W. Kamau Bell talks feeling ‘betrayed’ by Bill Cosby: ‘The hypocrisy was an excessive amount of to bear’

Comedian W. Kamau Bell wrestles with Bill Cosby's legacy in the documentary series, We Need to Talk About Cosby. (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Comedian W. Kamau Bell wrestles with Bill Cosby’s legacy within the Showtime documentary collection We Need to Talk About Cosby. (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Seven months after his sudden launch from jail, it is time to discuss Bill Cosby … and W. Kamau Bell has a lot to say. Following its premiere on the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, the comic’s four-part collection, We Need to Talk About Cosby, is premiering Jan. 30 on Showtime. It’s a mission that Bell spent years fastidiously placing collectively — below the working title, Project Albert, a reference to Cosby’s seminal cartoon collection, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids — and wasn’t sure he’d ever end. 

“I thought: ‘Maybe this is just going to go away, because it’s so challenging,” Bell tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “And then he got out of prison and it felt like: ‘Oh, maybe it should go away.’ It’s hard to engage with.”

Certainly, Bell has already skilled the perils of partaking with the large questions surrounding Cosby’s legacy since his conviction on sexual assault prices in 2018. (He was launched in June 2021 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his conviction.) In the wake of We Need to Talk About Cosby‘s Sundance premiere, Cosby’s representatives launched a scathing press assertion that referred to as Bell a “PR hack” and defended the pioneering comic and actor behind I Spy and The Cosby Show. “Mr. Cosby vehemently denies all allegations waged against him. Let’s talk about Bill Cosby. He wants our nation to be what it proclaims itself to be: a democracy.” 

But Bell is not backing down from the dialog his collection is about to begin. Featuring a wealth of interviews with historians, comedians, actors and accusers, We Need to Talk About Cosby traces the complete arc of Cosby’s profession, protecting what Bell calls the “good things” and in addition the “stuff that’s not good.” The director additionally reckons along with his personal historical past as a “Cosby kid,” one who grew up on Fat Albert and The Cosby Show earlier than being pressured to confront Cosby’s misdeeds after fellow comic, Hannibal Buress, referred to as them out in a viral 2014 video. 

“When you’re a comedian that the press is just discovering, they say, ‘Who are the comedians you grew up enjoying?’” Bell remembers. “I’d have to think: ‘If I say Bill Cosby it looks like I’m ignoring all these stories. If I don’t say Bill Cosby, I feel like I’m lying.’ So I started to say, ‘The artist formally known as Bill Cosby.’ But when you talk about such heinous accusations it seems so mealy-mouthed to not come out in support of these survivors. A lot of us just didn’t know how to enter this [conversation], and if you’re Black, it’s an even harder space to enter.”

In a wide-ranging dialog, Bell discusses why he has little endurance for partaking with Cosby supporters’ “conspiracy theories,” the comic’s late-in-life tilt in direction of conservative politics and why it is applicable that the “boys will be boys” tradition that enabled longtime pals Cosby and Hugh Hefner’s misdeeds is lastly being uncovered. 

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You point out within the documentary that you understand Hannibal Buress from the comedy world. Did you ask him to speak about his expertise on digital camera?

I let Hannibal know we had been doing it as a result of it felt just like the accountable factor to do, and I gave him an open invitation [to appear]. But Hannibal’s all the time been very clear that it isn’t one thing he needed to speak about. He did not do that joke as a Trojan horse to take down Bill Cosby — I feel he was as stunned as anyone that it ended up making us all need to confront this. Lots of people with sinister concepts assume that Hannibal did it on goal, however I feel a part of the proper storm of this was that you just by no means noticed it coming from him. 

He’s a Black male comic, however he is not typically doing jokes like that. And in case you watch the best way the jokes are framed, it isn’t cleanly carried out. He was doing a pair punchlines [about Cosby], after which he realized the gang will not be actually a hundred percent with him, which I feel he was stunned by. So he stated, “When you go home, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’” That was a homework task that numerous us did, together with somebody like me who had heard these tales earlier than, however hadn’t been pressured to reckon with them in the best way that Hannibal’s joke actually challenged me to.

The different factor is that there is any individual within the again with a mobile phone digital camera, which wasn’t as widespread then as it’s now. And that particular person put it up and it goes viral. I attempted to create area for him [in the documentary], and I’m positive he will likely be requested about it. I do not need it to be burdensome to him, however you need to inform that a part of the story.

Hannibal Buress on the premiere of Spider-Man: No Way Home in 2021. His on-stage remarks about Bill Cosby in 2014 attracted nationwide consideration. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Another one that would not seem within the documentary is not a particular particular person per se, however moderately the voice of an unabashed Cosby defender. Did you contemplate interviewing somebody who had espoused these emotions?

I used to be extra keen on talking with individuals who had been conflicted, and individuals who had arrived to their very own model of believing [the allegations] in several methods. Some individuals heard these tales and believed them [right away]. Then there are individuals like Joseph C. Phillips who labored on The Cosby Show and got here to [believe] slowly over time as a result of they knew girls who had been assaulted or raped. 

Anytime I thought of bringing in among the extra full-throated defenders, I noticed there’s simply dangerous religion conversations on the market that I prefer to avoid in my life. It’s like if you wish to discuss in regards to the [COVID-19] vaccines and whether or not they’re good, I do not assume you carry a conspiracy theorist into that dialog who says, “I don’t want to get it because it’s going to make me magnetic.” It simply pulls the dialog another way! 

It’s just like the factor occurring with important race concept proper now — the rationale why we will not arrive at an excellent place with that’s as a result of some persons are dangerous religion actors in that dialog. They’re making an attempt to distract and destroy; they don’t seem to be making an attempt to construct to a productive dialog. I feel all people has completely different ranges of beliefs … and I’m of the opinion that I’ve seen sufficient proof that I consider these accusers. And having sat with them, it solely makes me consider them extra. 

Why would you lie when it solely goes to carry you ache and verbal assaults or menace of bodily assaults? Some of his defenders will say, “They’re being paid under the table.” But even with Andrea Constand — who obtained thousands and thousands in her civil swimsuit — it ain’t the type of cash the place you simply go away, purchase an island and disappear. I feel when individuals need [to believe] in conspiracy theories, it says to me that you just’re distracted from simply trying on the fact. 

Andrea Constand at a press convention following Cosby’s 2018 sentencing. (Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto by way of Getty Images)

Money typically appears to be a recurring theme in these sorts of arguments — they dismiss the fees as a result of they see cash altering palms.

To me, cash is only a function of how the justice system in America is damaged, and the way the burden of proof in civic trials is decrease than the burden of proof in authorized trials. Look on the O.J. Simpson case: He was discovered not responsible of murdering these two individuals, however within the civic trial, he was discovered responsible and was presupposed to pay some $25 million. This is all about treatments for a damaged justice system. I’m positive anyone who has gotten cash for a civic trial for being raped or sexually assaulted would give all of it again to make the entire thing not have occurred.

One of probably the most fascinating elements of the collection is the place you monitor Cosby’s tilt in direction of conservatism within the early 2000s, and the way his feedback had been typically celebrated in right-wing circles.

One of my favourite responses once we discuss what you are referring to — the Pound Cake speech on the 2004 NAACP celebration of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education — is [former Cosby co-star] Doug E. Doug saying: “My first reaction is it sounds like every older Black man I know!” [Laughs] There’s a certain quantity of conservatism that sinks into older individuals, and that is true throughout racial strains. It’s like: “I did all this work for you, and you’re not respecting it, so now I’m mad at you.” I feel a few of that’s perhaps simply the pure evolution that usually impacts people: There’s a pull in direction of conservatism as we grow old. 

I feel that speech [revealed] extra of his politics than he had spoken out about earlier than, and he was simply drained, as an older particular person, of holding it in. There’s additionally lots happening in his life at the moment: When he provides the pound cake speech in 2004, his son had been murdered just a few years earlier than. I am unable to think about what it’s to undergo that, so I’ve empathy for that state of affairs. 

Earlier within the collection, it is famous that when Cosby began his comedy profession within the 1960s, he intentionally prevented discussing Civil Rights to have the ability to play rooms he may not in any other case get booked in. Do you assume his move in direction of conservatism in a while was financially-motivated or did he actually consider in what he was saying?

I do know that after the Pound Cake speech grew to become an enormous nationwide story, he actually turned it right into a profession move. He launched a ebook and would go across the nation and do these call-outs. So at that time he turned it into a brand new section of his profession, however I do not know if it was intentional. Certainly Black individuals like me didn’t prefer it, and felt betrayed by it. But numerous different Black individuals appreciated the bracing scrub brush that he used. I feel that is finally a part of the stew that went into Hannibal’s jokes: You’re calling out younger Black males and telling them to tug up their pants, and but there’s these tales of you raping and sexually assaulting girls. The hypocrisy was an excessive amount of to bear.

Cosby attends the Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Gala in 2004 the place he delivered his immediately infamous “Pound Cake speech.” (Photo: Stephen Boitano/Getty Images)

It’s actually not misplaced on me that celebrities like Donald Trump have discovered success by interesting to conservative circles later in life. Had he not been tried and convicted, is there a world wherein Cosby may need run for workplace?

I imply, he was beginning to get to be an older man at that time! By the time the Pound Cake speech occurs, he is near 70. Although we’ve got elected officers now in workplace which are older than that! [Laughs] He’s additionally nonetheless a really wealthy man. Even although Trump claims to be a billionaire, Cosby in all probability has extra money than Trump in case you depend it up. One factor Cosby has all the time appeared to prioritize is doing no matter he needs when he needs to. Despite how Trump did it, being in public workplace is difficult and nerve-racking and you need to rise up early and keep up late. And for Cosby, all of this was about sustaining a stage of fame and fortune and movie star and all the pieces that goes with it. I do not see that resulting in public workplace.

You cowl numerous historic floor in every episode, however you additionally additionally be sure that every of his accusers have loads of time to inform their tales.

Our editors are actually the unsung heroes of the collection. I all the time talked about how we’ve got to let individuals know that it doesn’t matter what we’re speaking about, the opposite shoe goes to drop. We cannot let individuals assume that we have forgotten in regards to the different facet of the story. The first episode was probably the most difficult one, as a result of we hadn’t actually earned the viewers’s belief but. But by the point we get to Victoria Valentino‘s story in that episode that is when your abdomen falls, since you meet her not as a survivor, however as any individual who’s an skilled within the tradition of Playboy. 

Cosby and Hugh Hefner on the Playboy Mansion in 2011. (Photo: Earl Gibson III/WireImage)

Speaking of Playboy, We Need to Talk is popping out concurrently A&E’s Secrets of Playboy docuseries. Is it kismet that the dangerous habits of each of these males is being uncovered on the identical time?

Well, they actually had been superb pals for an extended time frame and each of their manufacturers helped one another. It’s humorous to consider Cosby as a family-friendly comic who was additionally hanging out on the Playboy mansion. Cosby’s model cleaned up Hugh Hefner, and made him appear to be much less of a unclean journal vendor. And Hefner’s model additionally makes Cosby by connecting him to hipness and youngness. Also, these events on the Playboy mansion are legendary and we have realized numerous disturbing issues about these events. It was a playground for the type of males who needed to be in that type of playground in that “boys will be boys” tradition, particularly in that period of Hollywood.

I’m simply joyful that extra of those documentaries are being made as a result of the factor that our doc needs to do is make individuals notice that we, as a society, do not do an excellent job coping with survivors of sexual assault and rape, particularly in Hollywood. We have to create a brand new system the place if you’re raped or sexually assaulted, you are feeling invited to inform your story and know precisely the place to go to get assist, therapeutic and a few measure of justice … and should not blamed for the actions of a rapist or sexual assaulter.

Hollywood’s all about the place you’re on the decision sheet. If you are No. 1 on the decision sheet, you have got probably the most energy, probably the most privilege and probably the most entry to what you need. That could be “I want a double mocha,” however it might typically be extra sinister issues than espresso orders. And the issue is the particular person on the backside of the decision sheet sees the particular person on the high doing one thing they assume is unsuitable they usually really feel there isn’t any place for them to go the place they don’t seem to be going to be blamed or face the enterprise finish of the results. 

And it isn’t all the time about crime essentially. There are all these tales popping out about Joss Whedon, who apparently was being a jerk to A-list actors [like Gal Gadot] and in addition Ray Fisher, who will not be an A-list actor and has no mechanism to say, “Who do I tell that this is happening?” There must be methods to handle systemic dysfunction and criminality within the second the place the one who is saying “I need help,” will get assist and would not get shamed or fired.

Some of probably the most damning interviews within the movie are with individuals who labored on The Cosby Show and claimed to not know what was occurring on set. Did you consider them once they stated they did not know or had been they conveniently trying the opposite approach?

I perceive how showbiz works, and this is what I do know … the entire system has acculturated individuals to look the opposite approach. Numerous what Cosby was doing was filed below infidelity, and in case you’re in showbiz and you do not like infidelity, get out of showbiz! [Laughs] There was a way of: “Let him do what he’s doing — we’re all making money, and we’re all doing good.” That led individuals to consider it is none of their enterprise as a substitute of trying clearly at it and going, “What’s happening over there? I need to tell somebody.” So the fault is the techniques which are in place. No matter what number of particular person dangerous males we take away from it, the system’s going to be the identical. Bill Cosby is simply the inroad into this dialog; there’s additionally Harvey Weinstein and lots of others you possibly can carry up.

Since Cosby’s launch from jail in June, he is talked about happening tour once more. Do you see that taking place?

I imply, he is 85 years previous. That will not be when comedians usually go on tour! [Laughs] I’ve additionally heard that they stopped speaking in regards to the tour as a result of he is obtained two civic trials towards him. I’m positive there are venues on this nation that may host him as a result of that is the type of nation we stay in, they usually’re free to do this and free to cope with who exhibits up. But he is not going to have entry to the type of mechanisms of showbiz that he had entry to earlier than. Based on my social media feed, I consider any individual would present up. 

Attorney Jennifer Bonjean and Cosby after he was launched from jail in 2021. (Photo: Michael Abbott/Getty Images)

He’s additionally spoken about feeling “vindicated,” regardless that his launch was owed extra to a authorized technicality. How can we discuss his launch going ahead so his model of occasions would not dominate the discourse?

IWhen Cosby obtained out of jail, I talked to Michael Coard, who’s a lawyer in Philadelphia, and one of many issues he stated was that it isn’t a technicality. There was a deal that Cosby struck with the prosecutor at one level, which stated: “You can say whatever you want to say, and we will not use this against you.” The cause why he obtained out of jail is as a result of that prosecutor obtained voted out of workplace, and the following one turned the deal over. Legally, that is not cool. It’s not a technicality, and it isn’t exoneration: It was due to backroom dealings that should not have been carried out and the deal obtained violated. As Michael succinctly says within the movie, “It’s a good decision for a bad man.”  

Now, the factor we additionally have to speak about is that if Bill Cosby was simply William Cosby from North Philly who labored at a machine store — that man doesn’t have the cash, privilege and energy to get the deal within the first place or to get justice when the deal is violated! So once more the system is unsuitable and the system is racist, however when you’ve got energy and privilege, you’ll be able to stability these scales in a approach that almost all Black individuals on this nation can’t. 

But the factor that actually struck with me — and we put it within the doc — is the a part of Cosby’s deposition, the place he is speaking about Andrea Constand and the way he had intercourse along with her from his perspective. He stated, “I enter the area between permission and rejection and I am not stopped.” He’s speaking a couple of girl who’s handed out or who’s no less than on medication that he has given her. There’s no space between permission and rejection, and I feel that is a extremely highly effective piece of proof towards Cosby that I hadn’t actually seen in that approach. To me that is recreation, set and match as a result of he is admitted it. So once we discuss this, discuss what he stated.

We Need to Talk About Cosby premieres Sunday, Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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