Remembering Actor Michael K. Williams
On Sep. 6. the world lost yet another icon. Michael K. Williams was best known for his role as Omar Little in HBO series The Wire (2002-2008). The actor is thought to have passed away due to an overdose. Williams was lauded for bringing a multitude of strong Black characters to life, and for being, “a defender of black fictions”. Williams’ unexpected passing at the age of 54 shocked fans, and I took the news particularly hard.
My parents are megafans of both The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, so I grew up with Michael K. Williams’ performances being a major part of my life. As I aged, I began to appreciate the sincerity of his acting both technically and in relation to the stories he helped to tell. It is rare for me to be impacted by celebrity deaths, but the loss of Michael K. Williams brought me to tears. Since Williams made such an impact on my life and my appreciation for the portrayal of black stories, I knew I had to craft an article in his honor.
While Williams’ role in The Wire made him a household name, his career in the arts actually began as a dancer. In the mid-1990s, Williams toured with music icons such as Madonna and George Michael as a background dancer. A Brooklyn native, Williams often choreographed routines for local drag queens to perform at drag balls. It is interesting to note that Williams was so closely connected with the LGBTQ community of New York City, since he went on to portray a number of gay characters.
Williams’ portrayal of Omar Little, Leonard Pine (Hap and Leonard), Ken Jones (When We Rise), and Montrose Freeman (Lovecraft Country) changed the narrative surrounding gay black men. For once, LGBTQ black men saw themselves represented in the media. Typically, Williams’ gay characters deviated from the common stereotypes surrounding effeminacy in gay men. Omar was a feared stickup man in the fictionalized Baltimore of The Wire, and Leonard was a rugged veteran of the Vietnam War; both of these characters challenged the binary surrounding black masculinity. Another groundbreaking aspect of these characters of Williams’ is that none of them were defined by their identities as gay men; they never served to play token roles in their series’. This is a reason why Williams’ death impacted me so much; he was one of the only black male actors who rebelled against Hollywood’s standards of heteronormativity and masculinity. It is so incredibly rare to come across an actor this bold and unhinged.
Another thing that Williams was known for was his trademark facial scar. This was a result of an injury he sustained in a bar fight in his youth, during which he was swiped with a razor from the top of his head to the middle of his right cheek. At one point, Williams feared that the scar would hinder his castability in film and television; rather, this signature marking is what helped him to land ‘tough guy’ roles like Omar, Leonard, and Prohibition-era gangster, Chalky White (Boardwalk Empire). The razor-inflicted injury is often attributed to a number of his signature facial expressions; many of these expressions are loose and would be difficult for the average person to attempt due to the tautness of the facial muscles involved. So it seems that an incident once regarded by Williams as an unfortunate run-in, ended up serving as a turning point for his career.
Williams will be missed by many; not just his fans. A multitude of fellow actors and screenwriters have turned to Twitter to express their crestfallenness regarding the death of Williams. It is disappointing to know that the career of such a unique, standout star was cut so tragically short. While Williams’ career in the arts spanned 26 years, it seemed as if his career as a household name and an A-list actor was just taking off. It saddens me to know that we will never again get to anticipate new performances from Williams, that we will never hear new lines spoken by that distinctly gravelly voice. I am unsure if any other actor could ever live up to Williams’ legacy. Michael K. Williams was truly a one-of-a-kind actor, and even in the wake of his death, the world will continue to cherish his groundbreaking characters and the passion he brought to each of their portrayals.