— It’s Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
— It’s the 54th anniversary of the Orangeburg massacre when Highway Patrol officers killed three South Carolina State University students and injured 28 others protesting a local bowling alley’s refusal to integrate.
The on-campus shooting doesn’t leave the same historic impression as the one that took place two years later at Kent State University in Ohio. There are several reasons why. But, unfortunately, one is that Black students were killed in Orangeburg and white ones died in Kent.
The protesters were decried as agitators in the moment. Today, the school holds a memorial for the slain and injured students – and the bowling alley is integrated.
— In what I call a duh move, I thought W. Kamau Bell’s four-part “We Need to Talk About Cosby” documentary was being released one week at a time on Showtime.
But, if you get Showtime, you can stream all of it without waiting for the final parts over the next two Sundays.
So I’ve only seen the first two of what I think, so far, is a remarkable work of exploration by Bell, who still identifies himself first as a comedian. It’s compelling to watch and burnishes Bell’s credentials as one of the sharpest minds in documentary television and film.
Because he is an African American, Bell’s focus is on how he and other Black people – particularly those, like him, who are in their 40s and 50s – reconcile the heroic image of Bill Cosby they had growing up with the evidence that he is a horrific sexual predator.
Keeping the focus on how Black people view Cosby sharpens the documentary. It might be a journalistic choice on Bell’s part, but it’s also a smart artistic choice.
But, as a result, he doesn’t confront the questions that others face – and, since I’m an Italian-American white male, that means me.
— I thought Bill Cosby was an American hero.
While Black people saw him as standing up for and advancing their image in society, I saw him as a genuinely funny man and a societal healer.
When I was in my tween and teen years, I got many of his albums. I watched the TV specials he did for NBC. I occasionally watched “I Spy,” which I remember as one of the first real dramedys that have become so popular in the 21st century.
Just before his downfall, my wife and I saw him do a two-hour, non-stop show in Morristown, N.J., that was entertaining and funny throughout.
All the while, I thought he was a Jackie Robinson of sorts – someone who, using the funny things shared by groups of us without taking race into account, was de-otherizing people of color and reminding us what we have in common.
But, as Bell points out, the same hints that Cosby dropped throughout his career – the whole obsession with supposed aphrodisiacs that people just laughed off – affect those of us fans of his who aren’t Black in a similar way to those of us who are.
I think that’s why the Cosby downfall seems, to me, the beginning of the Trump era. Someone we believed in turned out to be as rotten as anyone we despised.
That threw us for a loop. We’re wary of anyone who seems to act heroically or behave in a civilized manner because we fear there’s something that will disillusion us about him or her.
— And the question comes again: Do we reconcile Cosby’s genuine artistry with his horrific off-screen conduct?
For me, right now, the answer is “No.” The Bell documentary presents the women making accusations and I just can’t go back to thinking about Old Weird Harold and Noah’s Ark.
Is there a revision of this? Well, there’s certainly one for what happened in Orangeburg, S.C., on this day 54 years ago.
But my sense is that Bill Cosby is about to be obliterated in the timeline of American entertainment and civil rights. And as good as he was as a comedian being as bad a person as he is makes that the right call.