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Cosby's legacy is a third rail conversation we need to have. W. Kamau Bell is ready

Comic W. Kamau Bell takes Bill Cosby's fall from "America's dad" to sexual predator personally. In the four-part Showtime documentary series, We Need to Talk About Cosby, Bell grapples with Cosby's tainted legacy and his larger betrayal of the Black community.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Talking about Bill Cosby is still a third-rail conversation for Black people, according to my guest W. Kamau Bell. He speaks from experience. He directed a four-part documentary series called "We Need To Talk About Cosby" that's now on Showtime. The final episode is this Sunday.

The series is about Cosby's importance in American culture and the special place he held in Black culture as a comic, sitcom creator and star, educator and philanthropist, and how, through much of his career, he was also a serial rapist. About 60 women have come forward, and there are still more women who are reluctant to come forward. The series examines Cosby as America's dad, his secret life of drugging and assaulting women and how the two timelines coincided.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY")

W KAMAU BELL: When you look at the number of stories of women who've come forward saying Bill Cosby assaulted or raped them during this time, and then you look at the number of accolades he got, you see they skyrocketed together. Around the same time he released his book "Fatherhood" and Hollywood was crowning him with yet another Emmy and two Golden Globes...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bill Cosby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: "The Cosby Show."

BELL: ...He was guest hosting "The Tonight Show."

BILL COSBY: My next guest is a very talented actor.

BELL: ...And, according to many, abusing his power behind the scenes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I was raped, and I was afraid for my life, thinking he could do more. I informed a lawyer. I informed a police officer. But at the same time, I thought, will anybody believe me against him? No. Will I have the money to fight this, such power and wealth? No.

GROSS: Several other women were also interviewed by Bell about how Cosby drugged and raped them. Kamau Bell is a comic who was inspired by Cosby and grew up watching Cosby on TV. Kamau Bell also hosts the CNN documentary series, "United Shades Of America," in which he travels to communities around America, talking to people about the challenges they face. The series has taken him to places you wouldn't expect a Black man to go, like a Ku Klux Klan rally.

W. Kamau Bell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really good to talk with you again. The series is great, so thank you.

BELL: I appreciate that. Yeah, thank you.

GROSS: So how is talking about Cosby still a third rail among Black people?

BELL: I mean, I really do believe that for anybody who was sort of alive during his - the height of his power or for the rise of his power, it's a third-rail conversation. It just - I think if you're Black and you were alive for that, it just - you're just adding more electrified rails to the conversation. I think it's hard for anybody because, as we say in the series, he was America's dad during "The Cosby Show" - not Black America's dad, America's dad. And, I mean, there's people as far away as South Africa who feel like "The Cosby Show" changed their lives. So it's - it is hard to talk about just generally if you're any race of American, but as a Black person, we are still, and always have been, under a deficit of role models who are promoted to stardom. So it doesn't mean that we don't have them in our communities. But as far as the - America allowing them to take the public microphone and be celebrated, we're not represented well. So it's hard to lose somebody, especially someone as big as Bill Cosby.

GROSS: Let's talk about what Cosby meant in Black culture, especially to people like you who grew up with him in the '70s and '80s. So what did he mean to you growing up in the '70s and '80s, when he was all over TV in many different roles?

BELL: I mean, specifically, he - not only was he all over TV, which we talk about in the second episode, he was all over kids' television. I think that's the part about it that is so - why, like, I really feel like, as I said in the series, I'm a child of Bill Cosby. As a kid, I'm watching him host "Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids." At the time, I didn't know he was doing the voices and also writing it, but I was like, oh, I like the guy who hosts my - one of my favorite cartoons. And then he's also on "The Electric Company" on PBS. And he's also on "Picture Pages" that happens during "Captain Kangaroo." So he's just sort of, like, a lot of the places I go as a kid for content. So everywhere I'm going, he's not that far behind or he's in that thing. So it's just - you know, you sort of grow up with this idea that Bill Cosby is a part of the wallpaper of Black America.

And then I also was aware that he was some sort of actor who - my mom might see him in a movie or might see him on a TV show. So he was just - he was everywhere. And then, as a kid who's becoming a fan of "Saturday Night Live" and stand-up comedy, "Bill Cosby: Himself" comes out. And I remember renting that VHS and watching it. And even as a 10- or 11-year-old, I was like, this is better than the other stand-up comedy. It's really - now I look at it as a masterclass in stand-up comedy. It's not so - it's not a level of comedy that most comics will ever come close to achieving, including myself.

And Bill Cosby himself is basically a pitch for "The Cosby Show." He's talking about himself as a dad who's overwhelmed by his kids, and they're getting one over on him, but he's still holding it together, and his wife is smarter than him. And those are all the elements of "The Cosby Show." And when that show premiered, it was bigger than anybody could have imagined. Like, the - you know, the ratings it got, no show gets today. And the only show that would be disappointed by those ratings is the Super Bowl.

GROSS: Did you want to be part of the Huxtable family?

BELL: I was a part of the Huxtable family. I mean, I think...

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: I don't think it was like I wanted to be. I was Vanessa's age, but, of course, I felt like Theo. You know, you could just imagine yourself - and I think a lot of kids my age did - in that family because there was some kid you were sort of close in age to. And the show looked like it was welcoming you in. And it was so - it was Black in a way that was - it's funny. As much as it got criticism for not reflecting the average Black family, whatever that means, it was - you know, there's Black music. There's Black art. He's putting, like, Sammy Davis Jr. in roles. There's just - it just feels so Black in a way that Black people can relate to and that people who aren't Black just sort of go, oh, this is good. I enjoy this.

GROSS: One of the things that I learned from your series, which I thought was fascinating, was that Cosby was responsible for bringing Black stuntmen into television. So describe what - describe how he did that and why he did that, and what white stuntmen used to do to be doubles for Black performers.

BELL: Yeah. So let's be clear, some of this stuff apparently still, I hear, still goes on in some sense, but this was definitely the way it was back in the day. So - and just to be clear, this was the story that, when I first heard it, I was like, it's - Bill Cosby's fall is more than - about more than just the fall of a funny comedian. There were things he did that you look back on and go, that actually changed the world and made the world better for people. And we don't know all these stories, and it feels like we have to know these stories because we're going to lose our history.

So, you know, Bill Cosby, as a young comedian, gets on the Jack Paar show. He - you know, he's a - he's an instant hit. That leads him to getting the show "I Spy," where he becomes the first Black person to be the co-lead on a television show with Robert Culp. And it's a spy show sort of in the "Mission Impossible" sort of theme. And he's, like - it's an action-adventure show, and he's, like, a suave equal of the white guy on the show. He's not his manservant. He's not his butler. He - him and Robert Culp were equals, which is the first time that had happened in TV history.

And apparently, the story goes, that he - on the set of "I Spy" in the first season, he gets to the set and he sees a white man being painted black. And they called it painting down. But this white man was literally being painted black, not being painted brown like the color of Bill Cosby - being painted black. And he asks, what's going on? And they say, that's your stunt double for the stunt that we're doing today. That guy's your stunt double, this white man being painted black. Apparently, Bill Cosby sees this stunt man being painted black and says, if you don't get me a Black stuntman, I'm not going to work on the show anymore. I'm done. And this is a story that has been told specifically by Nonie Robinson, whose family was in the stunt industry, and she was working on a documentary about the stunt industry and how Bill Cosby revolutionized it and changed it in that one act. And so people who talk about when the Black stunt industry got integrated point to that act. It's not like a bunch of different things that happened, and he was one of them. They point to that act, that Bill Cosby, at that point, he's new to a TV show, feels like he has enough power or enough intestinal fortitude to go I refuse to be on this show if you don't find me a Black stunt performer, and they did. And we talked to that man in the series.

GROSS: And he brought other Black professionals into his shows, too, like, from writers to makeup artists.

BELL: Yes. I mean, that's the other thing he did, especially once he got to "The Cosby Show." He made sure that - you know, he understood at a time when nobody understood this - and people still don't understand this - that the true power is behind the camera and that diversity on camera doesn't mean anything if you don't have diversity behind the scenes. And also as a - on a Black show, you want to have Black people behind the camera because it will make the show be authentic. You'll feel it on camera. Black makeup artists know how to do makeup for Black people better than white makeup artists do. So a lot of people in Hollywood who are working and have worked for 30 years can point to them being hired on "The Cosby Show" as the beginning of their career.

GROSS: At what point in Cosby's life and career do you think he started actually raping women?

BELL: All I know is the first accusation we know about is very early in his career in the mid-'60s. So it is not a thing where - I think a lot of us who hear about these stories but don't really study them or don't really read them think that maybe it happened later in his career after he'd gotten the power, but that's not the case.

GROSS: On your series, people tell you about a section during rehearsals of "The Cosby Show" that was reserved for very beautiful women, for models. Tell us about that section.

BELL: So we talked to Joseph C. Phillips, who played Martin on "The Cosby Show," Lili Bernard, who guested on a couple episodes, and Steven Watkins, who was also a stage manager on "The Cosby Show." And they talk about that during rehearsal, you would look out into the bleachers where people sat, and there was clearly a section where there was just nothing but young model-looking women. And that when rehearsal ended, they called it the parade. Those women would just sort of - there would be a line of them parading to Bill Cosby's dressing room, and they would go in there one at a time, and the door would close and whatever. We don't know what happened in there, but that's what would happen regularly on the show. And they called it the parade.

And then we heard about a man named Frank Scotti, who Steven told us about who was one of Bill Cosby's main assistants, that there was some level of, like, coordination with modeling agencies to send them over there. And the idea being that, like, he's a big star, big star gets what he wants. He's the biggest star at NBC. And as I said before, I think at that point and who knows? - it's just framed as infidelity all of it is. And maybe with those models, it was just infidelity. And as I've said before, if you're offended by infidelity, you don't need to be in show business because that's - you're going to see a lot of it.

So - and I think I really wanted to bring that up to be clear about the fact that, like, a lot of bad behavior can be hidden in situations like show business because the star gets what the star wants. And then the whole infrastructure of the project is trained to look the other way so that, like, if you see something, even if you think it's infidelity, but if you look at something and go, wait, that feels like something wrong is happening, you've been acculturated to look the other way. And as I've said before, when they built Hollywood, they said they didn't start with the human resources department. So there's no place for you to go where you can safely go, I saw something, please help me, unless - without feeling like you're going to get fired.

GROSS: So is it your understanding from the people you spoke to that there were probably people within the industry who knew what he was up to and maybe were even enabling him to continue or at least happy to look the other way?

BELL: You know, I think this is where it comes down to, like, we have to remember this is bigger than Bill Cosby. So there's lots of specifically powerful men in Hollywood getting away with a lot through the history of Hollywood. And some of that stuff was criminal, and some of that stuff was just boorish behavior. So I think you have to remember he exists in an ecosystem of that. And I think so - maybe - I think - and, again, I think there is a sense of, like, the more you move up the food chain, the more I believe you have to know or the closer you are to him - so I think - I understand that if you're a cast member on the show that you're just trying to do your job and keep your job and you've been trained to look the other way. So I can understand if you say I didn't know it was happening.

But if you were somebody who worked closely with him, like Frank Scotti, who basically before he died, said I felt like a pimp and talked about giving women money and things - and it felt like he wasn't talking about infidelity. You know, so it feels like - I think there are certainly people who knew more than other people and I - but I really get careful about I don't want to blame any one person who was just on the set of the show because I think, again, the culture of Hollywood is such that, you know, again, the casting couch has been weaponized to excuse bad behavior.

GROSS: Let's take a break here. There's plenty more to talk about, and we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell. He directed and hosts the documentary series "We Need To Talk About Cosby." The fourth and final episode will be shown this Sunday on Showtime. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with W. Kamau Bell. He's a comic and documentary filmmaker. His new series, "We Need To Talk About Cosby," is about Bill Cosby as a performer, educator, philanthropist, role model and serial rapist.

I'd like to play an excerpt of one of the stories you were told by - in this case, by Patricia Leary Steuer, one of the women who was drugged and assaulted by Cosby. And talk about how they met and how she ended up being alone with him when she didn't expect to be.

BELL: So, yes, Patricia was a student at UMass. She saw that Bill Cosby was giving a speech at UMass where he was going, getting his EdD. And she said, at the time, she didn't really understand why a comedian was giving a speech about education. Then she went and was very impressed with him and then later met him. And, you know, he fixated on her and invited her to - apparently it was - he said it was going to be like some sort of event with Jesse Jackson. She said, sure. She ended up going. That ended up not happening, and she sort of realized she ended up on a date that she didn't understand that she was on. He found out that she wanted to be a singer, and then he said he would help her in her career. And ultimately, that's how he got her alone, I believe, in his house.

GROSS: Yeah, he told her that she was invited to a dinner party at his home. She was expecting maybe she'll meet his family and said she's the only person at this dinner party and...

BELL: Which is a thing that - many of the survivors tell stories like that.

GROSS: Where they were expecting to be with other people, and they ended up alone with him?

BELL: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And then he has her do this, like, weird acting exercise, but she doesn't understand - why is he having her do this? And he keeps saying like, oh, take a sip of this 'cause you need to relax. So she takes a few sips. And, you know, take another sip. You need to relax a little bit more. You're not getting this exercise right. And then she kind of wakes up and doesn't know what's going on. And we'll pick up the clip from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY")

PATRICIA LEARY STEUER: And then the next thing I knew, I was waking up at 2 in the morning, and Mr. Cosby was standing over me. I was in a bed, naked, under the covers. He was standing over me in his bathrobe with a toothbrush, waking me up, telling me that I needed to go.

BELL: What are you thinking when - I mean, I'm sure you're confused.

STEUER: I was very confused, Kamau. I was also sicker than I had ever felt in my life, sick to my stomach. And I said to him, what happened? And he said, oh, you threw up and passed out in my powder room. I had no recollection of that. And I said, where's my dress? And he said, oh, I had to wash it; it's over there. And I believed him because I still believed in his reputation and, therefore, believed that I had just humiliated myself, utterly, in front of this famous man who had offered to help me. I made it all about my responsibility and my embarrassment and my shame. But it never occurred to me that he had sexually assaulted me. All I thought of was, I just humiliated myself.

GROSS: I think some of the things she says in that emerge as themes from all the other women - or for most of the other women who you spoke to, including feeling like, oh, I just humiliated - I must have done something wrong. What did I do? This is humiliating. So do you think of that as a theme?

BELL: Yeah, I think that this is - again, we sort of - again, this is so much bigger than Bill Cosby. This is just the way into the conversation. But this is how rape culture works, and this is how women have been trained to respond, even when they've been sexually assaulted or raped. It's - we have taught and promoted the idea that, like, well, what were you doing there? Why were you with this man? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you go there at that time? And so there's stories of, like, Victoria Valentino, after she's been raped by Bill Cosby, she asks for - how am I going to get home? And he points at the phone. And she says, thank you, while she's still sort of...

GROSS: He points to the phone saying, you can call for a cab.

BELL: Yeah, he points to the phone saying, call for a cab, after he had driven her to this place, her and her friend. And she says, thank you, because we're sort of trained to say thank you even in situations where you shouldn't be saying thank you. And I think this is - again, the part of it that we're talking about, rape culture, and the idea that, like - that it's very easy because of how we - society works in America to - for the victims to start blaming themselves, which you have another - another survivor says, I was victim-blaming myself, and so the idea being that, like, I've done this to myself and because of his reputation, as she says - and this is before "The Cosby Show." It only got bigger - that there's no way he would have done something wrong, so I must have done something wrong 'cause he's Bill Cosby.

GROSS: And all the women seem to think, I'm the only one.

BELL: Yes, that a lot of the women seemed to think that they had a weird experience with Bill Cosby or a weird few years with Bill Cosby, not understanding that there was - that they were one of many. And I think that's - again, that's how rape culture works. This is how we don't do a good job of sex education instruction in this country, full stop, so that we're not talking about how there's no - there's not generally talk in sex education class in schools about how predators act when, really, that's what we need to be talking about.

GROSS: Patricia Steuer, who we just heard from, is white. Some of the people - some of the women he assaulted were white. Some were Black. Is there a ratio of white to Black women? And do you think that - or ever, like, racial overtones at all in the women who he chose?

BELL: All I can know is what I was told and what I learned through this process. Like, when we talked about the parade in Episode 3 on the set of "The Cosby Show," you know, Lili Bernard's very clear that it was all colors of women that were in that parade. According to Lili, a third of the survivors are Black women. I think it's easy to extrapolate from the fact that there would be other women out there who wouldn't come forward because they've seen how all these other survivors have been treated. And I think it makes sense to extrapolate from that that, like, there's probably more Black women who could come forward, but it's harder for them to come forward than it is for a white woman to come forward, and it ain't easy for a white woman to come forward. So all we know is that more than 60 women have come forward, but we certainly can't trust that that's everybody.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell. He directed and hosts the documentary series "We Need To Talk About Cosby." The fourth and final episode is this Sunday on Showtime. We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FOOTPRINTS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic and documentary filmmaker W. Kamau Bell. His new series, "We Need To Talk About Cosby," is about Bill Cosby and his special place in American culture and particularly in Black culture as a performer, educator, philanthropist and role model, his secret life as a serial rapist, and how those revelations shook up and sometimes divided Black people who had admired him for so long. This series includes interviews with several women discussing how they were drugged and raped by Cosby.

So there are still people who don't believe the charges. And I think Cosby and members of his family have said this is just racism. You know, he's been set up. When did you start hearing about these stories yourself? And when did you start believing them? Did you believe them right away?

BELL: I mean, I don't think I could say I believed them right away 'cause I think they're sort of - the way these stories come out, they sort of don't emerge - it's not until after Hannibal's joke that a bunch of them come forward. So like, I talk about in the series when I'm talking to Doug E. Doug, an actor who is on Cosby's CBS show called "Cosby," that there was a - that - when I first started doing comedy, there's sort of these inside comedy secrets that you hear that, you know - and I'm as - I'm an open mic comedian. I'm not funny. I'm not opening for anybody. I'm not a good comedian.

And yet, there were sort of these, like, oh, blah, blah, blah - Bill Cosby cheats on his wife a lot. It's just a thing you heard. Oh, OK, I don't know why I'm (laughter) hearing this at an open mic in Chicago, but sure. And then sometimes along the way, you go, oh, he's also not nice to these women. He's sort of a jerk to some of these women. Oh, OK, you know. So he's not - so there's this idea that Cosby is not his public image. OK. Sure. And I never - I've never met Bill Cosby to this day - saw him perform a couple times, but I don't - OK. Sure. I'm just hearing these secrets. And there's lots of secrets like that about lots of people, not of them all criminal, but just how people are different from their onstage persona.

And then the Andrea Constand case happens where Andrea Constand accuses him of drugging and raping her. But this is, like, 2004, and the media was so different then. We're not in the 24-hour news cycle, and it's not on Twitter, and you're not having to confront it. And so I think, in some sense, you can - I think a lot of us can frame it as sort of celebrity gossip news, like, not really a real story to be confronted. But by the time Hannibal did his joke in 2014, I was certainly - there were two - sort of two camps of people. Some people were like, I've never heard of any of this. I'm going to do what Hannibal says and Google Bill Cosby rapist. But then there were people who were like, oh, my God, I can't believe I have not put all this together in my head. I've heard about this stuff for years now. So that's 10 years after Andrea Constand's case.

And I think I was in the camp of, like - I was just letting this live in my head without really confronting it. And once I confronted it, after - especially after all those women start coming forward, I don't remember the point at which - I can't point at one survivor story where I started to believe it, but I certainly started to believe it. And I also have to give credit to the women in my life - again, my wife, Melissa, my mom, Janet, my good friend Martha, who I've talked to you about (laughter) on the show before - who can really sit down with me and go, no, no, no, no, no. This is how - this is how it is when you are a survivor of sexual assault and rape. This is why these women are to be believed.

GROSS: And so you refer to Hannibal, Hannibal Buress' joke as part of his stand-up about Cosby. So tell us what he said. And this was back in 2014.

BELL: You know, I mean, it's sort of a perfect storm. You know, it's sort of like - I don't think it could be repeated. I don't think it could have happened any other way. But Hannibal, a Black man, comedian, stand-up comic, is performing in Philadelphia, Cosby's hometown. And who knows what happened before this? But this is the early days of cellphones recording video. And apparently, he started talking about Bill Cosby, and someone in the back of the room, who, I believe, was a reporter, pulls out his cellphone to record it 'cause it's Hannibal in Philadelphia talking about Bill Cosby.

And Hannibal just does a bit that's clearly - I can say as a stand-up comedian - that is not a finished, fully formed bit. He's just sort of, like, talking his way through these ideas. But the basic idea is, like, he's tired of Bill Cosby telling Black people to pull up their pants and stop disappointing the race while, at the same time, Bill Cosby is raping people. He's tired of Bill Cosby being called America's dad while Bill Cosby is also raping people. And the reaction of the audience is one of those, like, oh, like, you know, like, I can't believe he's saying this. What are you talking about? And so then Hannibal does the thing that I think seals the deal. He goes, when you go home tonight, Google Bill Cosby rape. There's more results for that than Hannibal Buress.

And that video got put online, and that - and it went viral, and this is the early days of YouTube (laughter) or much earlier than now. And it goes all around the world. And many of us did that thing where we went home and Googled Bill Cosby rape, and you see stories that way. But then shortly after that, Barbara Bowman writes an op-ed - one of Bill Cosby's survivors who's in our doc. And her op-ed at The Washington Post is what seemed to be the thing that spurred other survivors, all the other survivors to come forward.

GROSS: And when Hannibal's talking about, you know, how Cosby tells people to pull up their pants, he's talking about the style at the time, which was to - you know, for young men wearing their pants, like, really, really low (laughter), like, falling-down low, really baggy, falling-down low.

BELL: I mean, I think that's still the style in many places. But yes, he was sort of - there was a way in which that was talked about as being some sort of, like - the way in which Black people were dressing was somehow aligned with our declining values, which is ridiculous.

But Bill Cosby had sort of segued into this part of his career. There's a speech he gives at the NAACP in 2004, the same year of Andrea Constand's case that we call the pound cake speech, has become called the pound cake speech, where he basically indicts poor Black people for not overcoming racism in a way that's - that - as we - that is commonly called respectability politics. Like, you should be able to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps even if you don't have boots, you know?

So I think the idea being that, like - he had sort of shifted into being from America's dad to what I call Black America's angry grandpa. And it just felt really cruel from a man who had spent so much time talking about how much he loved us and how much he wanted us to succeed and how much he wanted to help us. It didn't feel like he was helping us. It felt like he was stepping on us at that point.

And Hannibal takes that and goes, how can we call this guy America's dad when he's being so mean to - when he's being so cruel to Black people? This is my words - cruel. Hannibal didn't say cruel. But then, also, there are all these stories of him sexually assaulting and raping women. How are we living with all of this? And the hypocrisy is what it seemed like - it really made Hannibal angry. And that went viral and led to - sort of was the first step in the survivors coming - a lot - many of the survivors coming forward.

GROSS: Yeah. And part of the anger, too - and you talk about this in the documentary - is that Cosby is condemning, you know, young people. He's condemning their parents for - he's condemning the young people for behaving badly, for stealing things, for not speaking clear, proper English. He's condemning the parents for bringing up the kids that way. And he's mocking them as well as condemning them. And...

BELL: In a way that was blaming poor Black people for institutional racism.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell. He directed and hosts the documentary series "We Need To Talk About Cosby." The fourth and final episode will be shown this Sunday on Showtime. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with W. Kamau Bell. He's a comic and documentary filmmaker. His new series, "We Need To Talk About Cosby," is about Bill Cosby as a performer, educator, philanthropist and serial rapist.

It seems like another turning point in getting people, especially Black people, to take the accusations about Cosby seriously is when Beverly Johnson, who is a Black fashion model, came forward. And that seemed to have been something of a game changer.

BELL: Yeah. I think there was - again, even to this day there's still - people are holding onto the narrative that this is all white women who are accusing Bill Cosby of rape and sexual assault. And first of all, that's not true. But second of all, it's even - as Renee Graham from the Boston Globe in the piece says, a very prominent Black woman, Beverly Johnson, which was the first Black supermodel, talks about this time that Bill Cosby assaulted her. And I think the idea being that, like, unfortunately - and this is true with so many things in life. And this is not limited to the Black community. It is hard sometimes to believe things are true until they affect somebody you know or you personally.

I mean, that's - we can have that same conversation about COVID, that a lot of people don't believe COVID's a thing until they get it or somebody in their life gets it, and that person dies. And then they go, oh, now I see it. And I wish that wasn't the case. But sexual assault is definitely one of those issues that you don't want to believe it on one hand, because it means the world is a scarier, more cruel place than you want it to be. And on the other hand, you've also been trained to not trust women in stories, even though the fact is sexual assault is underreported still. And the culture says - there's sort of a - we're still living in a boys-will-be-boys culture even if things have been shifted by the #MeToo movement.

So we have Chris Spencer, who's a stand-up comic in the piece. And he talks about the idea that he didn't believe any of these women. He, you know, sort of, like - he sort of did the thing a lot of people do. The stories seemed to match too much. So he think they all memorized the same story instead of saying, no, this means that Cosby had a way he did this that was consistent. And he said it wasn't until he saw Beverly Johnson on TV tell the story - and he knows Beverly Johnson, and he plays golf with Beverly Johnson - that he was like, Beverly Johnson's not going to lie because I know her. And there's no reason that she would do that.

Now, I wish it didn't take that. But I also wanted to leave that in there to show that, like, that's what it takes sometimes. And that's really more an indictment of our culture than an indictment of anybody who doesn't believe until it happens to them. It's more of an indictment of the way in which we tell stories of sexual assault and how we frame them, and how we frame the idea that, like, it's a he said, she said, and not like - if a person comes forward and says they were sexually assaulted, there's generally no benefit for them in doing that. And it's only going to be harder on them to be a person who's public about it, even if the person is not as famous as Bill Cosby, even if it's just, you know, Brock Turner.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the legal story. It was in 2004 that Andrea Constand becomes the first woman to publicly come forward and not only accuse Cosby of having drugged and raped her, but she takes him to court. And then he's deposed and - but makes a deal with the prosecutor. Tell us what that deal was.

BELL: So (laughter) it sort of sounds - it's too much to believe if it didn't happen, but it actually happened. So basically, the deal was Bill Cosby would be deposed. And he could say whatever he wanted to say. And they would not use anything he said against him to prosecute him. So it basically gave him, like, a get-out-of-jail-free card as a way to sort of help them figure out the Andrea Constand civil case. So he apparently gave a deposition. And there's things he said in that deposition about how he admits to supplying women with quaaludes for sex. And people read that many different ways. It's him saying I gave women drugs for sex that they wanted, or I slipped drugs into women that they did not want. So that section is like - you can see where people are debating that.

But the thing he says in that deposition when that - when it was unsealed that I didn't know about until I actually worked on this docu-series was when he talks about his sexual relationship with Andrea Constand after she's had the quaalude. He says something - I enter the area between permission and rejection, and I am not stopped. And when I first heard that and first read that - you sort of read it several times because you go, he's admitting the whole case right there. He's admitting - because there's no area between permission and rejection. It is just consent or not - or lack of consent. And not saying no doesn't mean you're saying yes. And so the idea - and this is after she's drugged.

And so for me, it was really important to include that in there to be like, he indicts himself in that moment. But he was - he did it because he had a get-out-of-jail-free card. Well, because of how politics works, another person comes in with - who has the same job. And that person runs on the idea that, like, if I get elected, I'm going to prosecute Bill Cosby. And so then that guy comes in. And he unseals the deposition, which Cosby had made a deal that you will keep the deposition sealed, not use it against me. And he uses the deposition against him.

Now, (laughter) it's like, this gets - about the legal system, and what is justice and what is legal and what's the right thing to do? And those things don't always agree with each other. So then that's what leads Cosby to go into prison for three to 10 years. But then, now a new person comes in, who gets elected. And his deal is, I'm going to overturn the case, apparently. And so - and also, Bill Cosby is still a rich, powerful, important person. And so he can use that to get what he wants out of the justice system in ways that if he was just William Cosby from North Philly, they wouldn't be looking at his case this hard. So - and then Bill Cosby gets out of prison.

GROSS: Did you feel personally betrayed by him because you had looked up to him as a child? You grew up with him. You thought of yourself as a Cosby kid.

BELL: Did I - I guess some aspect of this is probably betrayal, but I just felt confused. I just felt disheartened. I just felt sad, I think, is really what - it comes out. It's just like, why do you have to be this guy? Why does this have to be the case? And I think some people have taken that sadness they felt and weaponized it against the survivors. But I just felt, like, in mourning over who I thought Bill Cosby was. And I was always aware that I couldn't just sort of cut him out of my cultural DNA.

That, like - and, you know when I started to make it in show business - and they would ask me, who were the comics that you really liked when you were coming up? And I felt like I couldn't say Bill Cosby. But I felt like I couldn't not say Bill Cosby. So it became this thing where I was like, well, how do I play this? - because I can't deny that I was inspired by this man. But I also can't deny that if I say that, it sounds like I'm somehow, like, ignoring all of these sexual assault allegations - sexual assault and rape allegations. So I just felt confused and conflicted and was having this conversation well before I ever thought I would be put in the position to direct a series about it.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell. He directed and hosts the documentary series "We Need To Talk About Cosby." The fourth and final episode will be shown this Sunday on Showtime. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with W. Kamau Bell. He's a comic and documentary filmmaker. His new series, "We Need To Talk About Cosby," is about Bill Cosby as a performer, educator, philanthropist, role model and serial rapist.

Can you listen to Bill Cosby's comedy albums now or watch "Fat Albert" or "The Cosby Show"? And did you have to go back and watch that for the series? - and if you are capable of enjoying it any more in the way that you used to, and if - you know, if you hear or see things different than you did back when these things were first produced.

BELL: So, yes, I had to watch a lot of Cosby comedy and listen to a lot of Cosby comedy. So I took in a lot of Bill Cosby content to make this. And me and many of the producers would talk about it. You'd be listening to it 'cause you were sort of trying to do sort of a search for more content for the series, and suddenly you would start laughing at it. You would start enjoying it. And then you have this moment like, wait, what am I doing? Why am I doing this? I shouldn't be laughing at this.

But it just becomes clear how complicated this is. So when I watch the clip from our third episode, "The Night Time Is The Right Time," and I see the Huxtables all lip-syncing and dancing, I can very much connect with the kid I was who saw that and thought that was a revolutionary feat. Even though I wouldn't have described it as revolutionary, it felt like, I've never seen this before; this is amazing. But it doesn't mean I'm going to now go show that to my daughters.

GROSS: I was wondering about that, if you'd want your daughters to see "The Cosby Show."

BELL: I mean, this is such a - it's funny. Whenever I have these questions, there's two things about this. One, all comedy dies on the vine 'cause eventually it becomes not funny or doesn't make sense the way it used to. There are rare examples of this. But I just think that, like - so whatever - if, you know - if I show my daughters a clip from "I Love Lucy," I have to give it context about why...

GROSS: Yeah, right.

BELL: ...It's in black and white.

GROSS: Yeah.

BELL: I mean, so - but they can laugh at the, you know, Vitameatavegamin (ph), or they can laugh at the chocolate factory because I've given them the context in which to see it. So there is a way in which I could see at some point in my life going, hey, watch this clip - not a whole episode, probably, 'cause I wouldn't do that for any - for many things from back in the day. But, like, watch this clip. I really want you to see this for X, Y and Z. But then I'm going to have to give you the frame through which - 'cause I don't want you to go out in the world and think you can just talk about this without an age-appropriate frame around it.

My kids know about Black Lives Matter. They know George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. You know, they know about Harriet Tubman. They know the Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. So it's not like - and I'm talking about my 10 year old and my 7 year old. My 3 year old is not that interested in these things yet. But they know - the truth of being Black in America is always complicated, and it is not for the faint of heart. And if you're raising Black kids, you have to make sure they are not faint of heart, or else you are putting them in a bad position.

GROSS: We started this conversation by talking about how you think talking about Bill Cosby is still a kind of third rail among many people in the Black community. So are you feeling, like, electroshocks now that, you know, three episodes of this four-part series have been shown?

BELL: I mean, let's just say I'm not spending as much time on social media as I used to, which...

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: I'm not Google-searching my name or look on - going on YouTube to see, has anyone made a fun video about me? You know, I've...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELL: Some of these things have sort of come across my feed just 'cause you can't avoid the algorithm. So it's just - I mean, I feel this way. I don't want to read - even the good reviews, I read, like, a paragraph or two, and I go, OK, that's enough. I get it. (Laughter) Like, I just don't want it be - I don't want to believe all the good. I don't want to believe the bad. I think there's legit criticism out there. This series is not perfect. It was made under sort of incredible circumstances 'cause of the pandemic and also the subject matter. So this thing - it is just a piece of work that has been created that can be talked about. I'm happy that it seems like it is leading to productive conversations, even if there's disagreement about parts of it.

But, yeah, there's a sense that not everybody's happy with me. And some of the people are in the Black community. I'm not making it exclusively about Black people. But also, the thing that is so clear to me is whenever I talk to Black people about this, there is a sense of like, whew, man, you did that, didn't you? Like, there's a real, like - as Jemele Hill says, a deep Black girl sigh. There's a deep Black sigh even now when people talk to me - when Black folks talk to me about this film, no matter what side of it they're on.

GROSS: So I'm just going to change the subject before we end...

BELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...To Denzel Washington (laughter).

BELL: Oh, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: For a while, you did a podcast about Denzel, and you would invite on guests and ask them what their favorite Denzel movie was. So have you seen "The Tragedy Of Macbeth" yet?

BELL: I haven't seen "The Tragedy Of Macbeth," and it's - and it makes me a bad Denzel-ite (ph), which is what we call people who are Denzel fans. I just - like, that - here's the thing about Denzel. Sometimes he makes movies where you're like, ah, I'm just going to check my brain at the door and enjoy him chewing up the scenery. "Tragedy Of Macbeth" seems a lot deeper than that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Too much to handle.

BELL: And right now, considering what I'm going through with this, I'm just like, I'm really watching popcorn TV. So - but I will certainly, as I apologize to all the Denzel-ites out there. And I would - you know, to be honest, I would love to get to a place where I could do that podcast again, where me and Kevin Avery could do it, because people still talk to us about it. And I do - for people who are just discovering my work now, it ain't all about how Black men have failed. A big portion of my work is about loving and appreciating and celebrating the work of Black creators that have come before me, and Denzel Washington is the pre-eminent example of that.

GROSS: So, finally, Kamau, how are you? I mean, what a past couple of years this must have been for you. You're working on this, like, third-rail subject kind of series? So how have you been?

BELL: Whew. All right, do we have another hour? 'Cause now this becomes officially a therapy session.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELL: I mean, I can - I have gotten to a point right now - and this is, like, you know, with the New Year's resolution time, which I'm not big on that. But I'm like, I have recognized - and it's been pointed out to me. Again, I'm going to bring my wife Melissa into this - that I have to do a better job of taking care of myself. I think a lot of the pandemic, for many of us, was like, oh, the world's going to be weird for a couple weeks. OK, a couple months. OK, maybe a year. And then I'll get back to what I was doing before, where I was working out regularly and eating healthy, but right now I'm just going to not work out and eat ice cream.

And I've gotten to a point where I'm like, OK, I have to understand that this is the new reality, and I have to do a better job of taking care of my mental health and my physical body, (laughter) as I've said to my family, which they don't really like this - I'm like, I'm at the age where if I drop dead, it's sad, but it's not surprising (laughter). Like, so I have to do a better job of, like, taking care of myself 'cause I got a lot of kids, and they got a lot of needs, and I want to take care of them for as long as I can.

GROSS: That is a dark place.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: It's funny 'cause it makes me laugh. It doesn't make anybody else laugh (laughter). This is what the last two years has done to me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELL: You know, I also have to say, as somebody living in Northern California, you - the rest of you in the - all of you in the rest of the country don't understand what that red-sky day did to us out here, the day that we looked at our window and the fires were so bad it just turned the skies red. We're never going to be the same. So it's COVID, plus racial unrest, plus the era of Trump. The sky went bright red one day. So I feel like (laughter) it's - I've not been the same.

GROSS: Yeah, got it.

BELL: Plus, the Cosby docuseries.

GROSS: Well, Kamau, congratulations on the series. I think it's just really, like - I learned so much from it that I didn't know, and it's just really absorbing and filled with insights about, you know, culture and deceit. So thank you. And it's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for coming back on our show.

BELL: Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure to be back. And I really appreciate you for having this conversation with me.

GROSS: W. Kamau Bell directed the documentary series "We Need To Talk About Cosby." The final episode will be shown this Sunday on Showtime. He's finishing work on a new season of his CNN documentary series "United Shades Of America."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Matthieu Aikins, who's reported extensively from Afghanistan. In a new book, he tells the story of shedding his own identity and passport and joining his Afghan interpreter in a dangerous journey along smugglers' routes to reach Europe and safety from the Taliban. The book is called "The Naked Don't Fear The Water." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT'S "LUSITANOS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT'S "LUSITANOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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