would if he’d display some regret and gesture, in what time he has left, toward making amends. That wouldn’t absolve him in my eyes, I mean, I can’t think of anything that might absolve 50 years of this kind of activity. But there’s not even that. To this day, he maintains his innocence…and there’s just too much evidence to believe that is true. Can I separate the man from his work? The art from the artist? Sigh. You know, on the big things, you kind of have to, don’t you? And I’m not talking about the popular stuff, like the comedy…but the BIG stuff, you know, what he did for civil rights advancements and the like. You have to admit that he helped put an end to some of the more racist practices in Hollywood...even if there are still plenty more of them there. You have to tip your hat to the firsts. But, to revisit the Dentist story? You know, it was interesting, the docuseries includes a scene from The Late Show between Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert talking about whether or not you can go back and revisit the comedy: Jerry said ‘sure’ while Stephen just…couldn’t. Gotta admit I come down more with Colbert. I might get to Seinfeld’s position someday, but I’m just not there yet.
To conclude, I have to admit that look, this is just the opinion of a white guy. From the African American community perspective, this conversation becomes even MORE complex and, truth be told, I can’t even imagine. For them, it really is a case of ‘What if Superman had been Lex Luthor all along?’ There are depths to the matter that I cannot possibly imagine, perhaps questions even pertaining to their very identity. Okay, that’s hyperbolic. The community’s identity has well outgrown Cosby in some ways, but he’s still part of it. And that’s the beauty of what W. Kamau Bell does here, he very much displays the complicated nature of this, not only for the American family at large, but the infinite complexity for the African American community that has to deal with the fact that one of its cornerstones not only went bad, but went supervillain bad.
And no one, not even a filmmaker, has the answers to this yet. If ever.
Thought-provoking and equal parts nostalgic and shattering. This docuseries will stick with you long after it's over. That earns our highest rating: the Hypno-Cat!