The 2022 Sundance Film Festival has been full of amazingly imaginative and dynamic works that have driven conversations on- and offline. One such example is director W. Kamau Bell’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, which wrestles with audiences’ dueling images of Bill Cosby, the Black cultural icon and pioneer, and Cosby, the alleged serial sexual predator.
In the compelling four-part series, Bell asks directly, a question meant to make everyone uncomfortable and attentive: “Who is Bill Cosby?” As interview subjects and experts squirm and formulate confessional responses that range from America’s dad to a barrier-breaker to an unrepentant monster — Bell offers a complex look at humanity that is equally nuanced and unnerving.
Can and should we separate the man from his cultural impact? Should the effort Cosby made in opening doors for others be negated by the allegations that gripped a nation? Nothing in We Need to Talk About Cosby is easy to digest or can be tied up in a neat bow, and it is that fascinating dichotomy that makes W. Kamau Bell’s analysis one of the most captivating features at this year’s festival.
Love him or loathe him, We Need to Talk About Cosby is worth watching.
With Cosby’s life and legacy at the front and center of W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries, which premieres Jan. 30 on Showtime (Sundays at 10:00 p.m. EST/PST) — here are five things to know before sitting down to watch for yourself or with others.
Each episode will chronicle Cosby’s rise and fall
The docuseries is composed of four, one-hour segments and structured so that the first half chronicles Cosby’s successes and historical moments. Told through a wealth of unearthed footage, We Need to Talk About Cosby traces the former Philadelphia bartender’s growth into meteoric success as the first crossover Black stand-up comic to enter into America’s households.
From each step in his career, including becoming the first Black lead in a TV series (I Spy) and pioneering the hiring of Black stuntmen, this project will serve as a perplexing contradiction between how we remedy the feelings that come with engaging an accused serial sex abuser who entertained and inspired millions of Black Americans.
The sheer number of allegations is overwhelming
While, yes, Cosby did do a lot to decimate glass ceilings in Hollywood by doing things no other Black person had done at the time, he was also accused of doing unspeakable things. It’s a point in We Need to Talk About Cosby emphasized by analysis from experts and academics, but overwhelmingly driven home by the first-person testimonies from his many accusers.
From a Harrah’s casino cocktail waitress to a young adjunct professor to former Playboy playmate Victoria Valentino — the similarities between the accounts are triggering and maddening for anyone who has survived sexual assault or who fights against such predatory behavior.
Forces audiences to ask challenging questions of themselves
W. Kamau Bell, who proclaims in We Need to Talk About Cosby to have been a “Cosby Kid” and inspired by the artist to become a comedian himself, asks a poignant question: “Can you separate the art from the artist, and should you?”
It is hard to ignore the multitude of ways that Cosby helped to beautify the culture — from diversifying Saturday morning cartoons to making education cool with A Different World — and destroying real people’s lives.
The “Bill Cosby” question will force viewers to process their conflicted feelings and welcomes a safe space to discuss how to create a safer and more communicative world for survivors of sexual assault.
Largely stays away from the legal case
We Need to Talk About Cosby largely steers clear of the legal case against Cosby, which included non-stop media coverage and his stunning release from prison. Instead, Bell, who speaks to other comedians, TV commentators (Jemele Hill, Marc Lamont Hill), and sex-abuse experts, explores how and why Cosby mattered in Black America’s cultural history and how to make amends with the idea that despite knowing all that we know that Cosby still may matter.
Hannibal Buress explodes the facade of the “Cosbyphile”
In 2014, a blurry cellphone video of comedian Hannibal Buress ranting about Bill Cosby’s alleged “philandering” went viral and re-opened the floodgates that led to condemnation and an outpouring of accusations lobbed at the then-charming guy from The Cosby Show.
Buress’ stand-up, set in Philadelphia, was built upon the “Spanish Fly” comedy bit Cosby did in the ‘60s, and a generational divide between him, #MeToo advocates, and young comics. It served as a watershed moment for Buress as a comic and outspoken ally for survivors of sexual assault.
And from that explosive moment, along with the new era of social media, We Need to Talk About Cosby opened up how much creative license Cosby had to fetishize the date-rape drug throughout his work.
We Need to Talk About Cosby (TV-MA) made its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, Saturday, Jan. 22, with a second screening scheduled at 7:00 a.m. EST/PST Monday, Jan. 24.
The festival continues through Jan. 30. Tickets are $20 for single screenings, $300-$750 for festival passes, and can be purchased via festival.sundance.org. Showtime will air the network premiere of the docuseries at 10:00 p.m. EST/PST Jan. 30.
Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter and entertainment director for BET Digital, who covers the intersection of music, film, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him on @KevitoClark.