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Proof of the Pudding


Sundance Institute

Bill Cosby was a bona fide ’80s cultural icon. In his documentary series “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” W. Kamau Bell acknowledges Mr. Cosby’s influence on his initially choosing a career in comedy – the same inspiration that spurred a generation of Black comedians. Of course, the urgency to discuss Mr. Cosby now stems from the fact that he’s better known over the past decade for being a serial rapist.

The four-part Showtime series starts off recounting Mr. Cosby’s meteoric rise following his 1964 appearance on NBC’s “The Jack Paar Program.” Amid omnipresent demeaning depictions of Blacks in media, his starring role as a multilingual Rhodes scholar on the ’60s NBC series “I Spy” was a welcome change. Like Snoop Dogg today, Mr. Cosby was willing to dabble in anything and everything to get the bag – including the educational TV program “Picture Pages.” Unlike Snoop Dogg, Mr. Cosby acted the sanctimonious moral authority. The charade continued with NBC’s “The Cosby Show” through the ’80s, with his playing an ob-gyn, the embodiment of Black excellence if not also raising all kinds of red flags in hindsight.

Despite coming of age professionally amid the Civil Rights Movement, Mr. Cosby made a name for himself by not making people uncomfortable – in other words, as a pick-me playing respectability politics. Some of the adjectives used here: “raceless,” “nonthreatening,” “safe, compromise choice.” So the fact that he seemed nonthreatening meant that people glossed over the tell-tale signs hiding in plain sight: He was joking about Spanish Fly on his 1969 album, “It’s True! It’s True!” This horrifying running joke of his persisted well into the ’90s, when he once again namedropped the date-rape drug on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

Mr. Bell treats the many victims who agree to be interviewed with the utmost sensitivity and care, letting them speak without editorial interruption and keeping the camera rolling after they’re done to capture the raw emotions.

The series ends with the overturning of Mr. Cosby’s conviction and his release from prison in October 2021, which leaves the crew reeling on camera. “We Need to Talk About Cosby” tries to make lemonade out of these lemons by touting victories on other fronts, such as the abolition of state statutes of limitation for sex crimes. But no matter how you slice it, that’s hardly a hopeful conclusion.


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