W. Kamau Bell digs deeper into the uncomfortable topic of Bill Cosby
W. Kamau Bell has never been one to shy away from tackling difficult topics. In fact, he’s only used his entertaining approach and thought-provoking humor over the years to deepen the conversation on a myriad of topics on a number of different platforms, and his latest project is no exception. It could also very well be his most difficult conversation to date.
With a new four-part documentary series, We need to talk about Cosby, which premiered on Showtime on Sunday, January 30), Bell addresses the uncomfortable questions and truths surrounding Bill Cosby’s legacy and eventual infamy both in his own unique way, as well as through the perspectives of fellow artists and activists. While the final product, as you’ll see, is rich in unique, complicated, and powerful insights that effectively delve into every corner of the once-revered cultural icon’s career and life, the road to get there has encountered a lot of setbacks. But at the end of the day, Bell is proud of what the project represents.
“I support this project because it contains a lot of good work,” Bell said. Vanyaland. “I know it’s not the easiest subject to talk about, and some people don’t think we need to talk about Cosby, and I know that because they told me on Instagram and Twitter. I know some people are going to hate it and refuse to watch it, but I hope that if you watch it, however you approach it, you appreciate that there’s a lot of good work in there, and that it is not done lightly, even if it’s done by a stand-up comedian.
Although the fruits of his labors throughout his career and his determination to uncover truth and understanding in many facets have raised Bell to the stature of a beacon of insightful social and political commentary, the inspiration for this project was triggered long before he ever thought he would be able to make it a reality.
After reading how Cosby’s interview was removed from Nonie Robinson’s upcoming documentary Break the bones, break the barriers Following the revelations that would ultimately lead to Cosby’s sexual assault conviction in 2018, Bell knew there was a conversation to be had.
Now, for a black comedian who grew up in the ’70s and absorbed decades of Cosby’s on-screen and voice-over work, plus his off-screen ‘tutelage’ to do the right thing, it’s been a conversation difficult to start because the revelations initially hit hard for Bell. That was until the number of charges against Cosby was “somewhere between zero and 60”, adding more perspective to the “separating the art from the artist” debate.
“If you told me there was this great, new comedian named Bill Cosby who has this great clean act that’s family-friendly and he’s an inspirational black man, and then you asked me to go see him play in live before he told me he raped over 60 women, I wouldn’t go. Those things just don’t sit well with me,” Bell says. “The thing is, I didn’t have all that information until I got on all the Bill Cosby content that I absorbed as a kid and as an adult, but now that I know these things I can’t process them separately. But I also can’t act like I haven’t been positively affected by Fat Albert and the Cosby children, Bill CosbyHimself, Image PagesWhere The Cosby Show. I can’t pretend that this stuff isn’t part of my cultural and racial DNA, or that the example of the Bill Cosby I thought I knew didn’t lead me to the kind of career I have. All of this led me to the point of realizing that Bill Cosby was kind of the one who taught me that I had to do this documentary.
While the number of rejected invitations to be part of the documentary outweighed accepted invitations, both in terms of volume and level of stardom, Bell quickly recognizes how important the conversations with the “yes” crowd were. deep and meaningful. Along the way, as he reached out to more people and these invitations met with an unwanted response, Bell wondered if he had made a mistake by overestimating the interest or the comfort level of the conversation. But as he was to find out, the people who sat down with him offered a lot of validation through their words and their willingness to share their experiences and insights.
“It became clear that ‘noes’ weren’t universal, but from some type of fame or connection to Bill Cosby they were almost universal, so we focused on who said yes, and I’m very excited to find out who said yes,” Belle said. “I hadn’t had contact with a lot of these people before, but then you sit down with people like Renee Graham from The Boston Globe who is a flamethrower of truth, or Doug E. Doug who is like an open heart with his comfort level to expose himself to all of this and speak his truth the way he feels it and not back down, you realize that these the conversations are truly amazing.
During his career, Bell has had opportunities he never expected, and this project is no exception. As a black American, and as someone who didn’t go to film school or work on documentaries at PBS, he knows what it means to be given an opportunity like this- here, and he hopes, at the very least, that he can help keep the conversation going long after the cameras have stopped rolling.
“Then you can reach out to members of your community and discuss how to create a safer environment for women and girls, especially in regards to what the film covers,” says Bell. “Forget a criminal justice system, but how do we create a justice system that if a person is sexually assaulted they can go somewhere and believe they can get justice and healing, and not be blamed or shamed? It’s also a revolution in how we can understand teaching sex ed to men, or really everyone as kids, so we can all identify when something’s wrong happens and feel like we have access to our voices to help or report.