Kamau Bell: Bill Cosby is the key to understanding America


When W. Kamau Bell was growing up, Bill Cosby was the “wallpaper of black America” ​​and an inspiration, Bell said in a recent interview. Bell’s new documentary, ‘We Need to Talk About Cosby,’ examines the star’s long career and cultural impact, as well as the sexual assault charges that led to his conviction, on three counts of assassination. aggravated modesty, in 2018. Cosby was released from prison in June 2021 after an appeals court ruled that his due process rights had been violated.

The four-part documentary – which will premiere on Showtime on Sunday – consists of clips from his shows and number, conversations with women who have accused Cosby and a parade of other interviewees trying to process Cosby’s story and his legacy.

As a comedian and host of shows like CNN’s “United Shades of America,” Bell said he’s become known as a guy who’s willing to have tough conversations. But the one about Cosby was harsher than most, generating criticism from both sides: Some Cosby accusers didn’t speak to him because they didn’t want to be part of a project that included Cosby’s accomplishments. At the same time, Bell said, he was accused of tearing down a black model when he could instead be examining white transgressors.

Last week, Cosby slammed the project through his spokesperson, Andrew Wyatt, who added that Cosby continues to deny all allegations made against him. Wyatt also praised Cosby’s work in the entertainment industry. “Mr. Cosby has spent over 50 years alongside the outcasts,” he said in a statement.

As a journalist who covered the trials of Bill Cosby for the New York Times, I know the charges against him. But the documentary places these accusations in a deep context of American culture and Cosby’s career.

Recently, I spoke to Bell via video call about making the show and his belief that Cosby’s story is a story about America. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Hello Kamau. How are you doing?

[Laughs.] You’ve covered this story a lot, so I think you probably have an idea of ​​how I’m doing. And then add black to it.

You described to me the apprehension you felt about getting involved in something that had the potential to be “toxic.” What do you mean?

We reached out to people and got so many no’s so quickly. He was still in jail at the time, and I thought, Oh maybe we can finally have Bill Cosby’s productive conversation. But with every note I got from people who were doing really well in show business, what I hear is, “That’s a bad idea.” Not that they would say that outright, but the feeling was, No, I don’t want to touch that. Maybe they didn’t want to touch it with me, but I think they usually don’t want to touch it.

Why would they say that?

I mean specifically for black people, whether you were indirectly involved or not, it’s hard to have a productive conversation about Bill Cosby without frustrating some of your listeners who still want to support him, which they believe he did these things or not.

How did the idea for the documentary come about?

The idea came very naturally during a conversation with [Boardwalk Pictures Production]. I liked their work, they liked my work, and we started talking about comedy documentaries. Generally, there aren’t enough great comedy documentaries, and then through this conversation it was, “Could you do one about a comedian who fell?” There’s any number to hold, but Bill Cosby was the one we talked about. And I’ve been thinking about that conversation with Bill Cosby for years.

What did you hope to achieve?

When I started doing it, as they say in the docs, he was in jail. It felt like the Bill Cosby story was mostly over. So maybe now we can have the conversation, and it’s a conversation that I already had in my head and with other people. Seeing people online trying to get her, the conversation wasn’t flowing productively.

We have to get something out of it. If we don’t have the conversation, I don’t think we’re going to learn. The guy I thought he was when I was growing up and when I was a young adult – this guy would want me to learn something from that.

So, on some level, your example, Bill Cosby, led me to try to understand this.

So what did you understand?

[Kierna Mayo, the former editor in chief of Ebony magazine] said something to the effect of, “Bill Cosby is the key to understanding America.” For me, that’s what it’s all about.

There are two rampant forces of oppression in America: first, how we treat non-whites. The other is how we have treated women throughout the history of this country. And if you look at Bill Cosby’s career, you can see the things he’s done that make this better and makes this worse. I believe there is a lot to learn there.

You use a timeline device in a powerful way that allows you to talk about the highlights of his career and also locate the time of the charges against him.

I don’t like it when documentaries tell a personal story but they don’t connect to the story. Because you want to know what was going on when it happened – it helps us understand why it’s even more interesting.

It makes no sense to talk about Bill Cosby as if he were a lonely man in the world. You really have to see how the culture of boys who will be boys in Hollywood, especially in the 60s, invites a type of behavior that allows predators to hide.

It also overlays this timeline of his career, the timeline of America, and the timeline of the charges, helping you see them in a new way.

You raise the question of who else knew about the charges against Cosby at the time, but you don’t provide many specific answers. Have you tried talking to industry figures?

Yeah. but we did not have access to any of these people. And I’m not an investigative journalist, so there’s a point where I have to accept that I’m here to take everything we know and start to understand what were the circumstances in which this happened.

Ultimately, what matters most is that it’s clear that the industry as a whole isn’t doing a good job, and the people running the industry are probably still not doing the best job they can. This is the biggest problem for me.

Sometimes it seems like the “We” in “We Need to Talk About Cosby” refers primarily to black audiences. Are there certain complexities of the Cosby case that are unique to black people?

I would say the “We” are those of us who feel connected to Bill Cosby. Now, a lot of those people happen to be black. But let’s be clear: he was the father of America, not the father of black America. He was universal. Everyone who worked on it, regardless of race, if they were of a certain generation, was like, ‘Yeah, I watched that show and I felt like I was part of that family Also.”

Even this interview is complicated: for a lot of people, I’m going to tear down a black man in a white newspaper in front of a white man. And the question is, why isn’t this interview about Harvey Weinstein, or Trump, or other people who have had sexual assault allegations? These are the questions that come to me now on social media – like, why this man?

How do you respond to your detractors?

I learned a long time ago that you can’t win these battles on social media, so I kind of allow them to happen. I’m going to deal with that by talking to you and other media, and making sure to talk to black media, about where these people might be going. But I don’t think there is a way to solve it. If these people watch it, they’ll learn that it’s a more nuanced conversation than I realize.

That’s another trivial thing to say, but we have to be on the right side of history here. Can this be an opportunity for a large percentage of this country to really work to improve the system and the structures, from the highest levels of show business and corporate America, through working class America, down to how sex education is taught in schools? There are so many levels to this – those of us who want to be on the right side of history have to put in the work to rebuild those systems.

You ask repeatedly in the documentary, “Who is Bill Cosby now?” Did you come to a conclusion yourself?

Someone who has always taught us about America and still teaches us about America, even if it’s in a way he doesn’t want to. And it is very important for us to learn all lessons from Bill Cosby if we really want to be a better society.

Also embedded in this, and it’s hard to tell, but in a larger context: [Cosby is] one of the defining figures of black America and of 20th century America. And one of the greatest comedians of all time. And the creator of one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. And, throughout his career, an advocate of black excellence. But if you want to engage with that, you have to engage with the other things.

Cosby was released from prison before you finished the documentary. How did his release change things?

I didn’t want that, but it gave him a more immediate feel – it’s an active situation again. He is in the world again, which means all defenders are in the world again and feel emboldened. So it feels both more important to tell this story and scary to tell this story, because people are invested in protecting it.

The most valuable conversation for me isn’t the movie – it’s the conversation we all have after seeing the movie. No matter what you think of the Bill Cosby story, it is essential that we create a society that treats victims of sexual assault better.


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