We Need to Talk about Cosby opened with a question: “Who is Bill Cosby… now?” The ellipses alluding to the complexity of a man who was once known as “America’s Dad”.

In response, interviewees grimaced or sighed in exasperation. “One of the most successful comics in history,” one offered. “He was someone to believe in and someone to trust,” said another. “One of the biggest predators in Hollywood,” nodded a third.

This four-part documentary from writer and director W Kamau Bell attempts to dissect Bill Cosby’s legacy, which encompasses both enormous cultural significance and more than 60 allegations of sexual assault (and one conviction, overturned in 2021).

It is a personal story for Bell, who describes himself as “a child of Bill Cosby,” meaning that he is a 1970s-born, Black male stand-up comic, raised on Cosby’s prolific output. Even if you didn’t know Bill Cosby personally, the opening episode of the documentary emphasised, many felt as though they did. What happens when everything you thought you knew to be true about the man falls apart?

For British audiences, whose references may be limited to The Cosby Show, this episode provided context for the stratospheric rise of a cultural icon.

From the off, Bell established that what made Cosby such a success – his likeability – was both a construct and rooted in uncomfortable truths. Cosby’s early stand-up career saw him eschew material on race and politics in order to appeal to white gatekeepers and audiences alike. But his apparent apathy was not the whole picture: his palatability secured him his first lead TV role on the series I Spy, in which his suave secret agent counteracted appalling Black stereotypes. Behind the scenes, he used his influence to fight for Black stunt coordinators. Here lies just some of the evidence for why his fall from grace was crushing for so many.

But as Bell presents, any progressive good done by Cosby was accompanied by truly terrible accusations of abuse of power that stretched the entirety of his career. A timeline illustrated that allegations against him date from the early 1960s, and each step he made towards the betterment of representation for Black Americans is now tainted.

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There were more red flags than people were willing to admit, argues the film. This episode spent a significant time exploring the rife misogyny of Hollywood – a world of Bond girls, Playboy and “boys will be boys” mentality that normalised the sexualisation of women and muddied the meaning of “family friendly”. In particular, Bell highlighted a 1969 routine on “Spanish Fly”, a supposed natural aphrodisiac that famed family man Cosby joked about using on unsuspecting women, and continued to joke about for several decades.

The cohort of interviewees – academics, writers, actors and comedians, many of whom knew or worked with Cosby – were, without exception, engaging and candid as they wrestled with the knottiest of issues. The testimony of survivors was handled sensitively. Former Playmate Victoria Valentino’s account of being drugged and raped by Cosby, just weeks after the tragic death of her young son, harrowingly illustrated exactly how Cosby wielded his carefully curated veneer of respectability as a weapon against women.

There are no easy answers here when it comes to appraising Cosby’s cultural status in 2023. But Bell has created a space in which multiple voices and opinions co-exist (even within the same person) without being prescriptive about how his audience should feel. We Need to Talk about Cosby is by no means the final word in a chilling and challenging conversation that will and should continue.

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