For decades Bill Cosby has been a major cultural figure, which is why reckoning with his horrific track record of sexual assault has been difficult for many. We Need to Talk About Cosby, a new docuseries directed by W. Kamau Bell, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, aims to do exactly what the title says: get us talking about Cosby. But what it really gets us talking about is much more – racism, sexism, and the societal roots of this tragedy.
The series discusses how Cosby was like a father to generations of people in the United States, especially Black children who grew up in a world seriously lacking in positive representations of Black people. They give a detailed account of his accomplishments, which include being a successful comedian, the first Black actor to play a main character on a major TV show, and the creator of several groundbreaking programs that portrayed Black families in ways that people had never seen before on TV.
But Bell shows us that through it all he was serially manipulating and date-raping young women. A timeline in the show depicts the over 60 women who have come forward. Their accounts of abuse span the entire course of his career. Survivors tell their stories as well, each piling up upon the next. By showcasing so many stories, Bell and the survivors effectively communicate the undeniable reality – Cosby is not who we thought he was.
They also deal with Cosby’s politics, putting his hypocrisy on display. They show how Cosby held himself up as a symbol of virtue and success, championing a perspective that denied systemic racism. They discuss his 2004 speech at the NAACP legal defense fund awards ceremony, in which he argued that the Black community was struggling due to poor individual choices and bad parenting. They show that even after the speech caused outcry, Cosby continued to preach the same perspective, while doing the opposite behind closed doors.
What the series does is raise the question – what does his story say about our society? People in the show grapple with this question – pointing to different social problems they see at play. But one thing isn’t mentioned – capitalism. Women couldn’t do anything about Cosby’s abuse for years because he was too powerful. For many, their careers depended on not speaking up. This is not just true in show business but throughout the whole system. Capitalism allows a small minority to control the vast majority of wealth, while everyone else is subject to whims and abuses of those who have the economic upper hand. As long as this system has been in place, men have used their economic positions to take advantage of and sexually abuse women. If you’re going to watch the show, and start talking about Cosby, then keep the conversation going. Let’s talk about Cosby, but let’s also talk about what has allowed this kind of abuse to become so common – a system based on the exploitation of the majority for the benefit of a few.