Michael K. Williams made Omar a new American legend, but his fearlessness went beyond The Wire
Michael K. Williams was very good in many good things, and he was the best in the greatest thing. The Wire had a cast as big as a midsize American city, and Omar was the epic's breakout character right from his first scene. We meet him midway through the third episode, monitoring a raggedy-ass drug crew. Omar plans to rob the dealers. Won't be hard, there might as well be a neon arrow pointed right at the very obvious stash house. "Very sloppy," Omar says, cigarette already in his mouth. He lights it, and takes a long drag. Boom: legend.
Omar commanded a different kind of attention because Williams was like no other actor. That scar across his face was a special effect he wasn't faking. He was beautiful all the same, a dancer and a model, and he brought charismatic delight to a show honest enough for basement despair. Omar belongs to no side in the drug war America wages against itself. He's out there, unaffiliated, alone even when he's got allies — and he whistles while he works. Appropriately, you could never pin down Williams' performance on the show. He could be bigger than life or raw with unfiltered emotion, damn funny and then vengeful as a living myth.
Williams was Brooklyn-born, raised in the projects, and he studied at the National Black Theatre in Harlem. But you have to credit his stunning Wire role with something heavier than authenticity and something more elemental than training. One thinks of Omar fresh out of bed in his billowy teal pajamas, strolling through West Baltimore. He's just going out for breakfast — Cheerios, Newports — but the street empties in front of him, and warnings echo from every corner: "Omar coming!" "Omar, Omar!" There are traditions of theatricality and traditions of realism, and then there's Michael K. Williams on The Wire. He turned every street into his stage.
So it's hard to grapple with the actor's sudden death at the age of 54. He had done a bit of everything. Oncoming status as an elder statesman seemed to promise much more. The Wire made Williams a kind of icon, with a presidential seal of approval. But you'll still find plenty of people who haven't seen the show, and expensive movies could relegate him behind whatever white guy: RoboCop's pal in the Robocop remake, the lead assassin's pal in Assassin's Creed, Casey Affleck's pal in Gone Baby Gone. All in the game, of course — and HBO honored him as a regular player. Throw out all Boardwalk Empire's Irish or Italian psychos with hats and you'd still have a couple solid seasons of the Chalky White Show: Williams rocking dapper Prohibition dress, powerful, wounded, tough, ruined. He was mesmerizing as the least plot-essential character on The Night Of, and only just brought haunted grace to Lovecraft Country's melodrama.
Worth remembering that not every actor 20 years ago was lining up to play a shotgun-toting gay criminal in a mature serialized drama. Omar was a full-frontal performance in every way, mourning his dead boyfriend with a trail of bodies, snitching to the cops without breaking his own code of ethics. Fearlessness just kind of became Williams' career path. When Hap and Leonard called for a gay Black Vietnam vet in a cowboy hat: Who else could play that? On Lovecraft Country, Williams' character murders a recently resurrected intersex Native American and then emotionally recovers by going to his lover's sparkly drag performance: Who else?
Williams could be very amusing on something like Community, but then his last great role was heartbreakingly powerless. In When They See Us, Williams is Bobby McCray, the real-life father who nudges his falsely accused son to sign a confession. "I need you to do what the police want you to do," Bobby whispers, terrified into submission, and then he has to start screaming. "When the police want that they want, they will do anything," he declares. "You hear me? Anything. They will lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us." It's a defining screen depiction of our whole national moment. Williams makes the history palpable, a father telling his child how weak they both are against a nation-sized system of oppression.
I didn't think about any of these amazing roles when I heard about Williams' death. The mind takes you to strange places, and in a moment of recovery after the shock, I remembered some random New York cab ride from a decade ago. Back then, the taxi screens played Cat Greenleaf's Talk Stoop series, a blond woman talking to random celebrities on porches. It was a piece of content precisely as goofy as it had to be, and then suddenly, for some series of days, there was Michael K. Williams. In the video below, he offers up the hood lingo to describe his scars. He explains how The Wire speaks for those who have no voice. He admits, unexpectedly, that getting into acting was an act of selfishness:
And what a smile, and what a laugh! It could feel like Williams was being squandered, frankly, in those post-Wire years. He could have done romance or farce, should have been the guy in those action movies, was ready for Shakespeare. Good news: That's all there on The Wire. The show has a reputation as, like, an essay on brute-force capitalism, which is accurate but limiting. It's also fun as hell. Omar turns a courtroom showdown into a sitcom. He patrols back alleys the way gunfighters meander through spaghetti Westerns. His romances can be tragic or ecstatic. Season 5 is Omar's King Lear moment, when he limps everywhere because he jumped off a building, when he destroys everything because his rage doesn't even care about money anymore. Williams was best in the quiet moments. The cops have their technology and their backup, so it's Omar who does the old-fashioned sleuthing: patiently tracing the drug operations, following street operators up to their bosses one shadowy car ride at a time.
"You see that?" asks Omar, his first line in the show and a statement of purpose. You're merely watching most actors. With the very best performers, you watch them watch, experiencing a deeper layer of story and emotion from the way they react to the world around them. So it makes sense that Williams has a key role in the best behind-the-scenes story from The Wire's production: Het met Felicia "Snoop" Pearson one night out in Baltimore and knew, just knew, she had to be on the show. He could take any scene to another level, face drooping with brash humor or suddenly frozen in horrific sadness.
Picture him in a late Boardwalk Empire scene, in yet another back alley. Chalky stares down the barrels of five guns, because Boardwalk always added four more guns than necessary. "All right then," he says. You don't need to see the bullet, the blood, or the body. It's demolishing just to see Michael K. Williams close his eyes.