I’m still processing what it all really means. It’s possible my TV dad is a rapist? Huh? Saying it out loud; seeing it written down seems silly. So many things to unpack… Your TV dad? Huh? He’s a rapist? What?
If I think of all the TV dads I watched growing up, Ralph Waite as John Walton, Sr. from The Waltons (1971 – 1981). Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie (1974 – 1983). Conrad Bain as Philip Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes (1978 – 1986); Paul Reiser as Michael Taylor and Greg Evigan as Joey Harris as the dads in My Two Dads (1987 – 1990). We had Dan Lauria as Jack Arnold from The Wonder Years (1988 – 1993). John Goodman as Dan Conner from Roseanne (1988 – 1997) and I think the last dads to make it on my approval list before I became less dependent on TV were James Avery as Phillip Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990 – 1996) and Kurtwood Smith as Reginald “Red” Forman from That 70s Show (1998 – 2006). But all these great TV dads couldn’t hold a candle to when Bill Cosby as Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show (1984 – 1992) entered my life.
Like millions of people across the globe Cliff Huxtable represented the dad we didn’t have, the dad we wished our real dad to be or for the lucky ones he reminded us of our dad. The Cosby Show aired on Channel 4 in 1985 on a Sunday evening if my memory serves me correctly. Becoming one of Channel 4’s most popular shows at the time. Without the choice we have today, TV was precious to us. Most shows during the 80s were family events, with everyone sitting down to tune in to the few popular shows which aired on one of our three channels. When Channel 4 was launched as an alternative to the stuffy BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV/Channel 3, it made sense that the cool child of British TV would take a risk on a black American sitcom about an obstetrician, his lawyer wife and 5 children.
I used to tape The Cosby Show and then religiously re-watch the episodes, learning the words, being able to act out every character’s lines in stereo. Growing up as an only child, TV was my brother, my sister, my cousin(s). Being black, African and British, African American culture was all I had to find acknowledgement of who I was. We talk about diversity on British TV today… goodness! Growing up I was too young for Love Thy Neighbour (1972 – 1976) and No Problem (1983 – 1985) to mean anything to me. It was all about whatever books I could get from the library by black American authors, whatever the pirate radio stations had to offer by way of Hip Hop, R&B, Soul and Reggae/Ragga and The Cosby Show.
Sondra was that older sister too old to relate to she was more cool aunty like. Theo was cute and who I modelled my future boyfriend on. Denise was the cool big sister/perfect best friend I needed in my life. Vanessa was me – trying to find out who she was and be comfortable with it (although contrast to me Vanessa was blessed with an abundance of good looking boyfriends!). Rudy was who I wanted to be – in that, although younger than me, she was living the childhood experience I wanted. She got to grow up in a household of cool siblings, both wonderful parents and she was pretty, had dark-skin and that magical LONG AFRO hair! Then we had our TV mum Claire Huxtable, professional, educated, beautiful, caring, strict, funny, not dominated by her husband, she challenged her husband, argued with her husband, loved her husband. Extra note that Claire Huxtable wasn’t light-skinned, and although not extremely dark, she was brown enough for those of us at the darker end of the spectrum to not feel alienated.
Then to Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable the joker, the embarrassing though well-meaning dad, the man of the house, the father constantly confused by his crazy children, the son of wonderful grandparents to his children, the man who respects and loves his wife wholeheartedly even when she challenges him. These were and still are such important characteristics of a black male character in the face of all the negative impressions forced upon us across the real life news and creative TV/film and now Internet content. Assaulted with the image that the black man is a criminal, lazy, untrustworthy, a predator, a buffoon, absent … Cliff Huxtable and subsequently all the male characters in The Cosby show countered these tropes with sweet perfection. Equally if not more important, Cliff was a black man present in his family’s life. A black man accountable. A black man who wasn’t angry at his black woman, a black man who cooperated with his black woman. A SUCCESSFUL black man MARRIED to a BLACK woman.
The Cosby Show was the brainchild of its leading star Bill Cosby. Cosby the stand-up comedian who in the 60s broke barriers by managing to appeal to multi-racial audiences with his storytelling style of comedy that didn’t use his race or racial unrest as a comedy tool. Getting his break on prime TV show I Spy (1995 – 1968) after a series of series trial and errors, Cosby convinced NBC to get behind his idea about an upper middle class African American family sitcom. As a result of NBC and Viacom taking a chance, The Cosby Show is credited for changing the outlook of American TV, and over its eight year reign – bringing in over $1billion for NBC in domestic syndication sales, $1billion in advertising revenues, and roughly $100 million in international distribution sales. The Cosby Show kept top viewer rating positions for 6 years back to back and influenced the lives of not only black people but globally The Cosby Show appealed to ‘everyone’. Heathcliff Huxtable became known as ‘America’s Dad’…
Yet fast forward to now, 2017 and we find ‘America’s Dad’ facing charges for sexual assault with over 60 women coming forward to accuse Bill Cosby of numerous heinous acts ranging from inappropriate fondling to full on rape with drugs, dating as far back as the 1960s. When the news caught my attention a few years ago, I went into full defensive black mode. Nope, they’re out to get him. How come all the accusers are white women? (Subsequently they haven’t all been white) How could Cliff, I mean Bill have troubled alllll these women for so long with no one saying anything? All these defence blockers kicked in and more, where if I am honest with myself, if it came out that John Goodman who played my favourite white TV dad, Dan – Roseanne had these accusations levied against him, it wouldn’t have taken much for me to be convinced he was guilty. Why? Because he’s white, and Bill Cosby is black. Because even as a grown woman, now mother, I love Cliff Huxtable and everything he represents with his positive blackness, and in turn I loved Bill Cosby for gifting us with Cliff Huxtable. For a long while it was physically impossible for me to separate the real man accused of drugging, raping, molesting and manipulating women from the character I’ve loved like he was my own father since the age of 9. I was hurt.
Cosby: Fall of an American Icon soon to air on BBC 2, has been made by Sugar Films (a British black led production company it should be noted) and as such is a brave documentary. To rate it out of 100, seems to undermine it. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking in style or delivery. But it is important in contextualising and presenting the facts as they stand. Even though there’s calm after the storm where even the staunchest defenders of Bill Cosby have either disappeared, quietened down or openly conceded defeat, this documentary makes it difficult for anyone who refused to believe the accusations, to continue not believing Bill Cosby is guilty of at least some of these crimes. Although he’s yet to stand trial, he is innocent until proven guilty. But damning evidence and the release of the previously sealed transcripts from the 2004 lawsuit brought against Cosby by Andrea Constand, a then young woman Cosby met in Philadelphia who worked at Temple University, who accused Cosby of drugging and fondling her. Although Constand eventually settled out of court in 2006; her accusation is the tip of the iceberg that starts to chip away at reasonable doubt.
Cosby: Fall of an American Icon features contribution from talking heads including two of Cosby’s accusers Victoria Valentino – a Playboy Playmate who says that in the 70s when she was around 25 on a night out, Cosby offered her a pill which she took, then she and her friend went with Cosby in his car and the encounter resulted them both being indecently assaulted whilst being incapacitated by the drugs. Although never going to the police at the time it happened, Valentino reportedly gave a videotaped interview in 1996 where she told of the assault but the interview was never released. Actress & artist Lili Bernard also features, and speaks openly about being ‘mentored’ by Bill Cosby in preparation for her getting a role on the show where she would often be on set as Cosby’s guest. Bernard tells how on a trip out of town to meet an influential producer whilst staying at a suite at the Trump Taj Mahal hotel in Atlantic City, Cosby forced her to drink a spiked drink and when she came to, whilst still in a drugged induced state she found Cosby on top of her raping her. After the alleged rape, Bernard appeared in one episode of The Cosby Show never to appear again. She too didn’t go to the police until 2015 when she joined the list of women coming forward about their experience at the hands of Cosby.
The documentary also features commentary from Joseph C. Phillips who first appeared in The Cosby Show as a potential boyfriend for Sondra, then reappeared permanently as Denise’s husband Lt. Martin Kendall from 1989 until the show’s end. Phillips at first represents all of us who refused to believe Bill Cosby could commit such acts but eventually confesses that he’s changed his mind. He also makes the claim that is was known that Cosby “liked women”. Others claim that it was widely known Cosby regularly cheated on his wife Camille. Phillips says that there was always a parade of women on The Cosby Show set, and that Cosby also had a “type” light-skin and long hair…
We also hear from white journalists Robert Huber of Philadelphia Magazine who after the settling of the Andrea Constand case, felt in 2006 it was his journalistic duty to write an article about the two sides of Bill Cosby . He goes on to say that his article wasn’t picked up by the media the way he thought it would, and it wasn’t until the 2014 stand up comedy routine by African American comedian Hannibal Burress where journalist Dan McQuade also of Philadelphia Magazine, filmed Hannibal’s ‘joke’ which called out Cosby’s hypocrisies of telling black people to fix up, whilst being a rapist. McQuade added his filmed footage to an article he wrote for Philadelphia Magazine which did what Huber’s didn’t. Went viral .
Watching Cosby: Fall of an American Icon, important thoughts are provoked. Such as, the power of superstardom and morality. Repeatedly in Hollywood we see rich, usually white men, get leniency in court or escape reprimand of abominable behaviour ranging from financial crimes, drug abuse, rape, paedophillia and even murder just because they make companies millions. It’s not often black men are afforded this Get Out of Jail Free pass but when they do … See O. J. Simpson  for one of the biggest examples. Iconism and accountability, although the Internet is a gift and a curse in my opinion, it has at least allowed for the flaws of public figures to be exposed. If it wasn’t for Hannibal’s performance being filmed and released online would Cosby still be hiding behind the Cliff Huxtable facade?
Hypocritical icons, the discussion whether or not those who lead/we hold up as respectable figures should be allowed to make mistakes as they’re only human and what they did positively shouldn’t be clouded by their negative actions… hmmm. Granted molestation and rape can hardly be called a mistake, but in the wake of Cosby’s accusations one of The Cosby Show’s stars Malcolm Jamal Warner, who played Theo, said in an interview that the reputation of The Cosby show has been, “Tarnished” . The Cosby Show has been pulled from TV and syndication channels, many of its accolades stripped; Cosby’s fellow stars some of whom grew up on the show, along with us the fans who now have restricted access to one of the best TV shows ever made, have had their real world experience of such a pivotal moment in their lives torn to shreds and any financial benefits from episode reruns, blocked. Should everyone suffer because of Cosby?
Black icons, Whitney, Michael, Prince, Martin Luther King Jnr., Chris Brown, Tiger Woods (yes he’s very black now) the list of celebrities who have fallen from our grace because their real world problems broke through their fantasy celebrity status. Because of the lack of positive black representation in the public eye we cling to our icons with protective and often blind loyalty. I love Barrack Obama, so please don’t show me some of his policies whilst he was in power. Please don’t ask me what exactly he did politically effectively for black power and advancement. We also can’t overlook the fact that political correctness contributed to the reluctance to bring down Cosby. A few of the documentary contributors mention that there was a reluctance to accuse a black man, a black successful man who meant so much to black people and the world over. The fear of being accused of racism. In the case of Bernard, who says, she feared backlash from the black community for selling out the man who revolutionised television and was one of the biggest philanthropists and financial contributors to black education and educational institutions. Lest we forget Cosby created the very important to black teenagers series, A Different World (1987 – 1993). But being black and successful should not afford you blind adulation and the ability to escape punishment for wrongdoing… should it?
Respectability politics. In today’s world to criticise is to be helping the culture. The Call Out has become as important as The Movement. Black Twitter is our unofficial board of complaints. But before Black Twitter there were the ‘bougie blacks’ who separated themselves from the poor niggas who didn’t act right and were an embarrassment to those who lived like the Huxtables. Cosby’s contribution to his downfall was notably in 2004 when he delivered his so called ‘Pound Cake Speech’  at the NAACP awards where he preached on how black people needed to improve their situations by speaking better, pulling up their trousers, disassociate themselves from Africa and stop naming their children ridiculous ‘ghetto‘ names, and for women to stop being such bad mothers all round. Pause. It was this speech and subsequent Cosby Call Outs which inspired Hannibal Buress’ joke. Preaching whilst behind closed doors you’re allegedly using your power to be the embodiment of the things you’re criticising the black community about. No Mr Cosby. No.
This documentary is a must watch. It’s an eye-opener and it was very brave of the team at Sugar Films to take on the task of clearing the infatuation from our eyes to look at the facts as they stand.
Cosby: Fall of an American Icon airs on BBC 2, 9pm Monday 5th June 2017. Find out more here.