Opinion: ‘We Have to Talk About Cosby’ brings a hard reckoning

Docuseries contrasts star’s two sides: comic genius and serial sexual predator

On a long lost Blackberry whose password I’ve forgotten, there’s a string of shots of me photo-bombing Bill Cosby in a green room. It’s May 2012 and Cosby is soon to receive an honorary degree and give a commencement address at the University of San Francisco. He is wearing a set of green and gold USF sweats and sitting across from a pair of distinguished Black elders who are old friends of his and old acquaintances of mine.

The couple’s presence gives me the nerve to crash the room. I stand behind Cosby’s chair, grinning and occasionally responding to a comment from the couple. I say hello to Cosby, but he barely registers my presence and I’m OK with that — that’s how thrilled I am to be so close to someone who has been such a big figure in my family for as long as I can remember.

It doesn’t occur to me to seek an autograph, but a Black professor, who will be introducing Cosby at the commencement ceremony, snaps at least a dozen photos of me standing over the star, beaming like the six-year-old I regressed to as soon as I walked into the room. I don’t need all of those photos, but the man with the camera is nearly as giddy as I am and he keeps seeking different angles.

About a month later, I pass the Blackberry around at a surprise birthday party for my mother. The photos — of one of our family so close to Cosby she could have touched him — are a hit.

That was before October 2014, when a viral video of comedian Hannibal Buress telling a bitter joke accusing Cosby of being a hypocrite and rapist, ignited a mountain of vile, criminal secrets that had been smoldering for decades.

Much has been made of the fact that some of Cosby’s victims had been trying to be heard and believed for a long time before Buress ripped the veil that night in Philadelphia.

I don’t know why it took a joke to make people take the rumors seriously. But I think it is important that Buress linked Cosby’s sanctimonious victim-blaming of poor Black people with a sharp uppercut at Cosby’s own behavior. Buress demanded: Who was Cosby, an alleged serial rapist, to tell young Black men to pull up their pants? Buress is a Black comedian, too, and this time the call was coming from inside the house.

When I heard about Bay Area comedian W. Kamau Bell’s recent Showtime documentary series “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” I started pulling these memories out of the mental mothballs. For a long time, I couldn’t think about Cosby without feeling disgusted and foolish about ever admiring him. Cosby (and Michael Jackson) are stitched into my pop culture DNA.

My siblings and I were among the first-run audiences to see “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.” The teachers in our family commented approvingly on Cosby’s advanced degree and his work with Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint. His books, records and videos held pride of place in our home.

But I did not pay a lot of attention to Cosby after the late 1990s. I’d heard he was out there saying ugly things about how poor and incarcerated Black people had themselves to blame, but I hadn’t processed it.

In “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” Bell, 49, refers to Cosby as “a North Star for my generation.” He says he was moved to make the four-part series when he heard that filmmaker Nonie Robinson had decided to leave out Cosby’s role in getting Black stunt people hired.

In Bell’s documentary, Robinson, whose grandfather Ernie Robinson was one of the first Black stuntmen, describes having recorded a great interview with Cosby about how he insisted the network hire a Black stunt double for him on “I Spy” after he saw a white stuntman literally being painted black (not brown). But when dozens of women started coming forward with credible allegations of sexual assault against Cosby, Robinson decided to shelve the footage.

Bell isn’t trying to burnish Cosby’s legacy — far from it. He is trying to connect the parts of who Cosby was on and off camera and wrestle with the contradictions. “America’s dad” preying on teenage girls. Giving a record $20 million to Spelman, an historically Black college for women, while drugging and raping young Black women. Putting Black people into all kinds of production jobs on his shows, while singling out some aspiring actresses for assault. Telling jokes about slipping aphrodisiacs into women’s food and drink — even in a barbecue scene on “The Cosby Show.”

Bell has said he did not interview Cosby out of respect for the women he victimized, several of whom are interviewed in the series. If, like me, you thought he started assaulting women when he got rich and famous, you may be stunned to learn the earliest recorded accusations predate his stardom. My gut says the early victims were probably Black women, who would be even less likely to come forward with complaints. Those women would be in their 70s by now.

The contrasting documentation of Cosby’s enormous influence on American popular culture, with the first-person accounts of a fraction of the women who have come forward, make Cosby’s achievements seem like the shield and engine that made the serial assaults possible.

In November 2014, after the Washington Post published Barbara Bowman’s piece about how Cosby drugged and raped her when she 17, I started paying attention again. Bowman’s article was a beacon for dozens of women who had suffered Cosby’s predations alone. So far, more than 60 women have come forward.

I wondered why he wasn’t filing defamation suits against his accusers. I knew why: Because these women were telling the truth. I believed them and stopped thinking about all the times and all the ways Cosby had made me laugh. I talked about the victims and the meager vindication of his conviction, but I seldom talked about Cosby.

“There are a million reasons we don’t want what we know to be true about Bill Cosby to be true,” says Danielle Morgan, a Santa Clara University professor and scholar of Black comedy, who appears in the documentary. She’s speaking about one of the most beloved scenes in “The Cosby Show,” when the whole Huxtable family entertains Cliff’s parents by lip synching and dancing to Ray Charles singing “Night Time Is the Right Time.”

Morgan says, “It’s such a bright and warm scene. I think many of us don’t want to lose the way that those scenes make us feel… and what they meant for us watching at the time. But the reality is the reality.”

I couldn’t help smiling through that scene when I saw it again in Bell’s documentary. It took me back to another time Cosby delighted old folks and little kids in a Black family’s living room.

Cosby is at the center of one of my earliest and happiest childhood memories. It’s a Sunday evening and my mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles are sitting in the living room listening to Cosby records. My younger brothers are sitting cross-legged on the floor, there’s a baby sister on someone’s lap and I am perched on the arm of the sofa, closest to the hi-fi where I can see the record spinning. Daddy won’t get in from work until everyone has gone home.

Some of the grown-ups have little plates of Mama’s cake and Aunt Cora and Granny are smoking. People are laughing so hard the room seems to shake. My favorite stories are on Cosby’s albums “I Started Out as a Child” and “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” Those of us kids old enough to follow the stories love the parts about “The Belt” and jumping on the bed and the fights that can break out between siblings over whose arm touched whose first.

This was the stuff of our young lives and hearing it reflected in Cosby’s stories made us feel connected to something bigger and real, at a time when there were so few relatable images of Black children in popular culture. But Bell’s documentary offers other powerful examples of people being seen and heard in the authenticity of their experiences: the testimonies of the women who’d been caught on this star’s dark side.

We shouldn’t feel bad about the pleasure we’ve had from Cosby because our joy was authentic, even if the artist who inspired it wasn’t who we thought he was. Cosby is an unrepentant criminal. USF rescinded that honorary degree. I don’t care if I ever see those photos again. My feelings about Cosby these days are similar to how I feel about Thomas Jefferson, another celebrated, influential American and rapist: We need to get — and keep — all of the parts of the stories on the record. And we need to talk about them.

Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

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