[I also watched the Cosby show in the 1980s. It got such race reviews. Now you will see the ugly truth about this diversity crap. Jan]
How wrong we were about America’s Dad.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE In the 1980s, Bill Cosby was perhaps the most beloved man in America. And yet for two decades before that, and many years after, he was a sexual predator, according to dozens of women. Did he give us sly signals about what he was up to along the way?
We Need to Talk About Cosby, an outstanding four-hour documentary that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last month and is now airing in four parts on Showtime, concludes that he did. Filmmaker and comedian W. Kamau Bell has assembled a chilling indictment of Cosby’s horrific acts that nevertheless fully acknowledges Cosby’s gigantic talent, the scope of his contributions to society, and his outsized cultural footprint. Bell is himself black, and that matters. I’m not sure a white filmmaker would have dared broach some of the topics Bell and his cast of commentators and witnesses discuss toward the end of the film.
Cosby’s stature in light television entertainment was comparable to the impact in film of Sidney Poitier, the first major black Hollywood movie star, a few years ahead of Cosby. Dropping out of college (as he had dropped out of high school) in 1963, he became (along with Dick Gregory) one of the first black standup comics to break through in the white mainstream. Just two years later, he became the first black actor to star on a network TV show, I-Spy. Unlike Gregory, though, who did racial comedy, Cosby was a kind of Barack Obama avant la lettre. By doing clean standup routines that made no mention whatsoever of race, much less with the sting that Gregory brought, he appointed himself the safe black comic for white audiences yearning for a racial truce.
But already, in the ’60s, according to the women who would be too ashamed to tell their stories publicly until half a century later, Cosby was giving women drugs — probably quaaludes, which were legal before 1982 — that would knock them out and leave them with memory gaps. Several of his victims appear in Bell’s film telling us about how they awoke to find themselves naked and raped, but they consistently blamed themselves. One of the most disquieting stories is told by Victoria Valentino, a model whose six-year-old son had recently drowned, when she says Cosby drugged and raped her. “I just thought it was me,” was a typical reaction. Women would leave his hotel room apologizing for having passed out. These stories remain agonizing to listen to all these years later, but Bell provides the women with the necessary time to complete the picture of Cosby’s depravity.
Yet Bell is careful also to emphasize Cosby’s admirable qualities, such as his push for racial progress. When his career began, white stuntmen in blackface substituted for black actors; Cosby insisted on bringing in a black man to double him. That man, Calvin Brown, shares his memories in the doc. Later, Cosby would insist on hiring black craftsmen on his TV shows.
As a standup, Cosby was one of the greatest in his field — his 1983 HBO special Himself is still revered by many comics — and Jerry Seinfeld, among others, closely imitated his tactic of placing everyday life under a microscope, which became the standard approach. Yet even back in the Sixties, Cosby’s routines — which were noted for being family-friendly! — exhibited a fascination with “Spanish fly,” the aphrodisiac drug of legend that was reputed to put ladies in the mood (actually it’s more of an irritant). “You gotta slip it to her when she thinks she’s drinking something else. A coupla drops in her Dr Pepper,” Cosby wrote in his 1991 book Childhood, and he said nearly the same thing on a CNN appearance with Larry King that year. Bell also spotlights a scene from The Cosby Show in the Eighties in which Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable brags about the aphrodisiac properties of his barbecue sauce, some of which he informs his wife he has placed on their bedside table.
Colleagues of Cosby from that path breaking sitcom — which, though anodyne, provided black Americans with an aspirational family of the kind that had never been seen on television — reflect on how almost no one ever saw his wife, Camille, on the set, and recall the steady stream of models who waited outside his dressing room. Everyone shrugged. At the same time, Cosby was building a reputation as a moralist, one who focused his critiques on other blacks. In his 1987 standup film Raw, Eddie Murphy recalled how Cosby called to chastise him for using profanity in his act. In the 2000s, Cosby won much praise from conservatives when he became an outspoken advocate of black self-improvement as opposed to dwelling on victim narratives. Bell notes that many blacks applauded Cosby’s message but others felt betrayed.
Taking the full measure of all of these complexities and nuances makes We Need to Talk About Cosby riveting, an essential document. It’s also a brave one: Its final episode features a seemingly off-limits conversation about what Bell calls “black protectionism.” Many blacks dismissed the waves of serious allegations against a longtime idol and turned to conspiracy theories to refute them. (One rumor was that Cosby was in the process of buying NBC when his accusers began stepping forward, and this supposedly proved that “they” could never let a black man own NBC. In fact, NBC had been aware that as many as 15 women, one of whom had won a legal settlement, had charged Cosby with sexual assault when it announced a new sitcom deal with him in 2014.)
As late as July 2015, when New York magazine published a stark cover story with 35 of Cosby’s accusers lined up to tell very similar stories about sexual assault, “for many black folks this was just a white magazine we don’t read,” says Bell. “How can we trust this?” One of Bell’s interviewees, comic Chris Spencer, says, “As black people, we are going to give you about 15 chances. R. Kelly? Bullsh**. O.J.? Come on. . . . You know they love taking down our heroes.” Spencer frankly admits he didn’t change his mind until he saw a televised interview with Beverly Johnson — a black accuser.
Another talking head, commentator Roland Martin, says, “This story was initially seen as white women accusing a black man of sexual impropriety and that, for African Americans, caused us to go, ‘Hold up, what’s going on here?’ ” Bell cites “the general feeling in the black community that black men need to be protected at all costs, even if their crimes are awful.” To accompany these words, he posts pictures of O.J. Simpson. It’s a critical acknowledgment. We all know Simpson got away with murder, we all know why, and it’s important for people to reckon with this truth.
It wasn’t until comic Hannibal Buress savaged Cosby in a standup bit that went viral in October 2014 that the culture began to confront just how wrong we’d all been about America’s Dad. Freed last summer after serving only two years in prison, he has nearly escaped punishment for his acts. He should have spent most of his adult life in prison.
“People say the worst thing about Cosby is that he was a hypocrite,” deadpanned the late Norm Macdonald in a clip included in Bell’s film. “I don’t think that was the worst thing about him.”