This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: For fifty years, Bill Cosby was America’s Dad, a trailblazer for Black culture on film and television, and comedy. I Spy, The Electric Company, The Cosby Show: All pioneering examples of Black excellence and a guiding light to generations of Black people who yearned to see themselves depicted on screen with grace and intelligence. And then, we learned about the man under those comfy sweaters: someone with credible accusations of sexual assault and rape of dozens of women.
For standup comedian W. Kamau Bell, and many Black people across America who’d grown up revering Cosby, those accusations were a tough pill to swallow. What do you do when a man whom you’d idolized, someone who carries seismic importance to visibility and excellence in the Black community, shows this other side of them. “Who is Bill Cosby…. now?” he asks.
Over the course of four hour-long episodes, Bell seeks to answer that question, with the help of journalists, scholars, some of Cosby’s friends and castmates, and — most importantly — first-person accounts from several of the hauntingly large number of women who’ve accused Cosby of sexual assault.
I Am a Child of Bill Cosby: It’s more than a little strange to see this documentary now, especially in the wake of Cosby’s recent release from prison after his 2018 conviction for aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, after a due process technicality forced the Supreme Court to vacate his conviction. But the doc knows that; one of its greatest strengths is that it doesn’t know the answers to its questions, and would prefer to live in that squicky middle-ground between admiration and revulsion that most people exist in, now knowing who he is. Scratch that: Who he always was.
Instead, We Need to Talk About Cosby acts as an examination of the two sides the man exuded: hero and villain, man and monster, icon and predator. The first three episodes of the docuseries tackle a different phase of Cosby’s lengthy career — his early rise in the world of standup to his TV stardom in I Spy; the death of MLK driving him to become an activist and childhood educator, albeit only on TV; the all-encompassing success of The Cosby Show.
Along the way, Bell interviews a bevy of experts both white and Black, from Cosby costar Doug E. Doug to journalist Jemele Hill to sex therapists and lawyers galore, to elucidate the impact Cosby had on the pop culture landscape.
Cosby Was LIke Our North Star: For all the barriers he broke (paving the way for Black stuntmen, building an education apparatus for Black children to make up for an inadequate, white-centric education system), Bell’s doc establishes early that there was a different Cosby behind the scenes. In fact, We Need to Talk About Cosby posits that so much of Cosby’s humanitarian work, from donating scores of money to HBCUs to his public persona as the squeaky-clean Black comedian, was a smokescreen to lend his predation of women (usually with the help of Quaaludes and other drugs) some plausible deniability.
Then again, Cosby establishes early how the man’s rise to fame came in an era when patriarchy and chauvinism were king: He was a close friend of Hugh Hefner and spent many a night performing at The Playboy Club. He grew up around (and many many poorly-aged bits about) the ’70s horndog fascination with Spanish Fly, joking and bragging about it right up to the ’90s with Larry King.