Jamey Phillips began filming her Bill Cosby documentary — with his participation — in 2007. Back then, Cosby's stance on civil rights and racism was the most contentious thing about his public persona.
A few years earlier, in 2004, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, he delivered a speech before the NAACP in which he blasted the black community for high dropout rates in school, unwed parenting, and crime. "You're raising pimps," he told the audience. And, even more famously, he said, "Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack?"
It became known as the "Pound Cake speech," because Cosby spoke derisively of a thief who stole a piece of pound cake being shot in the head by police. Instead of asking why the thief was shot, Cosby said, we should be asking why he stole. His cri de coeur was extolled by some, derided by others, and marked a new phase for Cosby.
That phase, according to the scant information available about Phillips' film, piqued the filmmaker's interest as the subject for a documentary. "People were screaming at each [other] on TV, but [Cosby] was not part of those conversations," Phillips told Filmmaker Magazine last summer. "He had already started touring and doing town meetings. The backlash didn't concern him."
In that interview, as part of the magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film" list, Phillips said that the self-protective Cosby had agreed to let her follow him as he spread his self-reliance message. Phillips' plan was to combine her footage with archival material from Cosby's long public history, including as a voice in civil rights. "He and I agreed it would be a complex portrait, not a sweetheart piece," she told Filmmaker.
Phillips' project was close enough to being done in the fall that it landed on some predictions lists for last month's Sundance Film Festival. But the documentary had not actually been submitted. Sundance's final deadline is the end of September: Was the movie not finished? Or had the rumblings about the past accusations of sexual assault against Cosby, which re-emerged early in 2014, continued through the year, and then turned into a career-shattering scream in the fall, caused Phillips to hit the pause button? Considering the access Phillips has had to Cosby, could the film be reoriented to be a broader biography of him?
Phillips did not respond to multiple requests to comment from BuzzFeed News to shed any light on those questions. Steve Golin of Anonymous Content, who is listed as one of the film's producers, did not respond to an email asking about its current state and future plans. Participant Media, also a backer, had no comment. And Cosby's PR person did not respond to an email asking whether the 77-year-old comedian plans to continue to participate in the film going forward.
If Phillips is now in a vexed state, having devoted so much time, effort, and, presumably, passion to this project, she might find kinship with Cosby's biographer Mark Whitaker, whose 468-page Cosby: His Life and Times was released in September. Whitaker, who also had access to Cosby, did not report on the rape allegations in the book. And though he initially stood by that decision, he later expressed regret after multiple women came forward to accuse Cosby. In Whitaker's example, of course, there could also be solace for Phillips — since it's not too late to salvage her work.
Kate Aurthur is the chief Los Angeles correspondent for BuzzFeed News. Aurthur covers the television and film industries.
Contact Kate Aurthur at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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