Michael K. Williams was a chronicler of Black humanity who took on the sacred work of depicting our interior lives. In many ways, to be a Black artist means to be an archivist of our existence while many are still actively caping for our obliteration. Deftly caressing the corners of our sensations, Williams made of himself a bulwark against genocide.
He was particularly adept at repping Black pain, which is an under-appreciated grace. Not only did he sit alongside it, he studied it. When he spoke of drawing from the community and from ancestral hurt, I heard a familiar appreciation of the urgency and honor of telling the stories of our pain and improbable survival.
We know how good Williams was at his craft because he spoke of how different his characters were from him. Omar’s young boldness was in stark contrast to Williams’s juvenile insecurity. Each character presented him with an opportunity, even a challenge, to investigate lives lived otherwise. In a 2020 video interview for GQ Williams discussed what he put into his characters while careful to leave room for the ineffable, the magical involved in that project of preparation, stating “I firmly believe that all my characters, they choose me.”
Conjuring was his craft, and Williams bodied forth stories in an environment oriented entirely towards his annihilation. He traced and rehearsed and embodied and enacted and re-enacted the heights of joy and depths of agony that encircle Black folks. No part of Williams’s oeuvre can be dismissed as trauma porn because he imbued his characters with an innate worth that he labored in his performances to reveal.
Williams’s characters give us more than an outline of lives lived; they hold within them the magnitude of what it means to insist upon living despite unlivable circumstances. His performances indicate that he understood deeply that beneath each wail of relief or cry of agony lay a whole life, a portion of whose dignity he consistently brought before his audience.
Williams’s greatest talent may lay in resisting the lure of caricature. In his hands, vengeance did not calcify into predictable spectacle. His three most iconic characters—Lovecraft Country’s Montrose Freeman, Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White, and The Wire’s Omar Little—probe the vast interior lives of Black men whose wisdom and vulnerability are rarely seen on screen. Over and over, Williams explored the conflict of a powerful, earth-shaking love concealed by a performative disdain that in turn concealed the profound pain of the world’s betrayal of Black people and its refusal to love dark-skinned queer Black men in particular.
As many have noted, Williams’s Omar is a groundbreaking performance. With stereotypes and assumptions threatening to consume every acting choice, Williams defied ease and made Omar’s code-keeping, hard-loving, hustler kingpin mama’s boy not only coherent, but captivating. Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, a scholar of Black masculinity and friend of Williams, comments in his book Looking for Leroy that “mourning instilled the character with an enduring humanity.” Neal goes on to note that “Omar’s arresting howl [at the sight of his lover’s tortured corpse] is a metaphor for the lack of language available for black men in pain or in mourning.”
The quest for language and satisfying answers gets played out in the beautifully performed short video, “Typecast,” created for The Atlantic. In it, Williams performs an interrogation of himself and of his personae, asking if either he or his characters can be read as something beyond the Black gangster stereotype. This is not just a question for Hollywood, but for the world. The tension seems to break midway when Williams tries to claim control over his representations. “Look, I chose these roles. Me! I—I made this path for myself.” His characters respond: “Did you? Or did they choose you?” Leave it to a genius to expertly perform even as he questions the double-bind of Black representation. He leaves to us the duty of reckoning with his response: “If I were typecast, I’d be in jail or dead.”
Like Williams’s iconic Omar, who gets a nod in “Typecast,” his equally iconic Chalky White is a gangster, though one from a century earlier. In the scene where White is granted a private “interview” with a Klansman, Williams gets to explore what Black rage might look like when it has the power and privilege to be released. Though the terms of justice have shifted in his favor, White’s blood lust is slow to build. His patiently tended vengeance is tinged with deep soul-hurt and longing. The story he tells of his father’s bookcase lingers in a son’s cherished feelings of pride and awe before turning into the orphan’s grist for violence.
If violence is the currency of the gangster, Williams has taken us deep into the money mill, where Black flesh is both polished and pulverized for others’ profits, to show a human heart at work in inhuman conditions.
Though he was best known for his work in television, Williams also did film work. His small but mighty role in 12 Years a Slave stands for its brutal honesty about the treatment of Black people as disposable and to be punished for speaking out. His character—a bound, enslaved man named Roberts aboard a ship set for a New Orleans slave trading post—talks of rising up and getting free. His voice trembles with equal parts terror and conviction as he addresses his fellow captive, the newly-kidnapped Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), for the first time. With nothing to lose but his chains, Williams breathes out a ragged, “I say we fight!” shortly before his attempt at rallying his fellow captives is cut viciously short. In the next scene, we see Roberts’s shroud-wrapped body thrown overboard, riding the wave as the ship and story move on.
Williams spoke with Arsenio Hall about his powerful experience with this character. In a scene that was cut from the final film, Williams’s Roberts is tied up and dragged to the waiting ship. “Around the fifth time that we shot it, Steve [McQueen, the director] yelled ‘Cut!’ and something came over me.” According to Williams, he then “fell to the ground and couldn’t stop crying and screaming.” Unable even to get up, Williams was held and rocked by a crew member who repeated, “It’s okay, Mike. Let it out.” Assessing the moment in retrospect before a now-crying Hall, Williams locates his momentary pain as an echo of his ancestral past. “I was given a glimpse into what our ancestors must have all went through.” Sitting in that trauma and reenacting its terror, Williams sacrificed his comfort for the sake of others seeing, learning, and maybe even feeling slavery as the foundational horror of the Black diaspora.
Film and television not infrequently serve as an escape from the world. It is not lost on me that what took Williams’s life was in some ways also an attempt to escape the pain of being alive while expectations about who one is or should be disturb one’s sleep. Faced with escaping or going deep, Williams did both. He leaves us with an abundance of insights and even options for how to live in a world that always falls short in its recognition of Black life.
I hope that we will look, not only through Williams’s performances, but at them, to see the love and care and labor and pain he took to bring those lives—our lives—to the screen. We lost a great one.
Courtney R. Baker is author of Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death (2015). She studies the art and activism of Black survival, death, and liberation. She divides her time between learning, teaching, scheming, and freedom dreaming. Twitter/IG @drprofblacklady