The Showtime docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby is more than just an examination of the allegations against him. There have been several of those over the last few years. Filmmaker W. Kamau Bell goes deeper and looks at role models and celebrity worship.
I can honestly say growing up in the Deep South in the later quarter of the 20th Century as well as living and working in some rural parts of the south, there was a pre-determined way black people, especially men, were expected to behave and act. This code of ethics didn’t apply to white people. A white man who chewed tobacco, drove a truck, wore overalls and maybe said the wrong thing was still a “good man” every now and again. But if a black man did that, he was automatically labeled some words I’m not going to use here.
This double-edge sword/Catch 22 has followed black people throughout the centuries. They have to dress a certain way and act a certain way. In other words, they “knew their place.” But growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians, there was criticism of the way people in the Metro Atlanta area lived and operated. And going to school at Georgia Southern University near Savannah, it was viewed as any resistance to the antebellum era was an insult to the people of Georgia.
However, at Americus, where there was a lot of rural people and farmers/ranchers, the population had a huge per capita of black people to white people. The school boards had an even split of representation. The county commissions and town councils were represented as well. This wasn’t the case in the community in which I grew up. And yet for some reason, it appeared as the Civil War had never happened in southern Georgia.
When Bill Cosby emerged in the 1960s, he was competing with Richard Pryor, who was at first, performing soft material that would appeal to mostly white audiences. Cosby was able to keep it clean as Pryor decided that he needed to change up his material. Dick Gregory was breaking down barriers but a few stones at a time. Pryor was operating a bulldozer. But Cosby was willing to ask first what part should be removed at this time.
That being said, Cosby was being smart. He was willing to give the audiences what they wanted if they could look the other way a few times. All that “Zippitty-Bop-Boo” noises were really nothing more than an updated version of Mantan Moreland and Stephin Fetchit. But Cosby looked respectable so by the time he was cast in I Spy, he was what they wanted in a black lead.
Criticism followed that Cosby and Sidney Poitier, who passed away earlier this month, were too soft for the radical edge of the 1960s. But that also presents an idea that all black men must be like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As most American homes got TV sets in the later part of the 20th Century, more people became aware of celebrities. They appeared on talk shows and they appeared like normal people telling stories to the hosts. We no longer saw celebrities on the big screen but in our homes. And that’s what made people like Cosby so comforting.
After I Spy, Cosby tried to do several shows that weren’t big hits among mainstream audiences. I watched Fat Albert as a kid but I was surprised to hear about Picture Pages, a TV show I didn’t watch but many of the interviewees did and loved. Seeing a black man on an educational TV show gives everyone a feeling of more comfort. While Pryor was talking about a monkey that liked to hump people in the ear, Cosby was in your living room wanting to teach your kids.
Who would you rather your kids watch?
But, it was this perception that allowed Cosby to repeatedly sexually assault women. The docuseries does address the 2021 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on his case that overturned his 2018 conviction. Yes, it was a messed up situation. As one of the interviewees states, it was a “good ruling for a bad man.” What had happened was a previous district attorney attorney had promised Cosby immunity in a previous case. But another district attorney didn’t honor it. It sets the precedent for many people who entered plea deals to have them be prosecuted years down the road.
However, it doesn’t erase the fact that 60 women came forth after the Hannibal Buress comedy bit went viral in the Fall of 2014 to describe similar behaviors of sexual abuse. I remember 10 years prior hearing the sexual harassment and abuse allegations against Cosby by Andrea Constand. This was the same year Cosby delivered the infamous “Pound Cake” speech delivered at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. Cosby more or less justified police shootings by saying the deceased shouldn’t have stolen pound cake.
One might have assumed that Cosby had turned bitter following the murder of his son, Ennis, in 1997 but I think it showed that Cosby was growing tired of black people in general and maybe not being as popular as he once was. The docuseries shows some bitter moments from this era in which he criticizes Wanda Sykes at the Emmys and goes on Oprah to defend the Pound Cake Speech. But I think Cosby had become angry that people’s tastes have changed. Cosby had spoken out a lot about rap music, but what Cosby doesn’t realize is people didn’t like jazz as much.
I really never liked The Cosby Show as much as other people. I always felt that given the turbulent 1980s and how little was still being done for black people in New York City, the show never focused on race. Looking back, it was total narcissism for Cosby. It seemed almost every episode was based around Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable or they focused on soft premises such as the infamous shirt Denise (Lisa Bonet) made for Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). I would even say it was a modern minstrel show as it showed the family performing “Night and Day.”
Yes, it would be nice to have this utopia where all people of different skin color and religion coexist and all families are well off with educational degreed and/or high-skilled professionals as parents not having to worry about many problems all people have to worry about. This is why the show irritated me so much looking back. Like a lot of shows in this era, it basically said that unless you have a college education and live in a big-size house, you’re nothing. It was the 1980s, the decade of decadence where people maxxed out their credit cards and the rich got richer.
There were a lot of episodes that really, really reinforced the notion that getting a college education was the only way to survive. The first episode has Cliff getting mad at Theo for not doing his academic best but to my recollection, did they stop and think Theo might have a learning disability. That was a big no-no in this era. It wasn’t until years after The Cosby Show had ended that people began to notice problems in a lot of students and address them properly. I had a college friend who couldn’t read this paragraph and tell you anything that I had written. But if it was read to him, he could remember it.
The Cosby Show could’ve focused on real issues such as when Denise drops out of college at Hillman as many college students don’t complete their studies. It happens. Instead they just added Raven-Symone because Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam) was growing up. (And A Different World was only created because Cosby was upset about the popularity Bonet was getting so he got rid of her.)
Another episode of the show that really irritated me was when Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe) doesn’t do well at a science fair and both Cliff and Clair (Phyllica Rashad) more or less criticize her for not doing her best. Science fairs are some of the biggest waste of time and resources in public education. All they do is reinforce that public education is about who has access to money and resources and who doesn’t.
And like most education back in the day, you had to be great at everything. Some people aren’t good at science. Some people aren’t good at shop class. It became an era of doing away with vo-tech courses and berating the “shop kids.” I’m not saying The Cosby Show was solely responsible. But Cosby had a background in education and a doctorate so his ego pushed it. That doctorate is also explored here with a little big of criticism and skepticism that Cosby just didn’t buy it by making a big donation.
Of course, a lot of backlash is expected on this series and people are already review-bombing it. Even back in 2014-2015, there were outlandish accusations that this was because Cosby wanted to buy NBC, something that wasn’t even on the table. As a white man raised in an environment where people expected black men to “know their place” and the N-word was thrown around a lot, Cosby’s was basically a slap in the face to white America.
How could Middle America hoist up a sexual predator? Cosby did a lot of advertisements in the 1980s and 1990s, which is probably why he made so much money. I can’t blame him for wanting never to have to worry financially as he grew up in the Richard Allen Homes in northern Philadelphia. But it seemed used this nice guy persona to his advantage. If he could convince white America he was no different than Fred Rogers or Bob Ross, then he could easily sexually assault women. Also, Cosby had the advantage of this being an era in which men could put their hands all over women “in a playful manner.” Boys would snapped the back of bras for middle-school girls and nothing was done. Now, it’s sexual assault.
But the docuseries looks at more than just Cosby. I think the title refers to how as a society we project people as role models that we’re willing to overlook other problems they might have. After Schindler’s List came out. I remember someone asking the philosophical question of how those Nazi soldiers who worked at the camps in Auschwitz, Dacau or Krakow would work during the day torturing and killing people. Then, they went home to be with their families, helping their wives with chores and their kids with homework. You can be great when you’re in one environment and awful when you’re in another.
For many in the entertainment industry like Bell and other interviewees, such as comic Godfrey and actors Doug E. Doug, who co-starred with Cosby on his show Cosby or Joseph C. Phillips, who was on The Cosby Show, he was a ground-breaker. But that doesn’t erase the fact that Cosby was no different than Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood bigwigs using “The Casting Couch” to play with young actress’ emotions only to get their rocks off.
The docuseries does mention the Weinstein scandal as well as those involving Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer among others, in passing. It is an epidemic. We don’t need to just talk about Cosby but about the countless others. Cosby was just doing what he saw other producers and directors do. The irony is Cosby repeatedly called men, mainly black men, out for being absent fathers. At the same time, he was running off to the Playboy Mansion or Lake Tahoe nightclubs in search of his next prey. You can still be an absent parent even if you still reside under the same roof as your children.
Cosby was a true example of the phrase by Friedrich Nietzche: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
What do you think? Please comment.