What can you say? Bill Cosby is a legend, a master, a titan. He is the most important talent that television has produced; the situation comedies, variety shows, specials, cartoons, and guest shots have all contributed to his well-deserved stature as a cultural icon. He is also arguably, the most important stand-up comic ever. As a child, I watched I Spy and several of the other shows with pride. Cos represented the aspirations of a people on the rise. Because he was the first Black to appear regularly on a network series, he has been referred to as the Jackie Robinson of TV. But, allegedly, there is a much darker side to it all. Most recent reports indicate that nineteen women have accused him of rape. The descriptions are particularly nasty and strikingly similar. At its core, rape is basically a crime of one person’s word against another, but one against nineteen?
Twenty years ago when I met Cheo Hodari Coker he was a journalist on the Hip Hop beat. Now, he is a film and television writer/executive producer whose credits include the screenplay for the Biggie biopic “Notorious” and Co-Executive Producer stints on “Southland,” “NCIS Los Angeles” and “Ray Donovan”. Currently, he is developing a Def Jam project with Russell Simmons for Universal. Coker is a beneficiary of the revolution that Cosby started, and he takes it seriously. He has been troubled by the recent allegations and he had some very thoughtful insights to share. They can be found below.
When I watched this “I Spy” clip two months ago before the controversy reared its head, I marveled at a few things. For one, it features Nancy Wilson, front and center, as, in the words of Cos himself, “a beautiful woman.” You have to understand a few things to understand how subversively revolutionary this is. This is mainstream television in 1966–the same year Stokely Carmichael defeated John Lewis to take over SNCC and move it towards “Black Power,” the same year the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, and the same year that MLK took the SCLC to Chicago, the same year James Brown performed “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” on the Ed Sullivan Show–and you have a black man in 1966 telling his white partner, playfully, to shut up so he can watch a beautiful black woman sing–during a time when black wasn’t considered beautiful or worthy, and sassing a white “superior”–or even looking a white man in the eye–could get you beaten or killed.
This is the Cos who integrated mainstream television, who fought behind the scenes so that the first black stuntmen were hired, the Cos, who, in later years, would actively promote everyone from black stagehands to writers, producers and directors–and the same Cos who helped finance the completion of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” when the Completion Bond company took it away from him, and years before was one of the silent financial partners on Melvin Van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssong.”. This is the Cos who every black executive, agent, showrunner, etc…owes their careers to. The Cos who donated 20 Million to black colleges and, with shows like “A Different World,” inspired a generation of “Hillman” kids to aspire to college in the first place. The Cos of the USC Cosby Fellows program.
This is why many are hesitant to turn their back on Bill Cosby and he can still eat for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl in DC.
But now, after the allegations, you watch the same clip, and you can’t get it out of your head. Now, instead of Cos taking a moment to revel in the beauty of Nancy Wilson –(who’s 1962 LP “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly” is a MUST by the way), his oogles resemble predatory lust. The last thing anybody needs is for this dude to go to her dressing room.
You can’t un-ring that bell. The countless depositions, the silence from Cosby himself, that stomach-churning smell of death that, unfortunately, smells like truth–his legacy is gone. All the Pudding Pops in the world can’t erase that taste in your mouth.
The “man” didn’t bring him down. He did it to himself. So many people–it seems like from the very beginning–victimized. And every time you want to think about the good, you’re repulsed by the bad.