‘We Need to Talk About Cosby’ Review : Sundance 2022 ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

The first hint I had that something was wrong with America’s favorite father was he seemed to spend time at the Playboy mansion and the other was his commentary on “Spanish Fly.” The limited series,  “We Have to Talk About Bill Cosby,” looks at the “bananas” juxtaposition between America’s dad, the most successful comedian and the rapist who was one of the biggest predators in Hollywood.

Of course, Cosby wasn’t the only person who thought drugging women was cool and funny. Consider The Limteliters song, “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear.” The lyrics  of the 1960 song (from the live album “Tonight: In Person” which was recorded on 29 July 1960 in Hollywood, California) tell us quite clearly the woman in question is 17. The man is old and vile and no stranger to vice. 

What the song doesn’t mention is the age of consent in California is 18 (since 1913) Limeliters member Lou Gottlieb was born in California and graduated from UC Berkeley. Original Limeliter Alex Hassilev was educated in Harvard and the University of Chicago. The current age of consent for Massachusetts is 16 and for Illinois, 17.  The third original member, Glenn Yarbrough was born in Wisconsin, raised in New York City and Maryland. Wisconsin’s age of consent is 18; New York’s is 17 and Maryland is 16. The novelty song was considered funny but not creepy and predatory in nature. This is the context of the times. 

Cosby’s Spanish Fly routine was recorded on his eighth comedy album, “It’s True! It’s True!” that was released in 1969. At the Playboy mansion, reportedly, Hugh Hefner approved of Quaaludes that were also called “thigh-openers.” 

In “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” writer/director W. Kamau Bell spoke with comedians, journalists and assault survivors to look at the good things and the bad things Bill Cosby did or allegedly did. Some of the good things made the bad things easier. 

Bell first asks, if people can still listen to Bill Cosby, to his old shows like the ground-breaking “I Spy” to this family show where he was a physician. Bell explains, “I feel like I have to have this discussion. Why? Because I am the child of Bill Cosby.” Bell says, as a child of the seventies, “I was raised on Fat Albert.” Cosby’s comedy was mostly clean (free of four-letter curse words) and Cosby was “smart and funny in equal measures.” Cosby was someone not only respected by Black people, but others as well. He wasn’t Black America’s Dad; he was America’s Dad. 

The first episode looks at the sheer talent of a man who was a popular bartender at the Cellar in Philadelphia and began standup comedy jobs, taking his popular patter to the sage. . In what seems like an impossibly brief time, he is on national TV, NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”  He  rose to become a well-respected stand-up comedian. He records his first album, “Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right!” in 1963 in NYC’s Greenwich Village. From there, he got a few breaks, including a role on “I Spy” (1965-1968).  During “I Spy,” Cosby helped Black stuntmen to enter the field, refusing have men in black makeup to do his stunts. 

In Part 2, Cosby’s next show, “The Bill Cosby Show,” runs only two season. He continues his education, doing grad work at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he also records educational segments for young children for the PBS series “The Electric Company.”   He gets his Master degree in 1972, but his next show, “The New Bill Cosby Show” lasts only one season. His Saturday-morning cartoon, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” runs from 1972 to 1979.  He uses the cartoon show as part of his dissertation and earns a Ph.D. Cosby attempts to make the jump to the big screen with some blaxploitation films, but none are really that successful. His image is more of that of an educator, a dad, and he’s telling kids to say “no” to drugs, but it seems he was already offering drugs to young women.

In Part 3, “The Cosby Show” (1984-1992) makes him one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Playing Cliff Huxtable, a successful obstetrician whose wife is a lawyer (Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable), he became America’s Dad, but eventually off the show, he seems to morph into the grumpy Grandpa. Now in hindsight,  Cliff Huxtable’s speciality seems more than a little creepy. Still, the actors who played his family of four daughters and one son, saw a positive side of Cosby. 

Part 4 is the story of his fall from grace. A comedian Hannibal Burress tells a joke and that culminates in survivors speaking out and people finally listening. Bell had thought things would be neatly wrapped up, because Cosby was behind bars. As you know, the verdict was overturned and on 30 Jun 2021 Cosby was released from prison. Rashad has spoken out in support of Cosby, but Bell wasn’t able to get Cosby to speak on Cosby.

While undoubtedly Cosby did contribute to the breaking of stereotypes on television, opening doors to new job opportunities for Black people (e.g. stunt people)  and he made major contributions to institutions of higher education, some of that is tainted. Can we praise Cosby for the good he did while acknowledging the bad?  Cosby was a promising comedian who kept every promise (except perhaps movie stardom). Cosby is part of Black history, Black heritage and part of the show business machine of misogyny. “We Need to Talk About Cosby” doesn’t have all the answers but it sets a foundation for conversations about a man who did great good and great bad.

“We Need to Talk About Cosby” made its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, and premieres online on Showtime on Sunday (30 January 2022, 10:00 p.m. ET) and will be offered on Hulu as well. as Apple, Roku and Amazon for a fee.  

While I don’t believe it is wise to criticize a film when one hasn’t seen it, Bill Cosby has made an official statement on the limited series through his press person. Showtime is showing us how to open up Black Heritage Month with something we can talk about for all of February and then some. 

 

 

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