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Omar Going – On Michael K. Williams' Sudden Passing
Manu Ekanayake , September 9th, 2021 06:33

Manu Ekanayake reflects on the passing of once-in-a-lifetime actor Michael K Williams, saying he should be remembered for his intent, and more than just the one role that will come to define him

Michael K Williams courtesy of ABC

I vividly remember telling my mid-2000s housemates that The Wire was going to change everything. This wasn’t just a cop show, instead there was what felt like a realistic moral ambiguity to the action and plot. Corruption and racism were endemic, and it pulled no punches in its take that the War On Drugs (est. Nixon, 1971) had failed miserably, causing more and more casualties every passing day.

The Wire showed Baltimore, Maryland – but at its heart it could have been anywhere – in a post-industrial era, where institutions are manifestly failing their citizens. And what citizens, they were: on one side dealers, both big and small time, plus addicts and informants; while on the other, cops, both politically adept and slaves to career advancement, some dangerously maverick, on ego-led quests to arrest some very bad people. The voiceless were given voice here, in a style that would help define the early part of the second Golden Age Of Television, as Alexis Pichard called it in 2011.

And none of the The Wire’s voiceless shouted louder than Michael K. Williams’ Omar Devon Little. His sensitive portrayal of a man who should have been a beast among beasts as a robber of drug dealers, an “amoral parasite” of “the game” as the show’s protagonists call the drug business and as drug lawyer Maury Levy calls him on the witness stand in episode 6, season 2’s 'All Prologue', only to be thwarted by Omar’s wit regarding hypocrisy: “Me with the shotgun, you with the briefcase, but it’s all in the game though, right?” This line revealed Michael K. Williams to be a very special actor, capable of bringing to life a complex multifaceted character. His comic rejoinders no bar to the seriousness of his testimony, sealing the fate of Bird, one of the Barksdale crew members who had murdered his beloved Brandon.

Because Omar, infamously, was a gay gangsta who didn’t give a fuck if you had a problem with whom he loved. He knew damned well people didn’t like it in the hood – even his long-time robbery partner John Bailey turns away as he and Brandon embrace in an early scene – but he simply didn’t care. And between that, judicious use of a shotgun and the tell-tale whistle of 'A Farmer In The Dell', Williams created a LGBTQI+ icon for the early 2000s and forever more.

Omar was a Black queer character nobody had seen before: tougher than leather, but also with a code: don’t ever rob a ‘citizen”, only people “in the game”. His rep was so strong that younger, weaker dealers just gave the dope up when they heard him approach, their look-outs shouting “Omar coming…” before they too fled their posts. This modern-day Robin Hood worked with a shotgun not a bow and by giving out drug vials not gold, but he could also love as hard as he hurt, which is where Williams really shone as an actor in his first continuing role.

After his boyfriend Brandon is tortured to death (not merely killed as that would be “all in the game”) Omar, lamenting how “that boy was beautiful”, embarks on a vendetta against the much more numerous Barksdale gang that never truly ends. It was a lot to ask of any actor to showcase that range, but Williams did it seemingly with ease while creating a character for the ages.

But in doing so, he might have created a lightning rod for issues of self-image and substance abuse that had plagued him since his youth. In 2017 he told the New York Times: “Omar is this dark-skinned outspoken man in the hood who didn’t care what anyone thought of him. He is everything I wished I could be.” In the same piece he shared that he was a sensitive, insecure child, a survivor of sexual abuse, not that he could tell any of his peers in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, who mocked him for what they perceived as weakness. “I got picked on a lot as a kid. No one was scared of Mike,” he told in 2012, the first time he was open about the seriousness of his drug problem. “I was trying to get accepted by the cool kids. But they wouldn’t let me in. So, I thought, ‘I can be a party kid.’ I had the weed, I got the liquor. I basically bought my way into that group with my soul. But that wasn’t me."

This partying led him to dancing at predominantly queer late 80s/ 90s NYC clubs like Palladium, Sound Factory and The Roxy, where he’d hone the skills that led him, in his early 20s and obsessed by Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation album, to drop a dull office job with Pfizer and start working as a background dancer in music videos. So an actor with emotional range, unconventional looks and a background in house music, well, I mean you can see the appeal, right? Crystal Waters could, as she hired him to choreograph her '100% Pure Love' promo.

But it was after he drunkenly stepped in to stop a fight on his 25th birthday he got that scar right across his face – and instead of stopping his acting career cold, it helped him into his first film role in 1996’s Bullet when no less than Tupac Shakur – another troubled performer who held his demons on a short leash – saw his polaroid in a studio and said, “That’s the guy thugged out enough to play my little brother!”

This led to more acting and even modelling work. As he told NPR back in 2014 now “directors didn’t want me just to dance in those videos anymore. They wanted me to act out those thug roles, like Mike roll these dice in this video; have this fight in this video. I was like, all right.” He knew he was playing to a racist stereotype, but also that he had no real choice but to do so.

Now, it’s not unusual for actors to have identity issues, but Williams’ were in a different league. After The Wire’s first season he thought he’d finally arrived as an actor, but around 2004 his cocaine use got serious and he was answering to Omar more than he was answering to Mike. He was more comfortable in the fantasy than his reality: that of an actor whose role had been side-lined (because in season 2 The Wire bought in a whole new cast, as it would every season while still giving viewers some of the regulars; now standard long-form TV practice but in the early 2000s still a brand-new idea).

Eventually he got clean with the aid of a Newark church full of the kind of people he’d been partying with, the Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, after a friend took him there. This caused him to speak frankly about addiction in interviews, so he could help as he had been helped. This in turn led to work as the ACLU’s ambassador for ending mass incarceration, for which he starred in an award-winning ad campaign. And his Vice series Black Markets contains a very moving episode where he speaks to addicts in London with the kind of humility that is in very short supply in Hollywood. But he had truly been where they still were. Variety have reported that the second series was mostly complete and will presumably run posthumously in some form, but reading this news just seems cruel, that he’d so recently been so creative and so positive in the face of his problems.

After The Wire he spent four years in Boardwalk Empire, playing Albert “Chalky” White, a very different kind of criminal. Chalky was all business all the time, at least until he seemed to get derailed via a kind of gangster midlife-crisis late on in the show’s run, yet another example of its constantly changing tone, which I always felt was due to the fact that Steve Buscemi simply wasn’t a leading man. But after James Gandolfini’s bravura performance in The Sopranos everything was up for grabs for ‘interesting’-looking actors in Hollywood, which gave Williams some good chances too – though typically for Black talent, of a more limited sort. His work in Lovecraft Country, as the closeted alcoholic Montrose Freeman, a very different kind of queer character, might now posthumously win him the Emmy he was nominated many times for but never got. But he never got to be lead in his own dramatic series either; having proved many times that he had the chops for it.

However, I can’t help but come back to Omar, the creation who, for better or worse, will now define Michael K. Williams’ acting career. Indeed I can’t think of an actor in recent memory who is so publicly identified with one role, despite having a career of over a hundred appearances that stretches back 25 years to the mid-90s. Let me join the voices out there talking about how Michael K. Williams was more than any one role, even one as iconic as Baltimore’s favourite bandit. However we should focus, not just on the breadth of his work but on the aims of the artist behind it. Williams became a star in a show that gave voice to the voiceless, but he continued to take those challenging roles; to speak for those who society usually shuns the best way he knew how. His childhood friend, Darrel Wilds, called Williams “the prophet of the projects” in the NYT back in 2017. That is the kind of multi-faceted legacy that Michael K. Williams truly deserves.