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Billy Dee Williams, the Only Black Man in the Future

Remembering Lando, and Colt 45.
billy dee williams as lando calrissian with harrison ford

In the late 1980s and early '90s, if you spent any time near a radio or a television set, you almost certainly saw Billy Dee Williams or heard his voice. In those years, he was the magnanimous pitchman for Colt 45 malt liquor, and while I was too young to understand much of it at the time, I remember that Williams got a lot of criticism for being the face and voice of the brand. Some of the opprobrium centered on the liquor's slogan: "It Works Every Time," a juicily ambiguous tagline that led many people (correctly) to think that the brand was selling how easily it could get women intoxicated. The aesthetics of the advertisements didn't help either, with Williams in a suit and a woman draped on at least one of his shoulders. In one commercial, Williams simply cracks open a can of the drink and a woman rings his doorbell. She opens the door wearing a tight-fitting red dress and asks if Williams is free that night. He turns back toward the camera, grins, and waits a beat before speaking the tagline himself.

Another part of the criticism was how cheap Colt 45 was—swill sold from corner stores in low-income areas. Growing up, I would find 40-ounce bottles of Colt 45 broken on basketball courts, or empty cans of it piled up along the bike path. In movies like Boyz n the Hood or rap videos filmed on the West Coast, Colt 45 was the drink of choice—though some of these visuals came after 1991, when Williams stepped away from the brand. Colt 45 was what people in the hood drank, it seemed: what the gangbangers in movies drank, but also what the rappers in nice cars drank. It was a symbol of status that played to both sides of the fence. It was cool, in part because Billy Dee Williams spent five years saying it was cool. A black man with a smooth voice and black women in his commercials, all wanting a piece of what he had.

There are not many black people in the film Blade Runner 2049. I think there may only be two, but, to be fair, I wasn't counting at my recent trip to the theater; If there aren't enough people of color for me to notice a significant number, I no longer do the work of counting whichever ones happen to pop up for scattered moments, or even the single one whose character has a name. I'm not fine with this, but I'm also less angry about it than I used to be. Blade Runner 2049 was an entertaining, beautifully shot, captivating movie. It exists in a future where there are very few black people. I laughed at this after walking out of the theater, and back into the world, scrolling through news about Richard Spencer and his band of Nazis descending on a college campus. It occurred to me that the future Blade Runner 2049 exists in is one that would suit some just fine.

But this isn't about Blade Runner 2049 and race, though there are many good takes on that question. This is about Lando Calrissian, and how I was young once and didn't know when The Empire Strikes Back took place, but I knew that it took place in some distant past that somehow looked like the future, and there, among the robots and the massive ball of fur with legs and the otherworldly creatures, was Billy Dee Williams. Not only a black man in the future, but perhaps the coolest black man in the future.

Lando Calrissian had great hair. I'm saying that Billy Dee Williams had great hair, and I imagine when he walked into auditions—if he even had to walk into an audition—the director and producers gasped at how his hair sat on his head. He had great action hair: the type that would barely move when he engaged in a tussle or a full sprint. Several black actors have great action hair, which is why I think so many blaxploitation films focused on the aesthetics of things like an unmoving afro, or thick sideburns. Billy Dee Williams had both! And a cape! And he looked cool holding a gun! Not stiff like Harrison Ford, who was still great in many other ways.

Lando Calrissian was a black man in the future with a moral code. I didn't know this when I first saw him on screen, in part because I was simply in awe of his presence, and in part because I was too young to really grasp the plot of Empire (which is also, in part, because I watched the Star Wars films in a haphazard order, consuming Empire first). But in the film, Lando, after an admittedly shaky moral start, fights on the side of Han Solo and the good guys, freeing Princess Leia and Chewbacca. I imagined Lando Calrissian as the true hero of Star Wars, and no one else.

This, of course, is not true. The Star Wars universe is awash with heroes. But Lando radiated effortless cool, and I still imagine a future in which everyone gets to be as cool as Billy Dee Williams was in the '80s and '90s, just once. There he was in Return of the Jedi, rescuing Luke and fighting beside Han again. It seemed almost natural. The future is about imagination. The Star Wars galaxy exists long ago and far away, but the optics trigger the imagination to think about the future: the optics of space, lasers, machinery that travels at warp speed.

Afrofuturism exists as a genre because the white American imagination rarely thought to insert black people into futuristic settings, even when those settings are rooted in the past, like Star Wars. Octavia Butler wrote science fiction that included aliens with dreadlocks. Nalo Hopkinson writes of a dystopian future where black people are trying to survive. I imagine all of these realities to be utterly possible, the same way I imagine that in an outer-space civil war, there might truly be a Lando Calrissian. A single black person in a large storyline, yes. But one around whom the story turns. One who does not die. One who, instead, destroys a Death Star.

Kids at college house parties on the suburban side of town in my late teens and early 20s would use their fake IDs to score 40 ounces of Colt 45 from the corner stores where no cashier gave a fuck if some 19-year-old punk got over on them for a cheap bottle of malt liquor. Colt 45 was still cheap, still coming in the same clear glass bottle with its iconic white label, which the white kids would tuck into brown paper bags and drink out of, like the black characters in those '90s films and the rappers in those music videos. It was another performance. They would drink the malt liquor while listening to old rap songs and gesturing with their hands, their pants sometimes hanging below their waists. In the mornings, they would go back to the quiet of their homes in the suburbs, or their apartments on the outskirts of the hood, which was a place they would drive past with their windows up, or take a freeway around to avoid altogether. I would sometimes wake up on a couch, walk outside, and see the familiar sight of a Colt 45 bottle, smashed into a constellation of glass along the sidewalk. I think about those moments now and consider the idea that maybe Billy Dee Williams was pointing us to the future all along. A future where being black is so cool, everyone who isn't wants to try it on for a night. Just never for a lifetime.