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'We Need to Talk About Cosby' examines the human impact of the comic's rise and fall

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"We Need To Talk About Cosby" is a four-part documentary directed by W. Kamau Bell, the comic, TV host and filmmaker. It examines the complicated legacy of Bill Cosby. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans interviewed Bell for the NPR Storytelling Lodge at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival and has this report.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: W. Kamau Bell admits it at the beginning of his docuseries. He's a child of Bill Cosby. In other words, he's a Black man born in the '70s, raised on his classic shows like "Fat Albert" and "The Cosby Show," who now must make sense of the fact that more than 60 women have accused the legendary comedian of drugging and raping.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BILL COSBY")

W KAMAU BELL: Bill Cosby himself showed me that you could be smart and funny in equal measure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why did you do it?

BILL COSBY: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are you prepared to go to prison, sir?

BELL: How do we talk about Bill Cosby? Here's all the good he did and all the other things that I and many other people believe he did.

I can look at all the good stuff Bill Cosby did if I also reckon with the other stuff Bill Cosby did.

DEGGANS: When I spoke with Bell over a Zoom call on Wednesday, I asked why he made a film with pundits, comics, assault survivors, experts and more speaking on Cosby's legacy. He referenced a segment in the docuseries about Black stunt performers. It begins with Black actress and model Gloria Hendry, who appeared in the James Bond film "Live And Let Die." She said they didn't have a Black stuntwoman to film a scene where Bond fights her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BILL COSBY")

GLORIA HENDRY: It was a white man dressed in a white outfit, sleeveless. And you could see they colored his skin black.

DEGGANS: Bell says Cosby pushed back on stuff like that.

BELL: On the set of "I Spy," his very first TV show, he saw a white stuntman getting painted black the way they did - not brown, but black. And he said, I'm not going to work on this show unless you find me a Black stunt performer. And that changed the whole industry.

DEGGANS: When Bell heard a documentary on Black stuntmen pulled a Cosby interview, he worried the rush to not talk about the comic would also eliminate important information.

BELL: And so for me, it was like, we're going to lose some critical Black history if we don't reckon with this whole Bill Cosby conversation.

DEGGANS: A spokesperson for Cosby released a statement earlier this week calling Bell's project a, quote, "PR hack," noting the superstar comedian has denied all allegations of drugging and assault and claiming, quote, "despite media's repetitive reports of allegations against Mr. Cosby, none have ever been proven in any court of law." Cosby was found guilty on three counts of assault in 2018 and served almost three years in prison before the conviction was overturned on appeal.

BELL: We talk about why some of these things didn't end up in a court of law. It's because the culture of the United States of America is that if you are a survivor of sexual assault, your community, law enforcement often tells you, don't tell nobody even if the person is not a famous person.

DEGGANS: The docuseries features stories from several women who say Cosby drugged and raped them, using a timeline to compare dates of the assaults to important milestones in the comic's career. Victoria Valentino, a former Playboy model, told Bell that Cosby assaulted her in 1969. This was years before Bell was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BILL COSBY")

VICTORIA VALENTINO: I never talked about it. I never told anybody any of the dirty details for years and years and years. I didn't know that there were other women. I just thought it was me.

DEGGANS: Bell says he didn't ask Cosby for comment because he wanted to make a conversation about Cosby, not with him. And he was concerned about the survivors.

BELL: Once you get the buy-in from some of the survivors to do something that is very delicate - we're going to tell your story, but there's also going to be stuff in here that is about the good parts of Bill Cosby's legacy - to get them to buy into that part is big. It would feel like a total betrayal to then go, also, we reached out to Bill Cosby, and we're going to interview him.

DEGGANS: When I say that his project reminds me of other documentaries like "Surviving R. Kelly" and "Framing Britney Spears" that ask audiences to reexamine how we all may have shrugged off past controversies, he suggests another parallel.

BELL: The commonality is not listening to women. And so I think - the thing that we all need to do, and specifically as men, we have to do a better job of prioritizing, centering and platforming the voices of women, especially brothers like me and you who are in positions of power and privilege.

DEGGANS: Bell may not answer the central question in Cosby's legacy - how did someone who achieved so much also seem capable of such evil? But he presents a compelling discussion on judging art and artist with no easy answers. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTWIRE'S "AMPHIBIAN CIRCUITS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.