'We Need to Talk About Cosby' Director W. Kamau Bell Explains Why Fans Need to Reevaluate Their Idols


W. Kamau Bell understood the complicated task he was taking on by making a documentary exploring the thorny cultural legacy of Bill Cosby. “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” a four-part series directed by Bell, premiered at this year’s virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival. In it, Bell stages a candid conversation about the now-disgraced actor and comedian, interviewing a number of Cosby’s accusers and reckoning with the entertainer’s once undeniable stature as a pop culture patriarch and a pioneer for Black people in Hollywood and beyond.

Other seemingly damning deep-dives into the controversial lives of Black icons, like Michael Jackson (“Finding Neverland”) and Russell Simmons (“On the Record”), had been met with negative attention swelling to the level of vitriol, particularly from other Black people. Despite the potential for controversy, Bell decided to try to find a way to address Cosby.

“We don’t have enough role models. Representation has not always been kind to Black folks in this country,” Bell told Variety senior entertainment writer Angelique Jackson in the Variety Virtual Sundance Studio presented by Audible, explaining one reason these conversations have been particularly divisive within the community.

“Sometimes we feel like we get one [icon] at a time. Right now, it’s great to see all these Black actors saying, ‘I don’t want to be the next Denzel Washington.’ And it’s great to hear Denzel even go, ‘Don’t look for the next Denzel Washington…’We always feel like we were lucky to get one,” Bell explained. “So the fact is, even if our ‘one’ becomes revealed to be imperfect — or, worse, a criminal — we still feel like we need to hold on to that one, especially when that one was as culturally iconic and heroic to us as Bill Cosby.”

As it stands today, Cosby’s reputation is largely in shambles. In 2018, the actor and comedian was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his Philadelphia home in 2004. He had been arrested just days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired on newly unsealed evidence. After a judge first allowed only one other accuser to testify against Cosby at a trial in 2017, five other accusers were allowed to testify about similar allegations to Constand’s at a 2018 retrial, which resulted in Cosby’s conviction. However, in June 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the testimony at the trial was tainted, even though a lower court found that he demonstrated a pattern of drugging and molesting women. Cosby was subsequently released from prison — a development that occurred while Bell was in the process of wrapping up filming on the project.

“I do believe those women,” Bell affirmed, noting how fearful many survivors were to share their stories with him for the doc. In fact, many people who were in Cosby’s orbit or who’d generally comment on this type of topic declined.

“If I stack the number of ‘No’s’ next to the number of ‘Yeses’, the ‘No’s’ dwarfed the ‘Yeses,” he quipped. But the hesitancy to comment on Cosby really didn’t surprise him.

“We’re [only] having parts of this conversation when it comes up or [we have it] with our trusted people who we think aren’t going to, like, sell us out on the internet. It’s not like nobody’s had this conversation before, but there’s a reluctance to have it in a public way… It’s a hornet’s nest [because] Cosby was such an all-encompassing figure.”

Since Cosby’s arrest, the legacy of the projects he fronted (especially “The Cosby Show”) have also come into question — with audiences grappling with whether or not its possible to separate the art from the artist.

“We have to be clear that [one person’s] line is not everybody else’s line,” Bell continued. “If you want to take in Bill Cosby and watch the bulk of ‘The Cosby Show’ or listen to the albums, that’s fine. But you can’t expect everybody else to have the same tolerance for that that you do. I have to be sensitive to the fact that my line is not where your line is… Let’s create a safer, healthier world.”

Bell pointed to “Surviving R. Kelly” as one of the primary inspirations for him to take on the complicated case of Cosby. The Lifetime documentary series premiered in 2019, providing a detailed look into the decades of allegations of sexual abuse against the singer.

“The thing I learned from [‘Surviving R. Kelly’] is to let these women talk,” Bell explained. “Some interviews went longer, because we had more questions because they had more to say. I think they felt like [they’d] never been able to talk about like this. The other thing I’ve learned is [to not] show up for somebody’s sad story and go ‘Tell me what happened on the night that the incident happened.’ You actually have to talk to people. You have to warm up with people and let them gain trust… If you actually treat them like whole people, you will get a much bigger story.”

Bell also argued that the necessity to reevaluate Cosby extends far beyond the disgraced comedian.

“As much as this film is called, ‘We Need to Talk about Cosby, it’s also we need to talk about rape culture. We need to talk America’s approach to talking to teaching and talking about sex, intimate relationships and partner violence. We need to talk about sex education in public schools, just a whole bunch of stuff,” he commented. “Bill Cosby is the inroads into that conversation.”

Through the series, Bell also articulates a more general interrogation of how people should think of public figures, both in terms of holding people accountable for their abusive actions, but also affirming the importance of allowing these difficult conversations to be had in the first place.

“We need to talk about heroes,” Bell said. “We need to really back off of the idea that because a person does good work that they are good… Let’s talk about ways in which showbiz needs to be responsible for creating a safer work environment. I’ve said this many times before, but like when they first built Hollywood, they didn’t start with the with the HR department.”

Watch the full conversation in the video above.