Seven months after his unexpected release from prison, it’s time to talk about Bill Cosby … and W. Kamau Bell has plenty to say. Following its premiere at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, the comedian’s four-part series, We Need to Talk About Cosby, is premiering Jan. 30 on Showtime. It’s a project that Bell spent years carefully putting together — under the working title, Project Albert, a reference to Cosby’s seminal cartoon series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids — and wasn’t certain he’d ever finish.
“I thought: ‘Maybe this is just going to go away, because it’s so challenging,” Bell tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “And then he got out of prison and it felt like: ‘Oh, maybe it should go away.’ It’s hard to engage with.”
Certainly, Bell has already experienced the perils of engaging with the big questions surrounding Cosby’s legacy since his conviction on sexual assault charges in 2018. (He was released in June 2021 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his conviction.) In the wake of We Need to Talk About Cosby‘s Sundance premiere, Cosby’s representatives released a scathing press statement that called Bell a “PR hack” and defended the pioneering comedian and actor behind I Spy and The Cosby Show. “Mr. Cosby vehemently denies all allegations waged against him. Let’s talk about Bill Cosby. He wants our nation to be what it proclaims itself to be: a democracy.”
But Bell isn’t backing down from the conversation his series is about to start. Featuring a wealth of interviews with historians, comedians, actors and accusers, We Need to Talk About Cosby traces the full arc of Cosby’s career, covering what Bell calls the “good things” and also the “stuff that’s not good.” The director also reckons with his own history as a “Cosby kid,” one who grew up on Fat Albert and The Cosby Show before being forced to confront Cosby’s misdeeds after fellow comedian, Hannibal Buress, called them out in a viral 2014 video.
“When you’re a comedian that the press is just discovering, they say, ‘Who are the comedians you grew up enjoying?'” Bell remembers. “I’d have to think: ‘If I say Bill Cosby it looks like I’m ignoring all these stories. If I don’t say Bill Cosby, I feel like I’m lying.’ So I started to say, ‘The artist formally known as Bill Cosby.’ But when you talk about such heinous accusations it seems so mealy-mouthed to not come out in support of these survivors. A lot of us just didn’t know how to enter this [conversation], and if you’re Black, it’s an even harder space to enter.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Bell discusses why he has little patience for engaging with Cosby supporters’ “conspiracy theories,” the comedian’s late-in-life tilt towards conservative politics and why it’s appropriate that the “boys will be boys” culture that enabled longtime friends Cosby and Hugh Hefner’s misdeeds is finally being exposed.
You mention in the documentary that you know Hannibal Buress from the comedy world. Did you ask him to talk about his experience on camera?
I let Hannibal know we were doing it because it felt like the responsible thing to do, and I gave him an open invitation [to appear]. But Hannibal’s always been very clear that it’s not something he wanted to talk about. He didn’t do this joke as a Trojan horse to take down Bill Cosby — I think he was as surprised as anybody that it ended up making us all have to confront this. A lot of people with sinister ideas think that Hannibal did it on purpose, but I think part of the perfect storm of this was that you never saw it coming from him.
He’s a Black male comedian, but he’s not generally doing jokes like that. And if you watch the way the jokes are framed, it’s not cleanly done. He was doing a couple punchlines [about Cosby], and then he realized the crowd is not really one hundred percent with him, which I think he was surprised by. So he said, “When you go home, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.'” That was a homework assignment that a lot of us did, including someone like me who had heard these stories before, but hadn’t been forced to reckon with them in the way that Hannibal’s joke really challenged me to.
The other thing is that there’s somebody in the back with a cell phone camera, which wasn’t as common then as it is now. And that person put it up and it goes viral. I tried to create space for him [in the documentary], and I’m sure he will be asked about it. I don’t want it to be burdensome to him, but you have to tell that part of the story.
Another person who doesn’t appear in the documentary isn’t a specific individual per se, but rather the voice of an unabashed Cosby defender. Did you consider interviewing someone who had espoused those feelings?
I was more interested in speaking with people who were conflicted, and people who had arrived to their own version of believing [the allegations] in different ways. Some people heard these stories and believed them [right away]. Then there are people like Joseph C. Phillips who worked on The Cosby Show and came to [believe] slowly over time because they knew women who were assaulted or raped.
Anytime I thought about bringing in some of the more full-throated defenders, I realized there’s just bad faith conversations out there that I like to steer clear of in my life. It’s like if you want to talk about the [COVID-19] vaccines and whether they’re good, I don’t think you bring a conspiracy theorist into that conversation who says, “I don’t want to get it because it’s going to make me magnetic.” It just pulls the conversation in a different way!
It’s like the thing happening with critical race theory right now — the reason why we can’t arrive at a good place with that is because some people are bad faith actors in that conversation. They’re trying to distract and destroy; they’re not trying to build to a productive conversation. I think everybody has different levels of beliefs … and I’m of the opinion that I have seen enough evidence that I believe these accusers. And having sat with them, it only makes me believe them more.
Why would you lie when it only is going to bring you pain and verbal attacks or threat of physical attacks? Some of his defenders will say, “They’re being paid under the table.” But even with Andrea Constand — who got millions in her civil suit — it ain’t the kind of money where you just go away, buy an island and disappear. I think when people want [to believe] in conspiracy theories, it says to me that you’re distracted from just looking at the truth.
Money often seems to be a recurring theme in those kinds of arguments — they dismiss the charges because they see money changing hands.
To me, money is just a feature of how the justice system in America is broken, and how the burden of proof in civic trials is lower than the burden of proof in legal trials. Look at the O.J. Simpson case: He was found not guilty of murdering those two people, but in the civic trial, he was found guilty and was supposed to pay some $25 million. This is all about remedies for a broken justice system. I’m sure anybody who has gotten money for a civic trial for being raped or sexually assaulted would give it all back to make the whole thing not have happened.
One of the most fascinating parts of the series is where you track Cosby’s tilt towards conservatism in the early 2000s, and how his comments were often celebrated in right-wing circles.
One of my favorite responses when we talk about what you’re referring to — the Pound Cake speech at the 2004 NAACP celebration of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education — is [former Cosby co-star] Doug E. Doug saying: “My first reaction is it sounds like every older Black man I know!” [Laughs] There’s a certain amount of conservatism that sinks into older people, and that’s true across racial lines. It’s like: “I did all this work for you, and you’re not respecting it, so now I’m mad at you.” I think some of that is maybe just the natural evolution that often affects humans: There’s a pull towards conservatism as we get older.
I think that speech [revealed] more of his politics than he had spoken out about before, and he was just tired, as an older person, of holding it in. There’s also a lot going on in his life at that time: When he gives the pound cake speech in 2004, his son had been murdered a few years before. I can’t imagine what it is to go through that, so I have empathy for that situation.
Earlier in the series, it’s noted that when Cosby started his comedy career in the 1960s, he deliberately avoided discussing Civil Rights to be able to play rooms he might not otherwise get booked in. Do you think his move towards conservatism later on was financially-motivated or did he really believe in what he was saying?
I do know that after the Pound Cake speech became a big national story, he certainly turned it into a career move. He released a book and would go around the country and do these call-outs. So at that point he turned it into a new phase of his career, but I don’t know if it was intentional. Certainly Black people like me did not like it, and felt betrayed by it. But a lot of other Black people appreciated the bracing scrub brush that he used. I think that’s ultimately part of the stew that went into Hannibal’s jokes: You’re calling out young Black men and telling them to pull up their pants, and yet there’s these stories of you raping and sexually assaulting women. The hypocrisy was too much to bear.
It’s certainly not lost on me that celebrities like Donald Trump have found success by appealing to conservative circles later in life. Had he not been tried and convicted, is there a world in which Cosby might have run for office?
I mean, he was starting to get to be an older man at that point! By the time the Pound Cake speech happens, he’s close to 70. Although we have elected officials now in office that are older than that! [Laughs] He’s also still a very rich man. Even though Trump claims to be a billionaire, Cosby probably has more money than Trump if you count it up. One thing Cosby has always seemed to prioritize is doing whatever he wants when he wants to. Despite how Trump did it, being in public office is hard and stressful and you have to get up early and stay up late. And for Cosby, all of this was about maintaining a level of fame and fortune and celebrity and everything that goes with it. I don’t see that leading to public office.
You cover a lot of historical ground in each episode, but you also also ensure that each of his accusers have plenty of time to tell their stories.
Our editors are really the unsung heroes of the series. I always talked about how we have to let people know that no matter what we’re talking about, the other shoe is going to drop. We can’t let people think that we’ve forgotten about the other side of the story. The first episode was the most challenging one, because we hadn’t really earned the audience’s trust yet. But by the time we get to Victoria Valentino‘s story in that episode that’s when your stomach falls, because you meet her not as a survivor, but as somebody who is an expert in the culture of Playboy.
Speaking of Playboy, We Need to Talk is coming out at the same time as A&E’s Secrets of Playboy docuseries. Is it kismet that the bad behavior of both of those men is being exposed at the same time?
Well, they certainly were very good friends for a long period of time and both of their brands helped each other. It’s funny to think about Cosby as a family-friendly comedian who was also hanging out at the Playboy mansion. Cosby’s brand cleaned up Hugh Hefner, and made him seem like less of a dirty magazine seller. And Hefner’s brand also makes Cosby by connecting him to hipness and youngness. Also, those parties at the Playboy mansion are legendary and we’ve learned a lot of disturbing things about those parties. It was a playground for the kind of men who wanted to be in that kind of playground in that “boys will be boys” culture, especially in that era of Hollywood.
I’m just happy that more of these documentaries are being made because the thing that our doc wants to do is make people realize that we, as a society, don’t do a good job dealing with survivors of sexual assault and rape, specifically in Hollywood. We need to create a new system where if you are raped or sexually assaulted, you feel invited to tell your story and know exactly where to go to get support, healing and some measure of justice … and are not blamed for the actions of a rapist or sexual assaulter.
Hollywood’s all about where you are on the call sheet. If you’re No. 1 on the call sheet, you have the most power, the most privilege and the most access to what you want. That can be “I want a double mocha,” but it can sometimes be more sinister things than coffee orders. And the problem is the person at the bottom of the call sheet sees the person at the top doing something they think is wrong and they feel there’s no place for them to go where they’re not going to be blamed or face the business end of the consequences.
And it’s not always about crime necessarily. There are all these stories coming out about Joss Whedon, who apparently was being a jerk to A-list actors [like Gal Gadot] and also Ray Fisher, who is not an A-list actor and has no mechanism to say, “Who do I tell that this is happening?” There needs to be ways to address systemic dysfunction and criminality in the moment where the person who is saying “I need help,” gets help and doesn’t get shamed or fired.
Some of the most damning interviews in the film are with people who worked on The Cosby Show and claimed not to know what was happening on set. Did you believe them when they said they didn’t know or were they conveniently looking the other way?
I understand how showbiz works, and here’s what I know … the whole system has acculturated people to look the other way. A lot of what Cosby was doing was filed under infidelity, and if you’re in showbiz and you don’t like infidelity, get out of showbiz! [Laughs] There was a sense of: “Let him do what he’s doing — we’re all making money, and we’re all doing good.” That led people to believe it’s none of their business instead of looking clearly at it and going, “What’s happening over there? I need to tell somebody.” So the fault is the systems that are in place. No matter how many individual bad men we remove from it, the system’s going to be the same. Bill Cosby is just the inroad into this conversation; there’s also Harvey Weinstein and many others you could bring up.
Since Cosby’s release from prison in June, he’s talked about going on tour again. Do you see that happening?
I mean, he’s 85 years old. That is not when comedians normally go on tour! [Laughs] I’ve also heard that they stopped talking about the tour because he’s got two civic trials against him. I’m sure there are venues in this country that would host him because that’s the kind of country we live in, and they’re free to do that and free to deal with who shows up. But he’s not going to have access to the kind of mechanisms of showbiz that he had access to before. Based on my social media feed, I believe somebody would show up.
He’s also spoken about feeling “vindicated,” even though his release was owed more to a legal technicality. How do we talk about his release going forward so his version of events doesn’t dominate the discourse?
IWhen Cosby got out of prison, I talked to Michael Coard, who is a lawyer in Philadelphia, and one of the things he said was that it’s not a technicality. There was a deal that Cosby struck with the prosecutor at one point, which said: “You can say whatever you want to say, and we will not use this against you.” The reason why he got out of prison is because that prosecutor got voted out of office, and the next one turned the deal over. Legally, that’s not cool. It’s not a technicality, and it’s not exoneration: It was because of backroom dealings that shouldn’t have been done and the deal got violated. As Michael succinctly says in the film, “It’s a good decision for a bad man.”
Now, the thing we also have to talk about is if Bill Cosby was just William Cosby from North Philly who worked at a machine shop — that guy does not have the money, privilege and power to get the deal in the first place or to get justice when the deal is violated! So again the system is wrong and the system is racist, but if you have power and privilege, you can balance those scales in a way that most Black people in this country cannot.
But the thing that really struck with me — and we put it in the doc — is the part of Cosby’s deposition, where he’s talking about Andrea Constand and how he had sex with her from his perspective. He said, “I enter the area between permission and rejection and I am not stopped.” He’s talking about a woman who’s passed out or who is at least on drugs that he has given her. There’s no area between permission and rejection, and I think that’s a really powerful piece of evidence against Cosby that I hadn’t really seen in that way. To me that’s game, set and match because he’s admitted it. So when we talk about this, talk about what he said.
We Need to Talk About Cosby premieres Sunday, Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.