I’ve been a fan of Michael K. Williams’ (1966-2021) work for a long time; like many people, I learned about him by watching The Wire, but I also saw a couple of seasons of Boardwalk Empire, and all there is of Hap & Leonard. I’ve been looking for a while for the fortitude to watch Lovecraft Country; now that I know he had a major role in it, that moves me closer.
I didn’t follow his life much at all. I didn’t know he’d been a drug addict and gotten clean; or that he was such a force for good in the causes he donated to and worked for. I didn’t even know that his trademark facial scar was from being jumped at 25–I just knew it wasn’t makeup because it’s the same from role to role. I knew he played queer Black men more than once, so I knew that whatever his own sexuality was, he wasn’t afraid of being pigeonholed by his roles in that way.
When he died earlier this week, I went looking to learn more about him, and I found this amazing gem of a YouTube film, in which he has a deeply personal conversation with three other versions of himself about whether or not he’s “typecast.” One version is clearly Omar from The Wire; one is the “primary” Williams, and the other two are harder to identify. Among them, they try to sort out what being typecast means:
“If this cat moved to a neighborhood, hung out with the poodle crowd, did poodle things, then he’d become a poodle!”
“Still be a cat, y’know?”
“But what if he convinced himself that he was a poodle, and everyone else that he was a poodle, wouldn’t that make him a poodle?”
There is so much here: we are privy to Williams’ inner dialogue, the questions he asked himself, the answers that came up from various aspects of his personality. The clip ends on a positive note, Williams sipping his drink and confirming that he’s sure he made his own choices. Fascinatingly enough, that last confirmation is cut from some of the versions circulating on the Internet: the difference between ending with “You sure about that?” and ending with “Yeah.”
A three-minute opportunity to see not only the questions Williams asked himself, and the answers he gave himself, but to get a window into the mind of many Black and other marginalized actors, many successful people who question how they got where they are and what their success means.
Whatever he was or wasn’t, Williams was not a cat convincing himself he was a poodle; he was an honest and unapologetic Black man who told the truth about himself, and chose parts where he could tell truths about the characters he played.
Peniel Joseph, writing for CNN, says:
His death impoverishes us all but his legacy endures. It is one that might serve as a shining example of hope to young Black boys growing up anywhere in America, or around the world. They can see Omar Little and know that being Black and gay and dark-skinned and artistic is beautiful, something to be embraced and celebrated — not just after the whole world finds value in your life, but long before.
He will be missed.
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