If you don’t see Billy Dee Williams in your neighborhood, you should be thankful, say community activists.
The legendary Black actor known for his handsome face and smooth demeanor in films like “Lady Sings the Blues” is also known for a less celebrated product: malt liquor.
Williams, who’s done commercials and promo endorsements for the beverage since the '80s, appears in a new billboard that bears his multi-colored image near the words “Colt 45: Works every time.”
But critics from Missouri to Michigan find the slogan tragically ironic. Malt liquor, they argue, “works” all too well in the Black community, and has contributed to alcoholism and stagnation for years. The Williams ads have helped revive one of the most high-profile debates about racism and marketing in recent times.
“Well, true, this billboard only appears in the city and not the ‘burbs,” writes White blogger Karen de Coster. “How dare we be honest and admit that White people generally don’t like malt liquor and, thus, they are not a target market for the product.”
The target market question, however, is precisely what critics like hip-hop great Chuck D finds racist about the product’s promo. At one point, a reported 75 percent of malt liquor was purchased by Blacks. But opponents directly equate the heavy marketing with the higher consumption. Chuck D went so far as to file a $5 million lawsuit against St. Ides malt liquor in 1991 when it sampled his voice for a radio spot.
“It’s unconscionable,” lawyer Lisa Davis said. “He has taken a very strong position against malt liquor, and these ads make him look like a hypocrite.” The spot was withdrawn before hitting the airwaves, but Chuck continued his crusade against malt liquor, pointing out that it typically has a higher alcohol content than beer sold in White neighborhoods.
Films from the ‘90s, like "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace II Society" depict young Blacks drinking “40s” of malt liquor near the height of its popularity. At times, the films suggest a correlation between alcohol and street violence.
This time around, the campaign debate has even reached the ear of Hollywood. "TMZ," a top celebrity gossip show, recently featured Williams defending his representation of Colt 45. The show’s creator Harvey Levin called suggestions of racism “a stupid argument.”
“It’s not a stupid argument,” countered Nina Parker, a Black "TMZ" staff member.
Parker, Chuck D and untold numbers of activists might agree that regardless of method, self-destruction among Blacks is what truly “works every time.”