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W. Kamau Bell explains why 'We Need to Talk About Cosby'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If I say Bill Cosby, you say, what? Or do I just hear a deep, heavy sigh? On the one hand, he is - or was - an entertainment icon, a trailblazing Black performer who opened the door to countless others, all while projecting an image of wholesomeness that attracted corporate sponsors and families across the racial divide. Not for nothing, was he known as America's dad.

On the other hand, Cosby has been accused by dozens of women of sexual abuse spanning the length of his career. He was convicted in one case in 2018 and sent to prison, but released last year after the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction. So who is Bill Cosby, really and how do you talk about him now?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Should I even been talking about this guy?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I know I don't want to get in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Bill Cosby is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: One of the biggest predators in Hollywood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: He's a rapist who had a really big TV show once.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: An example of the complexity of humanity.

MARTIN: Not easy. But comedian and television host W. Kamau Bell has done it. In a new four part Showtime series, "We Need to Talk About Cosby" and W. Kamau Bell is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

W KAMAU BELL: Thank you. I'm always happy to talk to you.

MARTIN: So why do we need to talk about Cosby and why did you want to?

BELL: I mean, you know, as I say in the doc, like I was a kid who was born into the - sort of the rise of Bill Cosby's career and as a Black kid who was watching him on kid's TV - "Fat Albert," "Picture Pages," "The Electric Company," then he was also, even in the '70s, already on commercials a lot. And then he sort of - Bill Cosby himself inspired me to be a stand-up comedian, then "The Cosby Show," I felt like I was a member of the Huxtable family. So he was a part of the wallpaper of Black America and then - and I sort of like understood that he was saying, not only do you should you make good work, you should also be good in the world.

So I was trying to do that in my career and then to find out about these accusations and then, as I believe the women who accused him, it just was always the thing of like, how do I reconcile with this? Because if somebody says, who are the comedians that inspired you growing up, I want to say Bill Cosby, but if I say Bill Cosby, am I denying what the survivors? And so this documentary comes out of just something that me, and I think a lot of people wrestled with for a long time. And then when he went to prison, it felt like, OK, Bill Cosby's story is basically over at this point, so maybe we can have these conversations, but of course, we now know he's out.

MARTIN: One of the things that's fascinating is that you invite people to entertain the other perspective. I mean, you've got this device where you give people an iPad to look at and you invite them to think about the perspective of someone other than what they came in with. Like, for example, you invite the women who say they have been violated by him to think about his artistic legacy, and I think that's a really profound choice. And I was just wondering how you arrived at that.

BELL: I mean, part of it comes from the fact that, like for many of the women that we talked to - and of course, there's over 60 and we didn't come close to talking to all of them - they had an awareness or connection to Bill Cosby's career before they actually had these events happen with him. So there's a little bit of like, I don't want these people to just be seen as the time they spent with Bill Cosby where he violated them. So we were always looking for ways to connect with these women about things that weren't just about those moments or those years with Cosby, just about their lives, what they knew about Bill Cosby before.

And Lise Lotte-Lublin is really great. She can talk about how much she loves Fat Albert and later tell you the story about how he drugged her and raped her. And so the first time we see Lise in the series, she's talking about how much she loves Fat Albert and how even as a teacher today, she makes Fat Albert jokes about what - you're like school on a Saturday, no class. You know, she's still making that joke, which I think is important to go, this is a fully functioning, fully developed, fully realized human being who is not just about her story with Cosby. So that then for me, it makes the audience go, OK, these aren't just a bunch of - these aren't just a bunch of soundbite victims. These are fully functional human beings.

MARTIN: Another place where Cosby's legacy gets complicated is with what has come to be known as the pound cake speech, where he scolded Black people for being single parents, for naming children certain names, for, quote, "getting shot in the head over a piece of pound cake," you know, whatever that means. And he begins to make more speeches along those lines. But I'm just wondering about how you see this - that moralizing fit into the persona that Cosby was trying to create, especially because, you know, he might have been America's dad and his lessons in The Cosby Show were kind of always, you know, delivered with kind of a gentle tone. But those speeches, were very harsh, very aggressive, very...

BELL: hateful...

MARTIN: ...Well, I think that's a fair word. So how do you understand that?

BELL: I experienced it as hateful and harsh, but if you listen to the recordings is that - it's at an NAACP event. And in the room, there's clearly people who really appreciate it. But it just felt like Cosby hadn't been that guy up until that point, and it felt like something shifted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL COSBY: And we got these knuckleheads walking around, don't want to learn English. I can't even talk the way these people talk. Why you ain't, where you is, (unintelligible).

These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola and people getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake. And then we all run out and we're outraged. Oh, the cop shouldn't have shot.

BELL: Like, this guy wouldn't have been America's dad. Any guy who spoke like this, we would not have said, we love you. This is America's dad. It felt like something had shifted in him. And, you know, I'm not an armchair psychologist. I'm not going to try to be one. But it really felt like he was - there was something boiling up inside of him that he was aiming that hatred at the most oppressed class of black folks.

MARTIN: How do you feel now that you've done it? I know we talked at the beginning how you felt trepidation about doing this and - but how do you feel now that you have started this conversation or you've reignited this conversation, which frankly, is one that we could have about a number of other cultural figures right now.

BELL: For sure, and should have. So I mean, I feel happy that there are people who clearly are receiving the work the way the work was created by me and the team of people who put it together, who are who are engaging with it, whether it's survivors of sexual assault and rape, or whether it's black people who are just like, I really have never figured out how to deal with all this stuff about Bill Cosby, or whether it's just people who are like, I was always a fan. I didn't know any of this. I've seen people tweet about the fact that they feel like they're getting a lesson in the history of black people in America, in the history of black cinema, in the history of Hollywood, and also how sexual assault and rape works.

And I feel like I'm glad that you're seeing that we worked to put all that in there. It's not perfect, but we really wanted to try to put as much as we could. But as a human being, this has been - you know, it's not a Marvel movie. I wish it was on some level, like, I'm still feeling it. And I - so when people go, how do you feel now that it's out? I feel like it's still in the process of coming out and every day when I open up social media - which I do less and less - there are people who are discovering it, having the same - having a new conversation about it. And not all of those are supportive, not all of those are happy.

Some people, as we said, are not happy that I did this and don't see what the point is. And especially as a Black man who was, quote-unquote, "taking a Black man down," but if you watch it, it's not a hit piece. But I do feel like I'm in this position of, like, I'm still in it. I don't know when the it ends, but I'm still in it.

MARTIN: I've been talking with W. Kamau Bell. He is a comedian, television host, and filmmaker, and he's creator of the four-part series, "We Need To Talk About Cosby." It's streaming now on Showtime. Kamau, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

BELL: Thank you. As always, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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