Last year, Stargirl actor Anjelika Washington—who is Black—revealed that one of her prior roles had paired her with a white stuntwoman who performed in blackface and an afro wig. Washington complained to a producer, who suggested that she should just feel grateful to have the job. “There’s this oppressive thing that often happens when everyone and everything are ran by white people on sets (and in any industry) where they try to manipulate POC into just being GRATEFUL to be there,” Washington wrote in an Instagram caption. “They do this to us because they know that they literally run the show.”
I didn’t imagine Showtime’s new documentary series, We Need to Talk About Cosby, would teach me about the too-little-known history of Black stunt performers, but Washington is far from the first black actor to encounter this form of Hollywood racism. When Bill Cosby starred in the action series I Spy in the ‘60s, he refused to participate in the practice of using white stunt people in blackface, which is known as “painting down.” By insisting that Black actors be hired to perform his stunts, Cosby helped open the profession to African-Americans.
He is also accused of drugging, sexually assaulting, and/or raping more than 60 women.
We Need to Talk About Cosby could have been a very different documentary. It might have been called something like We Need to Talk About What Cosby Did, and framed its focus tightly on the crimes he’s accused of and their impact on his alleged victims’ lives. While the four-part series does feature lengthy and harrowing accounts from women who’ve come forward again and again to share their stories of being drugged and assaulted by Cosby, it is also very much about the man himself—his career triumphs, his image-making efforts, his relationship with the Black community. It’s a potentially dicey approach, as an extended exploration of Cosby’s professional life risks suggesting that his value as an entertainer is more important than the lives of the women he’s allegedly harmed. In this case, the risk pays off: The film convincingly argues that a full picture of his alleged crimes and the systems that enabled them would be incomplete without an examination of Cosby as a human being.
“I am a child of Bill Cosby,” director W. Kamau Bell says at the beginning of the series. “I’m a Black man. I’m a stand-up comic. I was born in the ‘70s. I was raised by Fat Albert, Picture Pages, The Cosby Show.” Bell also immediately makes clear that he believes Cosby to be guilty of the crimes he’s accused of, and interviews Black academics and media figures, including Tressie McMillan Cottom and Marc Lamont Hill, former Cosby Show actors, and survivors of Cosby’s attacks. With the help of well-curated archival footage, the series traces Cosby’s five decade-long career, from his early days as a so-called “raceless” comic, to his run as one of TV’s first Black leads, and his transformation into America’s beloved paterfamilias.
All the while, Bell highlights the fact that Cosby’s squeaky-clean public persona was always shot through with innuendo hinting at his alleged abuse of women. There’s the now-infamous “Spanish Fly routine” about spiking women’s drinks with an aphrodisiac, which Cosby first delivered in 1969, and which he continued to rehash into the ‘90s. There was also a bit from The Cosby Show in which Dr. Huxtable boasts of the amorous properties of his secret barbecue sauce, which he’s served to unknowing members of his family. “Haven’t you ever noticed that after people have some of my barbecue sauce, after a while when it kicks in they get all huggy-buggy?” says Cosby in a joke that, unfunny under the best circumstances, is now positively odious.
The first survivor account is presented in the final moments of the series’ premiere, and made all the more horrifying by the fact that the woman, Victoria Valentino, is one of the only survivors featured in We Need to Talk who is able to remember exactly what Cosby did after drugging her. Just a few weeks after the drowning death of her young son, she and her roommate at the time encountered Cosby at a steakhouse. He offered them pills, Valentino says, promising that it would make them “feel better.” Cosby brought both women back to a townhouse, and Valentino says that when she attempted to prevent him from assaulting her passed-out roommate, she was raped instead. For years, she never told anyone what had happened. “I never said what he specifically did to me,” she tells Bell in the series. “I couldn’t, I couldn’t even think about it. Because you use the words, then you have the images, then you have the feelings, and then you are washed with self-loathing.”
Many victims describe initially trusting Cosby because of his benign persona as a family man and champion of Black educational causes. The series charts his transformation from a promoter of HBCUs and host of a Black history TV special into his later-life role as openly-classist moralizer, chiding Black people for the state of their pants, their sneakers, and their use of African-American Vernacular English. Yet today, Black people disproportionately fill the ranks of Cosby’s stoutest defenders, partially on the basis of his supposed pro-Blackness. The series agilely undermines that narrative, with accounts of his attempts to injure the careers of other Black people, and evidence of his out-and-out racism. In one clip taken from an Emmy Awards broadcast, Wanda Sykes tried to extract some friendly banter from Cosby. “You got Larry David sitting behind you—you know Larry don’t know what he’s doing, his show all improvised. The Cosby Show, that was all scripted,” she said, pointing her microphone at Cosby. “Yeah, we spoke English,” he replied.
Like many documentary series, We Need to Talk grows a bit baggy in its final installment. To be fair, there’s not an easy off-ramp in sight. Cosby’s conviction for the rape of Andrea Constand was overturned last summer and he’s currently a free man. His supporters stand by him, while the women he allegedly victimized face no certain path to justice. One moment near the end of the series strikes a particularly odd note. A sex therapist blames “sex negativity” for causing Cosby’s alleged crimes, and goes on to say that “in an idyllically sex positive world, someone is able to pay conscious women to come and be drugged.” The documentary does not explain how rendering a person unconscious and therefore unable to revoke consent could ever amount to truly consensual sex, nor does it address that sex workers are also not a release valve for the impulses of predators.
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.