W. Kamau Bell steps on the third rail with Cosby doc

W. Kamau Bell.

(Lauren Segal / For The Times)

W. Kamau Bell claims that he isn’t tired of talking about Bill Cosby, though you could easily understand it if he was.

With “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” a four-part documentary series that premiered on Showtime earlier this year, Bell convened a group of cultural critics, comedians and survivors of sexual assault to work through their complicated feelings about the pioneering Black entertainer who was imprisoned for a sexual assault conviction that was later overturned. About 60 women have accused him of rape and other crimes. Cosby maintains his innocence.

Though the Bill Cosby story could presumably be told as a showbiz saga, a dissertation on race and mass media, or a decades-long search for justice, Bell chose to frame it as a messy, searching conversation.

“The story of America and sexual assault is clearly an ongoing story,” Bell says, speaking by phone from his home in Oakland. “The way that America takes sides, and how powerful men are often looked at as the victims, is an ongoing story. So for me, all this stuff is the opening of a conversation, but not the work of actually changing laws and creating new mechanisms of justice.”

Bell, a comedian, essayist and TV host best known for the Emmy-winning CNN series “United Shades of America,” says that this approach is his trademark. “In all my [projects]it’s about having the conversation so we can get to the work.”

When Bell started recruiting participants for the project, Cosby was in prison and Bell discussed that many would be eager to both his career and his alleged crimes. But many of Bell’s requests were turned down.

“In this era, if someone wants to speak out for or against Bill Cosby, they can do it on their own social media,” Bell says. “They don’t need to come to me. In many ways, this is still a third-rail conversation. And if you’re a Black entertainer, there are multiple third rails.”

“But the people who showed up really showed up,” he continues. “And that was more important than getting the most notable people; [we got] people who had something to contribute to the conversation.”

In its overview of Cosby’s career as a comedian, children’s entertainer and simply star of perhaps the most beloved family sitcom ever made, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” depicts its as a disgraced cultural subject whose legacy cannot be ignored. The trust that Cosby accrued as a moral authority provided cover for what his accusers describe as decades of abuse.

Sonalee Rashatwar talks to the camera in

Sonalee Rashatwar in “We Need to Talk About Cosby.”

(SHOWTIME)

Renee Graham talks to the camera in

Renee Graham in “We Need to Talk About Cosby.”

(SHOWTIME)

“For a lot of younger folks, who just see Cosby as this guy who was accused and convicted of sexual assault, they’re like: ‘Why do you make such a big deal of this guy?’ And I think it’s important to tell the story of how he gets all this power, how he gets the public trust and ‘The Cosby Show’ is the epicenter of that. And it’s the part of the story that makes everything else so painful. He wasn’t Black America’s dad. He was America’s dad.”

Any time the series reflects on Cosby’s considerable onscreen and offscreen impact, it quickly swings back to interviews with the women survivors. The story doesn’t proceed in strictly chronological order and Bell never lets the audience get fully adjusted to Cosby’s magnetism.

“We really talked about it during the edit and I said it’s like a pendulum that has to keep moving,” Bell says. “It can’t ever stick to one side for too long.”

This was clearly a difficult project to complete, for reasons both emotional and practical. At one point in the documentary, Bell 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.”

Bell’s project was already deep into production when Cosby’s conviction was overturned, and he struggled to incorporate the new development into the series’ ongoing conversation.

“There’s also all these [other] Cosby documents,” Bell says. “I heard there are several that were either done, or still being worked on, that eventually people shelved because they couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. So I thought, is this just going to be one of these Cosby projects that gets shelved?”

In addition, Bell was feeling the stress of pandemic parenthood and the weight of the national reckoning over the killings of George Floyd and so many others.

“But as we [sometimes] joke, this was not a documentary about noodles. This was about real s—, and it was really important that we got it right,” Bell says. “It was really important to me that the survivors in the film didn’t feel like we wasted their time.

“And, ultimately, that’s what kept me going. I couldn’t have sat down with all these survivors and then go, ‘We decided not to do the film because it got too hard for me.’”

In an infamous 2016 episode of “United Shades of America,” Bell sat down with members of the Ku Klux Klan as part of an unflinching exploration of racism. But when asked if he would ever talk to Cosby, his answer is unequivocal.

“No. I would not,” he says. “It’s pretty clear to me that this is a conversation about Bill Cosby, not a conversation with Bill Cosby — he has stated his side of the story many, many, many times.”

A man in a red sweater in front of a vine wall

“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.”

(Lauren Segal / For The Times)

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