Review: We Need to Talk About Cosby (2022); Directed by W. Kamau Bell

We Need to Talk About Cosby (2022); directed by W. Kamau Bell

I just finished watching W. Kamau Bell’s documentary miniseries We Need to Talk About Cosby. In it, Bell sits down with multiple people to discuss the life, legacy, and impact of Bill Cosby, and how his status as a convicted rapist alters his image for the millions of people who have loved and admired him. Bell’s interviewees include several of Cosby’s survivors, including Victoria Valentino, Lili Bernard, and Lise Lotte-Lublin; public intellectuals, cultural commentators, educators, and experts in various fields such as Marc Lamont Hill, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Kliph Nesteroff, Barbara Ziv, and Sonalee Rashatwar.

The Huxtables epitomized Black excellence for an entire generation of Americans. For Black people, they were a validation—they represented what was possible despite hundreds of years of systemic oppression and white supremacy.

At this point, after more than 60 women have come forward to credibly accuse Bill Cosby of rape and sexual assault, it would be intellectually dishonest, as well as morally reprehensible, for anyone to make attempts at character rehabilitation for Cosby. Like many people, I grew up watching The Cosby Show. I thought the Huxtables were funny, relatable, and cosmopolitan in a way that was accessible. Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable were people you wanted to know, whose approval you craved. Cliff was a reputable OB-GYN. Clair was a successful attorney. Their Brooklyn Heights brownstone was spacious yet cozy, with plenty of room for their boisterous and growing family. The Huxtables epitomized Black excellence for an entire generation of Americans. For Black people, they were a validation—they represented what was possible despite hundreds of years of systemic oppression and white supremacy.

They were Black and proud, but Black and proud in a way that was safe and palatable for white audiences.

They were sorely-needed representation on a screen that for too long had only shown one narrow-minded facet of Black existence. They weren’t telling a story of poverty or struggle or overcoming inequality. They weren’t caricatures or stereotypes. They were Black and proud, but Black and proud in a way that was safe and palatable for white audiences. For white people, the Huxtables provided a blueprint for connecting with Black people without having to contend directly with all of those messy racial feelings.

…he was someone who effected real change for Black people not just in the entertainment industry but in the wider public imagination, the collective consciousness of all Americans.

Now, I won’t pretend to have had the same feelings of admiration for Cosby that legions of Black folks had and that some may still have, because for people in the Black community he was more than just a symbol or an icon; he was someone who effected real change for Black people not just in the entertainment industry but in the wider public imagination, the collective consciousness of all Americans. His evocation of a Black family was one that resonated with audiences of all races, which is one of the reasons The Cosby Show was such a ratings success. It was so successful, in fact, that in addition to making Bill Cosby a household name, it also catapulted NBC from being the number three broadcasting network in America to being number one. Everyone wanted to watch the Huxtables, except of course for the women Bill Cosby was drugging and raping.

There’s lots of cringing, yes, and more than the occasional grimace. But there’s also lots of laughter and guarded smiles, covered up by hands clamped quickly over mouths. The lingering laughter Cosby is still able to elicit is accompanied by a powerful feeling of complicity and shame. The laughter, breaking through uninvited, makes you feel like a coconspirator in Cosby’s violent pathology.

Throughout the four-part docuseries, Bell intermittently has his interviewees watch clips of bits from Cosby’s stand-up shows or from episodes of The Cosby Show and then focuses in on their reactions. There’s lots of cringing, yes, and more than the occasional grimace. But there’s also lots of laughter and guarded smiles, covered up by hands clamped quickly over mouths. The lingering laughter Cosby is still able to elicit is accompanied by a powerful feeling of complicity and shame. The laughter, breaking through uninvited, makes you feel like a coconspirator in Cosby’s violent pathology. I found myself laughing hysterically at one clip featuring a now-famous conversation between Dr. Cliff Huxtable (Cosby) and his teenage son, Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). Theo is expressing his feelings of helplessness and agitation at not being able to measure up to the academic achievements of his doctor-father and lawyer-mother. On the surface, the scene is tender and heartwarming, because you think Theo’s plea to have his father’s unconditional love and acceptance will result in Cliff’s capitulation. Instead, Cliff tells Theo that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard and reiterates to Theo their expectations of him, which will never be anything short of excellence.

Their image is a mirage, their likability the result of a series of clever parlor tricks. They seize on a narrative of their own virtue and repeat it long enough to believe it themselves.

How do you separate the icon from the monster? And better yet, should you want to? It is easy to see how Bill Cosby was able to get away with his crimes for so long, and in a way he is still getting away with them. He is incredibly charismatic, naturally funny, and lovable. Unless you know. And now we all know. Part of what makes predators like Cosby so dangerous is their inherent likability. They draw you in with an image, that of someone who is eminently trustworthy: a person of impeccable character. Just below the surface, though, and sometimes closer than that, is their truth. Their image is a mirage, their likability the result of a series of clever parlor tricks. They seize on a narrative of their own virtue and repeat it long enough to believe it themselves.

We were all too eager to believe his lies, and with them he damned us.

Bill Cosby is just one man in a long line of powerful men throughout history who have wielded their power, status, and wealth to subjugate, violate, and silence women simply because they could. In that he is not unique. What is unique about Cosby is the fact that he was able to fool so many of us for so long that the vague whispers of his true nature went unheard by the vast majority of us. The clues are there, though. They’re in his comedy tapes and late-night talk show appearances. We were all too eager to believe his lies, and with them he damned us. The truths of these women, however, must supplant any warm feelings of nostalgia that might be conjured when reevaluating Cosby’s legacy. We owe that to them. The least we can do is listen and believe, but we should all do more. Every story we hear of sexual violence should embolden us to stop rape culture in its tracks, to hold our leaders and legislators accountable for the policies they enact. Any silence on our part, once we know the truth, makes us no better than the perpetrator.

Any silence on our part, once we know the truth, makes us no better than the perpetrator.

One of the worst things about rapists, other than the fact that they exist at all, is that their victims inherit what they themselves rarely possess: shame. When they do feel shame, it is often for having been caught, called out, and held accountable for their behavior. The shame they experience is not tied to the suffering they have engendered but rather their failure in ensuring it never saw the light of day. You see, shame would be a powerful force for good if it were felt by the right people for the right reasons. Shame, if it manifested much differently than it so often does, would mitigate against humanity’s worst impulses. Murderers, rapists, colonizers, dictators, fascists—all of these people could do with a good dose of shame. But shame has no power as a preventative measure when the people who have these inclinations to do harm, to enact violence on other people, are without guilt. Guilt and shame are not the same thing. You can feel shame, which is a minimizing and ugly feeling, without feeling as if you have done anything wrong. Unfortunately, victims of sexual violence often feel guilt and shame, because our culture places the onus of violence on the shoulders of the victim. What was she wearing? How much had she had to drink? Doesn’t she have a reputation for being, well, slutty? Why was she out that late at night? She was asking for it. You know how she gets when she drinks. She’s so flirty, any man would think he had an open invitation. A couple of cocktails and she’s three sheets in the wind. And people wonder why women are afraid to speak out?

When they [rapists] do feel shame, it is often for having been caught, called out, and held accountable for their behavior. The shame they experience is not tied to the suffering they have engendered but rather their failure in ensuring it never saw the light of day.

We Need to Talk About Cosby asks more questions than it answers. It rejects the simple conclusions characteristic of less complicated narratives and instead interrogates the story of Bill Cosby within the larger framework of American history, specifically Black American history, in the latter half of the twentieth century. It challenges us, the viewers, to look rape culture in the face and to hold abusers accountable. Even when they’re our heroes. Perhaps even especially then.

It challenges us, the viewers, to look rape culture in the face and to hold abusers accountable. Even when they’re our heroes. Perhaps even especially then.

Many people have asked whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist. Is it possible to find beauty in the artistic creations of bad men and insist, as some would try to, that they (the works of art) sprang fully-formed (decontextualized and pure) from the head of the aggressor? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. Here are two things that we know to be true: one, Bill Cosby revolutionized the entertainment industry for Black performers and effected positive change for millions of Black Americans who watched and loved him on The Cosby Show; and two, he spent decades grooming, drugging, assaulting, raping, and silencing women who trusted and admired him. These facts exist in tandem. They are uncomfortable, to be sure, but it benefits no one, least of all his survivors, to try to mitigate his crimes based on the success of his career. We do not make it to Heaven based on our best moments. Perhaps the most succinct and pithy summary of Cosby’s life and career is given by Renée Graham, an associate editor and opinion columnist for The Boston Globe. In one part of her interview with W. Kamau Bell, she says that Cosby is “a rapist who had a successful TV show”. At the end of the day, it is as simple—and complicated—as that.

These facts exist in tandem. They are uncomfortable, to be sure, but it benefits no one, least of all his survivors, to try to mitigate his crimes based on the success of his career. We do not make it to Heaven based on our best moments.

We Need to Talk About Cosby is currently airing on Showtime on Sunday nights at 10:00 PM EST. It is also available to stream on various platforms, including Hulu, YouTube TV, Sling TV, and Amazon Prime Video.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

All Aboard the ARC: Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall (Author) and Lisa Sterle (Illustrator)

Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall (Author) and Lisa Sterle (Illustrator)

***Note: I received a free digital review copy of this book from NetGalley and Greenwillow Books in exchange for an honest review. I have not received compensation for the inclusion of any links found in this review or on any other page of The Voracious Bibliophile which mentions Squad, its creators, or its publisher.***

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Short Blurb: Maggie Tokuda-Hall takes everything you think you know about werewolves and their lore and gives it a feminist (and sapphic) bent. The result is a graphic novel that’s just a lot of fun to read (and talk about with your squad—no incels allowed, unless of course they’re on the menu).

Review

Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s Squad is a perfect blend of horror, suspense, and believe it or not, romance. It’s sort of like if Mean Girls had a baby with Teen Wolf that grew up to be super freaking gay and not a little sarcastic. Combine that with Lisa Sterle’s vibrant art style reminiscent of the best of the Archie Comics and what you have is a delightful romp just ripe for adaptation. Does anyone have Netflix’s number?

It’s [Squad] sort of like if Mean Girls had a baby with Teen Wolf that grew up to be super freaking gay and not a little sarcastic.

It all starts when Becca moves with her mom from LA to Piedmont in her junior year of high school. Becca has always wanted to fit in, so when a clique of popular girls takes her in, she feels like she has a place for the first time in her life. It turns out though that Becca’s new squad is less of a clique and more of a pack. Of werewolves, that is, with bites far worse than their barks. These werewolves don’t hunt the innocent, though. Their prey are the predators. Sleazy boys oozing generational wealth and privilege who take advantage of girls at parties. Boys who know history and the law is on their side telling them they’ll get away with it because most of the time they do.

Their prey are the predators.

Becca discovers her friends’ secret at a party outside underneath a full moon. A skinny incel named Bart O’Kavanaugh (Tokuda-Hall’s character naming is very tongue in cheek) gets Becca away from the larger group and tries to assault her. Their exchange really is rape culture in a nutshell:

Bart: You’re hella pretty.

Becca: Okay.

Bart moves in to kiss her and Becca squirms away from him.

Bart: Don’t make it weird.

Becca: Don’t make it rapey.

Bart: Why’d you even come with me then?

Becca: Boredom? I don’t know why I even believed you when you said you were gonna show me something cool.

Bart: Yeah, my dick!

Becca tries to turn away from him.

Becca: Let’s go back to the party.

Bart puts his hand on Becca’s shoulder.

Bart: I can tell you want it.

Becca turns again, trying to dislodge his hand off her shoulder, and Bart violently grabs her by the arm while she tries to free herself. She smacks him in the face, tearing up.

Becca: Let me go, dude!

Bart grabs Becca once again and tears are streaming down her face.

Bart: Jesus, don’t be such a bitch!

There’s a rustling nearby. Suddenly Arianna, Marley, and Mandy step into view.

Marley: You know, you gotta be careful around bitches.

The three girls start transforming into wolves, growing fangs, claws, and fur, tongues lolling in anticipation.

Marley: We roll in packs.

You know, you gotta be careful around bitches. We roll in packs.

If that scene isn’t the most patriarchy-toppling in any piece of media ever, I don’t know what is. There’s something extremely satisfying about seeing boys with names like O’Kavanaugh and Weinstein get eaten by girls-turned-werewolves. After they rescue her from Bart, Becca joins the girls’ pack and has to learn to cope with this new aspect of her identity and all it encompasses. Along with being a newly-turned werewolf, Becca also has another secret to keep that’s gurgling just beneath the surface. When you’re young, or any age, really, having to hide part of yourself to stay safe does damage that takes a long time to heal. Sometimes it doesn’t. That’s true for gay people, women, and werewolves.

When you’re young, or any age, really, having to hide part of yourself to stay safe does damage that takes a long time to heal. Sometimes it doesn’t. That’s true for gay people, women, and werewolves.

Fear not, though, dear readers—Squad doesn’t disappoint and isn’t a tragedy by any stretch of the imagination. In this hybrid horror-romance story, the girls get mad, the boys get eaten, and love triumphs over all. And if only for a moment, everyone who’s ever had to say #MeToo feels just a little bit better.

Squad was released by Greenwillow Books on October 5th, 2021 and is available to purchase wherever books are sold.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.