Why We Need to Talk About Cosby

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Why we need to talk about Cosby


“We Need to Talk About Cosby,” W. Kamau Bell’s brilliant four-part documentary on Showtime, is crucial viewing. Why? Because some people still don’t believe in his guilt, his 2018 conviction for aggravated indecent assault was overturned, and he walks around considering the possibility of a book and a documentary (an unexpected coda that Bell n had not anticipated but included in the series). And because Cosby was hiding in plain sight, a wolf (apologies wolves) in sheep’s clothing despite the hints he dropped. And there were plenty of them. My jaw was on the floor as I mentally reframed the scenes Bell had highlighted from “The Cosby Show” featuring the Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable’s frisky banter about what was really in his barbecue sauce! I was shocked to realize Dr. Huxtable was not just any type of doctor, he was an OB/GYN who examined women in his home office! My God. He was toying with us, almost daring us to find out, so convinced was he that he was unassailable even as he attacked dozens of women who crossed his path.

I have to talk more about Cosby because I’m still trying to figure out how such different characters can co-exist in the same person. Bell creates a powerful context for Cosby’s deviance. Better than anyone has done before, the series fleshes out the depth and breadth of Cosby’s impact on mainstream culture. Cosby has become a colossus straddling the racial divide, across many decades and multiple mediums – stage, screen, written – and as an artist, author, educator, scholar, political activist, moral authority, father figure. Perhaps more importantly, it reconfigured prime-time representation for what an all-American family looked like: black, upwardly mobile, smart, wholesome, sophisticated, professional. His public and private personas were fused together in the public mind. Not our only mistake.

What struck me most, and as Brian Tallerico notes in his review, is that Bell’s series graphically makes clear an astonishing reality: Cosby was traveling two simultaneous trajectories. In every decade of his journey to becoming a beloved pop cultural icon and the epitome of racial equity, he simultaneously drugged and raped women. How could all of this be true of one and the same guy?

Lili Bernard in “We Need to Talk About Cosby”

One answer lies in his unique gift for reading an audience. He could see us and understand us, reach us, put us at ease and tell us a story in such a funny, vivid and relatable way that we would follow him anywhere just to see where he could take us. It is a manipulation, a kind of seduction, to obtain a desired effect. This is what any qualified actor, comedian, writer, performer does. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, even when you know better, even when it’s in the service of a deviant personality.

Cosby also put those skills to use in an aberrant fetish that combined complete domination (an unconscious female) and sexual stimulation to make him an unholy predator of biblical proportions. Was this fetish an extension of the kick he received while holding an audience in the palm of his hand? A perversion of his need for control? A permutation of the sex and drug culture of the 60s? We will probably never know. Bill Cosby himself doesn’t talk about Cosby.

Even more disturbing to me, I watched brave women bluntly describe, directly on camera, what Cosby had done to them, and then, almost without exception, blame themselves first for what happened! It hit me like a cold wind. It was a disturbing guideline in all the hideous stories they told.

Now we understand how women are acculturated to feel guilty about sex, to rely on power, to avoid conflict. It’s no surprise that most of the women who came forward, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, felt like it was their fault and told themselves they had given Cosby the wrong signals, that they shouldn’t have put themselves in that situation or that they shouldn’t have had that drink.

Kierna Mayo in “We Need to Talk About Cosby”

Only Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine blasted Cosby on the spot. As soon as she felt the first signs of drowsiness after the cappuccino he had given her, she knew that the “mummy—-r” (her word) had drugged her and called her. As a socialite and successful model who had walked through the racial divide herself, she was undoubtedly less intimidated in the company of a powerful black icon. Even so, Cosby nearly succeeded, but, in the face of her protests, he piled her into a cab before he could complete the assault.

My very well-behaved daughter reminds me that self-blame is a fundamental psychological defense mechanism. It’s safer to imagine that something you could have done differently might have prevented the assault. Blaming yourself keeps you from having to accept the terrifying reality that you were, in fact, completely helpless and vulnerable through no fault of your own – and that it could happen again. The fact that it often takes women years to come forward, if ever, strengthens the argument.

I can’t help but remember an assignment I had in 1997 as a TV Arts and Entertainment reporter for CBS Boston. Bill Cosby was appearing in Lowell, Massachusetts and I was to interview him and cover the show. He was also promoting his new ‘Little Bill’ series of children’s books, including one about how to deal with a bully.

That afternoon I interviewed him, and had also arranged for him to read aloud to a group of elementary school children. What happened next seemed irrelevant. He seemed to make fun of children. A little girl was visibly uncomfortable after raising her hand and answering a question, only for him to downplay her response. The child was silent. I was uncomfortable, as was my producer, who can spot a fake a mile away.

“But he is an educator,” we thought. “He’s good with kids, isn’t he? He thinks he’s funny, but he miscalculated. We rationalized that it had to be a rare moment. We were also invested in believing in Cosby – he was our story that night, and we didn’t really trust our negative responses to his interaction with the kids.

Then, as he got up to leave, I remember him walking past, leaning over and saying “FOLLOW ME” while continuing to walk. EH? I looked at my producer. Should she and the crew follow too? Was it about filming the show that night? Who knew? Maybe I was going to get the scoop on the Jell-O Pudding pops.

Eden Tirl in “We Need to Talk About Cosby”

Anyway, if Cosby called, I was going, and it seemed clear that the invitation was for me only. I followed him down the hall to his dressing room. He ushered me in, took off his jacket, waved me over to the couch, offered me something to drink, and asked me to sit down. I declined the drink but sat down. He sat next to me. He didn’t say a word. He stared straight ahead, expressionless. It was suddenly as if Cosby had left his body and another entity had taken his place. Terrifying silence.

What the hell was I doing there? What should I say? I racked my brains and remembered that about a year before, Cosby’s adult son, Ennis, had been murdered in a roadside mugging. Should I offer my condolences? No. Too personal. Oddly, I felt like I couldn’t just ask him why he wanted to see me. Maybe I was supposed to know? Maybe I didn’t want to know somehow? I managed to say how much we looked forward to his performance that night. He does not say anything.

Then he got up, walked to the door, opened it, thanked me and led me out. I walked down the hall in a daze, feeling like I had just failed an unspoken test. My producer was expecting me. I didn’t know how to process what had happened.

I didn’t give it much thought until years later, when one night, in the middle of his routine, stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress galvanized the rumors that had been circulating around Cosby for years, and eventually blew off the roof of the house that was Cosby. With a disturbing hindsight, the elements of my encounter with him fell into place – had I been a potential victim?

I realized I had glimpsed the hidden man, but W. Kamau Bell, along with the brave women who made themselves vulnerable to speak about Cosby again, brought the man to light. It’s hard to look squarely at the dangers around us, but this series, like all great documentaries, helps us do just that.

By putting the past into revealing perspective, Bell’s series invites us to reflect on how and why we hide from uncomfortable truths, and how our individual and collective vulnerability to fame, power, and the heroic myths we construct fill our needs and disarms us even after being betrayed. How badly we “needed Cosby” is one of the reasons “we need to talk about Cosby”.

Ultimately, the series reveals the courage it takes to not only admit our vulnerabilities, but also suggests that by embracing them we are on safer ground. There will always be dangers ahead, but the light of chilling hindsight, through the eyes of those who dare to name them, can illuminate a path forward and let us know that we are not alone in the dark.

Joyce Kulhawik
Joyce Kulhawik

Joyce Kulhawik, best known as the Emmy Award-winning arts and entertainment critic for CBS-Boston (WBZ-TV 1981-2008), co-hosted the syndicated film review show “Hot Ticket” and was co-host continues on “Roger Ebert and the Movies.” Look for his review online at JoycesChoices.com.


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