‘We Need to Talk About Cosby.’ (Among others.)
By James Poniewozik
There is a simple, amazing thing that W. Kamau Bell does in his Showtime documentary series, “We Need to Talk About Cosby.” While interviewing subjects about the comedian and actor accused of multiple rapes, Bell has them watch scenes of Cosby’s performances on a tablet.
Not a monitor on the set. Not a flat-screen on the wall. The interviewees — entertainers, experts, women who have accused Cosby of sexual abuse — hold a small screen in their laps. The device makes them turn their faces downward, lighting up at warm childhood memories or registering disgust at punchlines that now ring horrific.
It’s a small gesture, but it’s important. You have to hold in your head what you know about Bill Cosby the man. And you have to hold literally in your hand what you know about Bill Cosby’s work.
It is intimate, as art inherently is. Something came out of the artist’s mind and went into yours. At best, this is a transcendent experience. At worst — at the moment with Cosby — it can be unsettling, dissonant, sickening.
Bell’s series, airing in four parts on Sundays on Showtime and streaming in full online, uses a straight chronological structure to consider, side by side, the arc of Cosby’s career, his particular importance to Black Americans and the stories of the many women who have reported being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby over decades.
(In 2018, Cosby was convicted of sexual assault. His conviction was overturned in 2021 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled that prosecutors had reneged on an agreement not to charge him after a deposition in a civil suit, in which he had admitted giving women quaaludes in an effort to have sex with them.)
The series is outstanding enough for how it contextualizes Cosby’s legacy, especially for Black America, and the charges against him, which Cosby denies. Bell grew up with Cosby — “I was raised by Fat Albert” — but he also has a sharp critic’s eye as a performer himself. Analyzing the famous lip sync of Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is the Right Time” from “The Cosby Show,” for instance, Bell notes how it specifically spoke to Black Americans by having the Huxtable family perform to the grandparents on the set, rather than toward the home audience through the camera.
And in interviews with numerous Cosby accusers, the series offers harrowing accounts of how Cosby leveraged his trust and moral authority — as a groundbreaking comic, pop-cultural educator and TV father figure — both to bully people professionally and to cover for, as they describe it, the acts of a predator.
But it’s in bringing the two sides together that “We Need to Talk About Cosby” does something too rare in cases such as this. It holds Cosby’s achievements and his wrongs close, and it recognizes that there may be unresolvable dissonance between the two.
Too often, the public conversation around Cosby — and around other artists who have fallen into various forms of disgrace — labors to fix these contradictions. We turn them into morality-play debates, such as “Should you still watch ‘The Cosby Show’ (or read ‘Harry Potter,’ or see Woody Allen’s movies, or laugh at Dave Chappelle’s or Louis C.K.’s standup, or … )?” The question shunts the ethical burden of an artist’s words or deeds onto the audience.
One ham-handed way of resolving the tension is by insisting that people “separate the art from the artist,” an especially bizarre request given how many such artists rely on associating their creations with their personas. (Cosby made little distinction between himself and Cliff Huxtable.) The biographical Michael Jackson musical “MJ” takes this to an extreme, ignoring the charges that Jackson molested children, separating the artist from the allegations.
Another way is to retrofit your view of the work to match what you now know about the artist. Maybe the work becomes a kind of crime scene, full of clues and confessions we might have seen earlier, if only we had known to look. (There is some of this in Bell’s documentary, which brings up Cosby’s much-noted fixation on aphrodisiac drugs in his standup and TV comedy.)
Or maybe the art must be retroactively downgraded. A work that we once erroneously believed to be good — because we were misguided or taken in by a bad actor — is revealed to have been tainted all along with hackery and hidden self-justifications. The dissonance is resolved. The bad person simply made a bad thing.
Appreciating art, especially narrative art, requires a moral sensibility. It’s what allows you to distinguish good behavior from bad, to orient yourself in a fictional world’s moral universe. And we live in a moralistic time, when many audiences don’t want to see daylight between the text of a work and the beliefs of its creator.
So it’s tempting to believe that only good people create good art — and to be disturbed that you, a good person, have connected in some way with the creation of someone who turns out to be a monster. Who wants to be a sucker, a victim, an accomplice?
It may be even more disturbing to acknowledge not only that a bad person created a great work but also that the work can’t be neatly isolated from the creator’s worst aspects. We each harbor within us good and bad impulses, which hopefully most of us master in favor of good but which every artist, however moral or immoral, draws on to create.
Throughout the series, Bell employs the idea of “the Cosby we knew” versus the Cosby we didn’t. In a closing monologue, he says: “There were times when I was making this show that I wanted to quit. I wanted to hold on to my memories of Bill Cosby before I knew about Bill Cosby. I guess I can — as long as I admit, as long as we all admit, that there’s a Bill Cosby we didn’t know.”
This Jekyll-and-Hyde division makes sense as a rhetorical device, a way of talking about the good that can be acknowledged in people and the evil that must be deplored in them. But as Bell’s wise documentary also makes clear, there wasn’t really one Bill Cosby and another secret one. There isn’t a good Cosby and a bad Cosby, whom we can store in different mental compartments. There is just Bill Cosby, about whom we didn’t know enough and now know dreadfully more. In the end, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are always the same guy.