Omari Newton ruminates on the art of the abuser
After decades spent evading sexual assault allegations and intimidating survivors, iconic entertainer Bill Cosby is finally getting his comeuppance: on April 26, a Pennsylvania jury found Cosby guilty of three counts of sexual assault. He’ll be sentenced on September 24, and could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Cosby is an iconic artist and a serial sexual predator. Both of these statements are indisputable. The difficult question many people are now asking is this: What do we do with Cosby’s celebrated body of creative work now that he’s been convicted of sexual assault?
What makes this question so difficult is that Cosby transcended mere celebrity status and was a hero and icon, particularly amongst African-Americans. He was one of the first Black entertainers to enjoy widespread mainstream acceptance in all major mediums. His much beloved sitcom The Cosby Show was instrumental in changing white America’s stereotypical perception of African American family life and providing an aspirational model for African-American viewers.
Cosby was also a generous patron to important causes, most notably Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to whom he donated millions, gave keynote speeches, and championed whenever possible.
The Washington Post called Cosby “America’s favourite daddy” – and he was, for decades, because the fantasy was more agreeable than the ugly truth.
Perhaps we all wanted to believe the Cosby fantasy so badly that we ignored the rumours of his predatory behaviour for decades, and excused the often condescending ways he addressed African-Americans (Cosby leaned into tropes of respectability politics so often used by conservative pundits hoping to pit Black people of different social classes against each other).
While no decent human being would forgive Cosby of his crimes, lord knows there have been countless examples of predominantly white artists revered for their creative work who also have well documented histories of downright horrific behaviour. Director Roman Polanski immediately comes to mind.
Polanski fled America in the 70s after getting a tip that he would be convicted of drugging and raping an underage girl. Despite this well-reported fact, Polanski has continued to make films that are revered by the American public, earning wide releases, critical acclaim, and consistent recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including a Best Director Oscar in 2002 for The Piano.
That last point – that Polanski has been celebrated by the Academy on multiple occasions since the 1970s – was on my mind when I learned that both Cosby and Polanski had been expelled from the Academy on May 3.
It was almost as though the Academy brass realized that the hypocrisy of expelling Cosby but not Polanski would not be accepted by a public increasingly engaged with issues of social justice regarding both race (#OscarsSoWhite) & sexual assault (#MeToo).
This is a promising development for the Academy, and it is long overdue. It is also a troubling double standard that makes the issues of Cosby’s misdeeds even more painful and confusing.
My take is, it doesn’t matter. If the goal is advocating for social justice, I think we move into dangerous territory if we start forgiving things like sexual assault in an attempt to right past wrongs against people of colour – and if we chose to keep celebrating Cosby’s work after all of his horrible deeds, we are, in a way, forgiving his criminal behaviour, or at least ignoring it, and saying it isn’t a deal breaker.
As a society, we often get caught up in the business of misguided hero worship, heaping hyperbolic praise on celebrities whose actual contribution to our overall lives is negligible.
For all of the awards, accolades, and attention we give entertainers, what they essentially provide us with is a comforting form of distraction – an inconsequential break from life’s daily struggle. We watch TV to laugh and escape the pressures of the world for a little while.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and forget that all mainstream entertainment is created primarily to hold the public’s attention so it can be monetized and sold to advertisers for a healthy profit. For these corporations that prop up performers like Cosby, the value of an entertainer is linked to how much of the public’s attention a celebrity is able to attract and hold.
As soon as their popularity is diminished, these same performers who were once darlings of the establishment are no longer useful. This is our main power as consumers of content. We can directly influence who is given a mainstream platform, and how long they hold it.
There is no shortage of talented personalities worthy of our attention. Why not set a very low bar of supporting only people who are both talented, and reasonably decent people, regardless of race, talent level, or body of work?
Bill Cosby had a great run, one that was longer than he deserved. I thank him for the entertainment, creative inspiration, and activism. Had he not also been a serial rapist he would have held a special place in my heart forever. He is, however, now cancelled entirely for me, past, present and future.
Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19-years-old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. –SF