‘We Need to Talk About Cosby’ Reckons with the Two Bill Cosbys

This Showtime docuseries from W. Kamau Bell is an invitation to discuss a painful betrayal beyond its headlines and tweets.
We Need To Talk About Cosby

Bill Cosby. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY. Photo credit: Mario Casilli/mptvimages/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

This review of We Need to Talk About Cosby is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.

“Picture Pages, Picture Pages / Time to get your Picture Pages / Time to get your crayons / And your Pencils! / Picture Pages, Picture Pages / Open up your Picture Pages / Time to let Bill Cosby do a Picture Page with you!” How old was I when I first heard that theme song? Three? Four? I was barely a person, and Cosby was as much a teacher to me as my parents.

I missed Picture Pages during its first run as part of Captain Kangaroo, but it was eventually adopted into Nickelodeon’s Pinwheel, and I joyously ate it up over there. Through Picture Pages, Cosby taught me and millions of other children basic arithmetic, geometry, and drawing through interactive lessons; basically, a preschool workbook come to life on our television screens. And while he was playing educator in my living room box, he was drugging and raping women.

As W. Kamau Bell‘s four-part Showtime docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby unrelenting details, my childhood TV pal began this wretched, diabolical, monstrous behavior almost immediately after he was discovered on The Tonight Show in 1963. The icon shaped his celebrity, not into a protective armor hiding his crimes, but into a dagger turned against his victims. “America’s Dad” was a creation representing ultimate trust, but beneath that sweater was a deadfall trap.

Bell opens his series by asking dozens of people (coworkers, lawyers, actors, therapists, consumers, victims), “Who is Bill Cosby now?” Their answers range from stumbling confusion to vitriolic disgust to broken nostalgia. Within every stab at the question are hurt and sorrow. We do not want to think about Cosby’s betrayal toward us, never mind the many, many, many women he assaulted. Bell, however, never loses sight of their pain.

We Need to Talk About Cosby aims to put it all out there. Throughout its first segment, we witness Cosby’s astronomical rise, behind-the-scenes championing for representation and social justice, and the perception of goodness he injected into every project. But Bell also takes time to highlight the rampant misogyny on display in popular entertainment, from James Bond to casual sexist jabs from news anchors. Bell spotlights some of Cosby’s silly jokes about Spanish Fly and barbecue sauce that makes folks go huggy-buggy that appear dangerously horrific in 2022 hindsight. Cosby is a creature of the culture that supported him.

For too long, no one wanted to acknowledge the allegations against Cosby. After a video featuring stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress calling out Cosby as a rapist went viral in 2014, the conversation erupted, but its substance was little more than Late Night jokes and whispers. Bell’s goal for We Need to Talk About Cosby is stated upfront. Let’s have a serious conversation about what this man meant to us and what this man means to us today. We must acknowledge the man we loved to see, the man for what he is now, and how American society is culpable for that man too.

The conversation is hard, and avoiding it is easy. As one person states in the doc, “We don’t want to lose what [Cosby] once meant to us.” I want to hold onto my Picture Pages memories. I don’t want four-year-old me to become tainted by the truth. I want the Cosby from these women’s testimonies to be different than the one I spent years watching on the television. I want them to remain separate.

Bell brilliantly never allows these two Cosbys to exist. We Need to Talk About Cosby avoids the rise and fall structure that most documentaries frequently administer. From the beginning, we’re shown the stories of his victims and where they align along his career path. From The Tonight Show to I Spy to Fat Albert to Jell-O pudding pops to Heathcliff Huxtable. There was no point on his journey where an allegation did not also exist. The icon and the perpetrator are the same.

Reckoning with this grotesque juxtaposition elicits tremendous ache from the documentary’s viewers. As a self-proclaimed “child of Bill Cosby,” the ache throbs direly from W. Kamau Bell as well. There is a feeling that the docuseries means most to him, a comedian who grew up admiring Cosby like the rest of us and who built his own life to match Cosby’s path. However, Bell centers We Need to Talk About Cosby not on the titular figure but on the women who rose to combat him years later.

Bell does not leave us with our pain or his pain, because whatever we’re feeling is surface level compared to what Cosby’s victims experienced. In the final chapter, despite a technicality releasing Cosby from prison while production was wrapping on the series, Bell instead chooses to elevate the work of Lili Bernard, Donna Barrett, Barbara Bowman, and others. Their crusade for justice continues in the courts, fighting to overturn statute of limitation laws surrounding sexual assault cases in California, Nevada, and elsewhere.

With four segments running just under four hours in total, We Need to Talk About Cosby demands a great deal of your time. If you think you know what went down, you probably don’t. Our opinions are often cobbled together using soundbites, headlines, and tweets. W. Kamau Bell gives us an opportunity to engage with a much larger conversation. We would be foolish not to take him up on it. We owe it to the Picture Pages or Cosby Show fan inside us.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)