There’s a school of thought that posits that the most respectful way to tell stories of criminality is to glance past details of offenders’ lives, rather than feeding their egos (and the egos of those who would emulate them) with attention. I’ve always found this hard to square with the understanding that crime is socially determined, rather than born of random acts of malice. We Need to Talk About Cosby doesn’t glance past Cosby’s life at all, but rather examines the mechanisms by which his crimes unfolded: his image building, his selective deployment of pro-Black consciousness, his racist scolding. Each of these illustrates the ways in which Cosby was able to develop his status as “America’s Dad,” and use it to gain access to and power over women.


One of the most revealing moments of the series suggests how he might have wielded this power. The footage is taken from a 2014 AP interview about an exhibition of Cosby’s collection of African-American art. After being asked to comment on the sexual assault allegations, Cosby calmly bullies the offending journalist. He first attempts to extract a promise from the reporter that the footage will not be used, and failing to do so, he turns to an off-camera figure, presumably a producer, instructing them to call the reporter’s boss. It’s a scene that illustrates the extent of Cosby’s personal menace, showing him willing to cow and threaten others. (The eerily serene expression his wife, Camille Cosby, maintains throughout the cruel dressing down is almost worthy of its own documentary.)

It all reminds me of Washington’s statement about her experience on that production, though the film didn’t trace the history of blackface and stunt performers outside of Cosby’s involvement: “They do this to us because they know that they literally run the show.” Cosby’s popularity among his faithful endures in part because he was once the rare Black person who ran the show. The statement also applies to the women he is accused of victimizing—he did this to them because he ran the show. When Bell asks Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham the question, “Who is Bill Cosby?” she offers what might be the perfect answer: “He’s a rapist who had a really big TV show once.” At a few points in his life, Cosby fought the good fight, but the good fights are all ongoing. Black stunt performers are still fighting against the industry’s racism with the help of famous allies, like Mary J. Blige. Students and donors continue to work to ensure the future of HBCUs. We may need to talk about Cosby, but we don’t need Cosby.