When I ask W. Kamau Bell how he’s feeling on the eve of his ambitious, four-part documentary We Need to Talk About Cosby, premiering on Showtime this coming Sunday night, he takes a deep breath and says, “I’m a big catastrophizer.”
“I learned from the movie Ghost Dog with Forest Whitaker that you have to imagine your worst defeat,” he adds with a laugh. “So I understand that it’s divisive just by nature, but I also don’t think when you watch it, it’s as divisive as you think it might be.”
Bell, who also hosts CNN’s United Shades of America and is a successful stand-up comedian in his own right, always knew that the “fiercest critics” of the docuseries would be people who are “never” going to watch it. “I see a lot of people who love it and a lot of people who hate it, who I’m very clear haven’t seen it,” he says in this preview of next week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “And to be clear, you can watch it and hate it. I accept that.”
Despite the fact that, as we’re speaking, only a small handful of critics and Sundance attendees have had the chance to view We Need to Talk About Cosby, Bell has been receiving a rash of criticism from people who simply don’t understand why he would make a documentary about Bill Cosby in the first place.
“I see a lot of comments like, ‘How come there’s gotta be a documentary about Bill Cosby there ain’t ones about Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Jeffrey Epstein, and other white men who r*pe women??’” Bell wrote on Instagram recently. “Well, they already made those… and more.”
The implication from his social media critics seemed to be, why should you, a Black man, spend so much time bringing down another Black man?
“To be honest, I was doing it before I even asked myself why,” he tells me. “It just felt like what I was supposed to do.”
And he knew the risks involved in exposing the ugly truth about a “multigenerational cultural icon for Black people,” having seen the death threats that shut down a premiere screening of dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly series or the continued furor over HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary from Michael Jackson truthers.
“So I was prepared for it,” Bell says, “but it doesn’t make it fun.”
In a recent Time magazine essay that tried to wrestle with some of these issues, Bell candidly revealed that the Cosby docuseries “feels like it could be the end of my career.”
“To be fair, Matt, I’m still worried,” he tells me. “I don’t feel like I’m out of the woods yet. It’s not a superhero movie, so even if you love it, it doesn’t mean you want to see more from that guy.”
“I’m proud of the work overall,” Bell continues. “But Cosby is still a powerful figure in pop culture, even if he’s not as powerful as he was when The Cosby Show was around. And even people who believe, like I believe, that he sexually assaulted and raped women, publicly want to be looked at as either on his side or neutral. So I just know it might not be the best look to be seen with me.”
Referring to the provocative premiere of his CNN show, Bell adds, “I’m also the Black guy who hung out with the Klan, you know what I mean? I should have been like Kevin Hart and chose to hang out with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. I mean, I would love to hang out with all of them, but this probably gets me further away from that.”
Subscribe to The Last Laugh podcast now to hear our full conversation with W. Kamau Bell about his own personal history with Bill Cosby, the ‘Cosby Show’ cast members who refused to talk to him and more when it drops next Tuesday, February 1st.