How documentaries about abuse in Hollywood are giving victims a voice

Documentaries about Hollywood's abusers and abused have attracted millions of eyeballs in the last few years. The saturation of these pop culture products begs the question of what purpose they serve, both as harbingers of legal and social change and as vehicles of justice for survivors.

New docuseries We Need To Talk About Cosby explores disgraced comedian's legacy

The new docuseries We Need To Talk About Cosby is the latest in an explosion of documentaries taking another look at accused abusers in Hollywood. While some have given momentum to legal action, they've also given victims a place to be heard. (Mario Casilli/mptvimages/Showtime)

Known to legions of fans as the The Cosby Show's grounded patriarch, Bill Cosby was an aspirational symbol to multiple generations of Black Americans. But that image was erased in 2018, when 60 women came forward to allege that the 84-year-old comedian used his reputation as "America's dad" to lure, drug and rape them throughout his career. 

Their stories, which initially spread as long-swirling and long-ignored rumours, are revisited in the 2022 docuseries We Need To Talk About Cosby. The Showtime series gathers survivors, journalists, public intellectuals and entertainers to grapple with Bill Cosby's tarnished legacy. 

Other documentaries about Hollywood's abusers — and the abused — have attracted millions of eyeballs in the last few years. The saturation of these pop culture products begs the question of what purpose they serve, both as harbingers of legal and social change and as vehicles of justice for survivors.

"I think there's this impulse to characterize this as new information, or like, that's why people are suddenly paying attention, and that's not really the case," said Stacy Lee Kong, the Toronto-based writer, editor and founder of Friday Things, a pop culture newsletter.

Before the #MeToo movement cracked open discussions of celebrities and abuse, much was overlooked.

"It was a lot easier to ignore and look away from," said Kong, "if you had the money, if you had the power, or if we as a society believed that the art you were creating was worth this fallout."

While the recent wave of documentaries has given momentum to some legal action, observers say they also give victims something that has been tough to come by: validation.

Fallen heroes

The Cosby series, which comes after examinations of R. Kelly, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson and others, pays special attention to how the audience's love of a figure plays a role in their power.

W. Kamau Bell, the comic behind the series, told the Associated Press that even for those who believe Cosby's accusers, reconciling their revulsion of the comedian with a long-held respect is a difficult balancing act that We Need To Talk About Cosby broaches.

"It was about creating a space for people who are really conflicted about this," Bell said.

Cosby served almost three years in a Philadelphia state penitentiary after he was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting a Canadian woman, Andrea Constand, in 2018. The conviction was overturned on a technicality in June 2021 — a reality that makes We Need To Talk About Cosby, which addresses the overturned verdict in its fourth and final episode, surreal to watch.

In We Need To Talk About Cosby, the comic W. Kamau Bell grapples with his idol's tarnished legacy. (John Nowak/United Shades of America/CNN)

While the four-hour series features the likes of New Yorker columnist Jelani Cobb and sports journalist Jemele Hill, it also serves as a platform for several of Cosby's survivors, who share their stories. 

"I think how fandom works is that we identify with people, we see ourselves in them or we see who we want to be in them," Kong said. "We see these values that we really aspire to or believe in — it's much more emotional than just, 'I really like this person's music,' or, 'I really like that show.' It's really tied up in our sense of self."

WATCH | The trailer for We Need To Talk About Cosby:

Some docs help to renew legal momentum

Several documentaries that revolve around high-profile and celebrity legal troubles have helped stagnant cases move forward.

When Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly was released in January 2019 — a six-part series which detailed the "sex cult" run by the disgraced R&B singer and abetted by his entourage, as he allegedly groomed underage girls for sexual slavery — its aftershocks were immediate.

Its first episode pulled in 1.9 million viewers, prompting the state prosecutor responsible for Kelly's case — who called the documentary "deeply disturbing" — to urge survivors forward. She said that after Surviving R. Kelly aired her office received calls from parents alleging that their daughters were missing and in contact with Kelly. 

The case received a mountain of attention in the legal and public square. In July 2019, Kelly was arrested.

"My impression overall is that [the documentaries] are generally helpful," said Loretta Merritt, a partner at Torkin Manes law firm in Toronto.

"Not only do they bring public attention to the issues, but they also send the message to abuse survivors that they are not alone, and that in and of itself can cause survivors to come forward, even if it's not in relation to the same case."

Singer Britney Spears attends the 2016 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. 'Would Britney Spears be out of her conservatorship if there wasn't all of this pop cultural journalistic attention paid to her conservatorship? I don't think so,' said Stacy Lee Kong, a pop culture writer. (David Becker/Getty Images)

Like Surviving R. Kelly, Britney Spears' conservatorship received a flood of interest in the public square when the New York Times-produced documentary Framing Britney Spears was released in January 2021.

While Kong notes that Spears said she was "embarrassed" by the documentary, its impact on the pop singer's legal fate should not be underestimated. The conservatorship was ended in November 2021.

"Would Britney Spears be out of her conservatorship if there wasn't all of this pop cultural journalistic attention paid to her conservatorship? I don't think so," Kong said. "And that is not to inflate journalism … but it is, I think, undeniable that media attention played this role."

"I almost wonder if the question isn't, 'Why did these documentaries and docuseries inspire [legal] action?' And more, 'Why did it take these documentaries and docuseries to inspire the institutions that are supposed to be holding people accountable and protecting citizens to actually finally take action?'"

Survivors want to be heard, acknowledged: lawyer

A photo shows a young Dylan Farrow with Soon Yi Previn and Woody Allen. In Allen v. Farrow, a 2021 docuseries about Farrow's allegation that Allen molested her as a child, never-before-seen evidence depicts a seven-year-old Farrow making the claim on camera. (HBO)

Kelly was convicted of federal racketeering and sex trafficking charges in September 2021, and faces further charges. But justice for victims shouldn't be solely measured – if at all – by criminal prosecution, said Kong.

"I just don't think that justice necessarily means that there are then criminal charges" she said.

Allen v. Farrow, a docuseries released in February 2021, explores Dylan Farrow's long standing claim that Woody Allen had sexually abused her as a child while dating her mother, the actress Mia Farrow. Its centrepiece is never-before-seen evidence from 1992 in which Dylan's mother records her daughter's claim that Allen molested her. Allen has never been charged with a crime and has denied the allegations for more than 30 years.

"Kirby Dick and I don't make films with the intent of instigating a particular legal outcome," Amy Ziering, the director of Allen v. Farrow, told CBC News in a statement. "We are more interested in exploring the ways that perpetrators operate within institutions that aid and abet their actions, and how the justice system is weighted against survivors." 

WATCH | The trailer for Allen v. Farrow:

Ziering and Dick released a short documentary film last week which revealed that the late comedian Jerry Lewis had sexually harrassed and assaulted two former colleagues.

"Putting a few people in jail will change very little unless the underlying systems that empower and protect them are challenged and reformed."

In 2019, the documentary Leaving Neverland interviewed two men who alleged that late singer Michael Jackson had sexually abused them in their youth. Jackson's estate sued HBO that year for violating a decades-old disparagement clause. Because Jackson died in 2009, his estate cannot sue for defamation. In the case of Jackson and Lewis, who can no longer perpetrate or be held accountable for alleged crimes, justice takes on a different meaning for survivors. 

According to Merritt, who has represented both sexual assault survivors and those accused of sexual assault, validation is an important part of the "healing journey" for abuse survivors — beyond what a legal process might achieve.

"I think that's another really strong purpose that these sorts of documentaries serve," she said. 

"What I hear from abuse survivors is that they want to be heard. They want to be acknowledged. They want the validation. They want to hold people to account publicly."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.