We Need To Talk About Cosby Says As Much About Us As It Does The Monster

Welcome to “What’s Good,” where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy.
Photo: courtesy of Showtime.
What’s Good? It doesn’t feel right to call Showtime’s four-part documentary series We Need To Talk About Cosby “good” considering it is a horrifying, unrelenting, frank reminder that the man we grew up idolizing is in fact a monster who used his power and status to rape multiple women (allegedly — Cosby has denied all allegations; he was convicted of sexual assault but the ruling was overturned in 2021).  But that’s exactly why it’s so good. Director W. Kamau Bell declares himself a “child of Bill Cosby” early in the first episode and if you grew up in a Black house where The Cosby Show was as ubiquitous as that one comforter every Black family inexplicably had, that descriptor hits. Cosby was “America’s Dad” and the parasocial paternal relationship he had with his audience is exactly how he was able to hide in plain sight. There’s no separating the art from the artist because Cosby’s art was the bait he used to gain the trust of his alleged victims and the anchor on which he bet on their silence. 
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As Bell said  in an interview with The Daily Beast, “It’s not an accident that Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby wore the same sweaters. He is trying to blur that line.” The line was always blurred between Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby, but the truth is that every artist is intrinsically linked to their art. There is no separation. Not for R.Kelly, or Michael Jackson, or Russell Simmons, or Kevin Spacey, or JK Rowling, or… I could go on. And what’s so good about We Need To Talk About Cosby is that it articulates the harm of trying to compartmentalize good pop culture from the bad person who created it.

What’s so good about We Need To Talk About Cosby is that it articulates the harm of trying to compartmentalize good pop culture from the bad person who created it.

kathleen newman-bremang
This documentary series gives a nuanced understanding of what happens when we build heroes out of heinous humans and even though it’s uncomfortable to reckon with, Bell charts the complicity we all share when we declare someone unimpeachable just because they are good at their jobs. Or because they were Black and exceptional. Talking about the wrongdoings of famous people (yes, even beloved Black celebrities), no matter how much their work meant to our childhoods, isn’t just good, it’s essential.  
Who It’s Good For: We Need To Talk About Cosby is for anyone, like me, who had an emotional attachment to the myth that was Cliff Huxtable, and (by proxy and on purpose) Bill Cosby. The Cosby Show was technically before my time. The show premiered before I was born and I missed its original eight-season run from 1984 to 1992 because the only things I watched then involved a purple dinosaur or a terrifying kangaroo wearing polka dots (real ones know). But the Huxtables didn’t go away in 1992.
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I was born into a world where the Huxtables were already family — especially if you were Black, middle class, and raised in the suburbs. They weren’t just a group of fictional characters on TV. They were a reflection of our existence. They were a validation and a reclamation of our humanity. My dad was a doctor like Cliff, my mom a professional like Clair. The racist white people who lived on our street actually called us “The Cosbys,” not “The Huxtables.” My parents didn’t love the nickname, but I didn’t mind it. Being compared to Bill Cosby and his family was a compliment, right? It meant we were good, upstanding Black folk.
Watching re-runs of The Cosby Show only deepened the pride I felt in the association. The TV show was this shiny beacon of progress and the script from which my family’s value seem to be based. As long as it existed, we were seen and understood. Our neighbors may have been ignorant, but as long as we were “The Cosbys,” they wouldn’t hurt us, right? Now I know how misguided and reliant on white validation this all was, but when you’re raised by Bill Cosby, it’s easy to get caught up in keeping up appearances. 
Watching Bell contextualize Cosby’s popularity and importance as a Black cultural figure while also describing in detail (told by Cosby’s accusers) the way he leveraged his wholesome image to drug and allegedly assault women is hard to digest. I watched most of it through tears. It’s uncomfortable and uncompromising. Even though we’ve known about the allegations for years, seen the headlines, and heard all the jokes, watching Cosby’s triumphs beside his transgressions is brutal — especially because there is no way to let ourselves off the hook. There is a system in place that allowed Cosby to do what he did and for as long as he did. If you believe his accusers, and I do, it’s clear that he thought he was invincible and on many levels, he was. He was Cliff Huxtable, the most respected, loveable, trusted dad in America. And he was Black. At every turn, he tricked us into thinking Bill Cosby was the same, and deserved the same respect, love, and trust. And we bought it. What Bell and his various cultural commentators and interview subjects do so well is force us to reckon with the juxtaposition of Bill Cosby the performer, and Bill Cosby the predator. But as the New York Times notes, they are one and the same. “There isn’t a good Cosby and a bad Cosby, whom we can store in different mental compartments,” James Poniewozik writes. “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.”
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We Need To Talk About Cosby is for the children of Cosby, but it’s also a case study in celebrity and, as Buzzfeed’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud notes “the blueprint for how we reflect on horrible people who once gave us joy before we discovered their evil.” It’s for anyone who has ever held a celebrity on a pedestal. We all need the reminder that no one — absolutely no one — should be above reproach. 

The line was always blurred between Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby, but the truth is that every artist is intrinsically linked to their art. There is no separation.

KATHLEEN NEWMAN-BREMANG
How Good Is It? It’s important that a Black man is the one at the helm of this series. Bell knows the risk he took in taking on this topic. It’s so risky, multiple people he asked to be subjects turned him down. “I think they don’t want to engage in this for the same reason that a lot of people don’t want to engage with this,” Bell explained of the rejections. “It’s divisive, no matter how nuanced you try to be.” So much of that nuance lies in Cosby’s stature as a Black elder in Hollywood. And it’s why there are still many Black Cosby supporters. Just look at the comment sections of every article written about this series. There are still people who think 60 women (SIXTY) are lying and who equate Cosby’s public fall from grace to a “lynching.” What about the white abusers? They’ll say. Where’s the documentary on Jeffrey Epstein? First of all, there are several. And defending Cosby by pointing out that white men have also done reprehensible shit is actually not a defense at all. It’s just asking us to ignore his actions because he’s Black, but if we do that, we are subscribing to the same monolithic thinking that Cosby actually railed against his whole career. Not all Black people are the stereotypes The Cosby Show worked to render obsolete. Not all Black men are rapists because Cosby allegedly is one. I’m more concerned about the survivors, many of whom are Black (despite Cosby defenders falsely claiming that his accusers are only white women). We should be afraid for them, and R.Kelly’s victims, and Russell Simmons’ accusers, and so many other Black women who are consistently abused by men and failed by a system designed to protect their perpetrators. I care more about them than a man who built a fortune by swindling people into thinking he was something he wasn’t. No one is “tearing down a Black man” by telling the truth about Bill Cosby.
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We Need To Talk About Cosby is so good because it grapples with all of this and it has Black folks speaking to the complexity of Cosby’s legacy. The best thing it does though is prove that it’s not that complicated at all. It’s actually very simple to believe women and not to afford bad men the power and opportunity to hurt people without consequences. It’s not hard to stop allowing Black Excellence to act as an excuse to stop holding people accountable. I don’t want to live in a world where “excellence” can overrule the safety and existence of survivors. Celebrity shouldn’t be a shield from real world repercussions. And we shouldn’t be looking to Black celebrities to solve any systemic injustices because the truth is, they can easily be the ones upholding them. 
If we don’t allow artists’ behavior to taint their work, we are saying that the work matters more than their actions. And that just can’t be true. Art isn’t made in a vacuum. And if art affords you power, how you use that power should be a direct reflection of your art. We Need To Talk About Cosby lays this all out so clearly and allows us the chance to admit that we were wrong. We were wrong about Bill Cosby. It’s okay to say that out loud. 
When Cosby’s allegations first resurfaced, I was still holding on to my childhood memories of The Cosby Show. I even wrote a blog post (that I can’t find thankfully because the thought of it makes me cringe) about how we should still be able to watch the series and not negate its importance in the wake of these horrible revelations. I didn’t defend Cosby, but I defended his work. We Need To Talk About Cosby explains why you can’t do one without the other. And why it’s always been time to let go of both.
I’ll leave you with one of the lines in the doc that should sum up Cosby’s legacy .Bell asks his interview subjects a simple question: Who Is Bill Cosby? The best answer: “He’s a rapist who had a really big TV show once.”

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