Just last year, at Ben’s Chili Bowl’s 55th anniversary celebration, Bill Cosby was the star of the show at the historic eatery. On an August day, the comedian took the mike and held court near a colorful mural bearing a portrait of him on the side of the restaurant.
Now, 15 months later, it’s time for that image of Cosby to come down.
As more and more women come forward with rape accusations against the comedian, the Ali family, the owners of Ben’s, should rethink their public association with him. His likeness is all over the restaurant, almost as prominently as his face is on the mural, which is the last of four iconic images — the others are Chuck Brown, Donnie Simpson and President Obama — that I once called the “Mount Rushmore of Half Smokes.”
The allegations against Cosby are certainly controversial. While the sheer nature (and number) of accusations alone is enough to disgust many, he and his attorneys have publicly denied or refused to address them. And many, many people still seemingly support him: He got a standing ovation at a sold-out show recently, and he has publicly made light of the allegations, going so far as to poke fun at people who might consider him dangerous.
Meanwhile, when Cosby and his wife, Camille, were in town early this month to attend an opening reception for “Conversations,” the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s new exhibit that draws heavily on the Cosby art collection, I’m told that more than a few people in the audience took selfies with the comedian. They seemingly were either unaware or unconcerned with the controversy surrounding the star.
For sure, Ben’s is not the only local institution facing an uncomfortable decision regarding how to associate with the comedian. When initially pressed on whether the museum would break ties with Cosby, Eddie Burke, the director of communications for the museum, said in an e-mail that the exhibit “gives us the opportunity to showcase one of the world’s preeminent private collections of African American art, which will help further meaningful dialogue between Africa and the African diaspora.”
But the museum’s tune changed as the allegations continued. A week later, the museum added this statement: “We are aware of the controversy surrounding Bill Cosby, who, along with his wife Camille, owns many of the works in the ‘Conversations’ exhibition. Exhibiting this important collection does not imply any position on the serious allegations that have been made against Mr. Cosby.”
Except, it does imply a position on it. That position being: We don’t care what anyone says, we’d like to associate ourselves with Bill Cosby. Now, in fairness, as a large institution that receives federal funds, a shift in programming — as in changing the exhibit’s name or yanking the project entirely — would involve quite a few decision-makers. So, perhaps the museum, for the time being, can hide behind bureaucracy.
But Virginia Ali and her family don’t have such complicated institutional connections with Cosby. It’s a homespun business; they could take a stand if they wanted to, I’m sure.
The Alis did not return calls seeking comment for this column. But co-owner Vida Ali referenced a familial connection to the entertainer when she told the Washington City Paper on Nov. 18 that “Cosby is part of our family.”
That’s exactly why the Alis, who might be considered a real-life local version of Cosby’s fictional Huxtable family, should distance themselves. Sometimes it takes your family to help you confront hard and embarrassing situations. And yes, even though none of these allegations have been proved in a court of law, it’s obvious that many institutions, large and small, are beginning to offer Cosby tough love. On Friday, Cosby parted ways with his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, after pressure from university officials.
Frankly, it’s hard to measure what Ben’s gains from its association with Cosby at this point. The landmark eatery is a local staple on the food scene now, it has branched out to several locations around the city and it’s a go-to tourist spot. At this point, they don’t need Cosby’s co-sign on their brand to stay relevant.
Muralist Aniekan Udofia hasn’t commented publicly on the matter, but I’d say that’s probably not his place as an artist working for a client. But the image of Bill Cosby’s smiling mug on the side of the building that’s hugely visible walking east on U Street NW is unnerving.
Perhaps fittingly, the Smithsonian’s Web site refers to the “enduring role in using the power of art to ‘wake somebody up,’ ” quoting the artist Elizabeth Catlett. Now, it’s time that both the museum and the respected family brain trust of the Ali family do the same: Wake up.