Awards Daily talks to director W. Kamau Bell about the decision to insert himself into We Need to Talk About Cosby and why both the good and bad can be true about Cosby all at once.
As someone who grew up on The Cosby Show, comedian/director W. Kamau Bell wrestled with the sexual assault allegations that came out against his hero, Bill Cosby. But his Showtime docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby was never a project he was trying to make; it was something that just evolved naturally.
“The mission of this was to get people talking about all these issues,” says Bell. “I think a lot of these conversations happen in people’s heads or only with people they feel like they can have the specific conversation they want to have. This was like, in the grand tradition of Ghostbusters, we’re trying to cross the streams here, and I think that’s the work I do generally. Let’s see if we can have more than one conversation at once.”
While some true crime series might try to get to the “why” or motives behind the crime or crimes, Bell never sets out to speculate into the psychology of Bill Cosby, who acted as both a mentor and predator to many women.
“He can be a person who for some reason was a mentor and a father figure and for other people was the opposite. And for some of those women, he was both at the same time. All of this can be true at once. There were aspects of the mentorship that were helpful, but then eventually they found that it was more complicated than just being mentored. There’s a chasm between the good and the awful, whatever it is, and it’s certainly all true at once. We’re looking at the result of the action. It’s not true crime. It’s not really about the motivation. It’s about what we do with the consequences. ”
In the four-part docuseries, Bell uses first-hand survivor accounts, experts, and acquaintances of Cosby to draw a character study of this complicated figure. Many Cosby survivors trusted Bell with their story because of his work on the CNN series United Shades of America.
“I didn’t give them any direction. If you decide you want to show up for that, then you show up ready to do the work. A lot of these survivors have been interviewed many times before and all of them had been burned in some way by the media, so they are very careful about this.”
But Bell also had to be clear upfront about the scope of the series, that it would underscore both the bad and the good of Cosby and his career.
“As a survivor, you not only have to buy into telling your story, but you also have to understand that in the greater picture, there will be parts that highlight the good of Bill Cosby’s career. Do you want to be a part of that? And I would totally understand if someone was like, ‘No, I don’t want to be a part of that.'”
In addition to survivor, acquaintance, and expert accounts, Bell also includes a bit of himself into the docuseries, something that came up during test screenings, where he was encouraged to add some narration and his own personal relationship with Cosby.
“We thought we’d have more voices of comedians in there, which we did not end up getting. I showed an early version of it to my wife, a couple of good friends and Showtime, and the note I got from everybody was, ‘We see where you’re going with this, but it needs more you in it.’ It ended up being an experiment that over time became clear that it does work in certain ways. I could say, ‘Here’s what The Cosby Show was from my experience.'”
He also accounted for people who were late arriving to the difficult conclusion that Cosby was a predator, including those who admitted they didn’t believe the women at first.
“For me, this was an opportunity to say, this is complicated, and there are reasons that people don’t want to believe it’s true. And I understand as someone who maybe initially didn’t want to believe it, but then there were too many women for me to believe it’s not true. I hold some space for people who are struggling with it; I don’t hold much space for people who are apologists and defenders.”
With inspirations including Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America and dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly, Bell’s aim was to show that the dialogue around Cosby is much bigger than Cosby himself.
“I want this to be open to the biggest audience possible because that’s when the conversation is the best, when you have the most different types of people in the room who are wiling to talk. The conversations become smarter and more nuanced. And this is a really critical conversation because it’s bigger than Bill Cosby or any celebrity man who has been #MeTooed. How do we change the industry or society in a way where this damage is limited or not at all? I think that’s the question that’s bigger than the Bill Cosby story.”
But just as Bell at one point thought Cosby was never capable of so many crimes, he never accounted for Cosby being released from jail on a technicality, which shot a jolt into the end of his project.
“It felt like it changed everything, but it just turned the heat up under it. It didn’t really change where we were headed. We were always headed toward the idea that this is bigger than him. I think initially it was more about thinking about art versus the artist and in some way that became a sideline conversation. How do we avoid from this ever happening or create more safety in the world?”
One surprise to Bell was learning about the survivors’ activism toward changing the laws that protected Cosby, with some helping to overturn California laws around the statute of limitations.
“Once we talked to the survivors and learned about their activism—you wouldn’t lie about this, but you certainly wouldn’t lie about this and then do all this activism? For me, it was really being able to highlight their activism and leaning into showing them as human beings and how different they all are. They’re not the same type of person. These are people who may not even get a long in life, but they have this thing that bonds them together and gives them a common mission. It didn’t really change the ending, it just deepened what we were doing.”
We Need to Talk About Cosby is available on Showtime.