Michael K. Williams ascended to legendary status when he portrayed the character of Omar Little in HBO's groundbreaking The Wire.
His portrayal gave the character an indelible mark of humanity because at face value, Omar was just a shotgun-toting gangster who terrorised the streets of West Baltimore – yet when you looked beneath the surface, he was a deeply complex character who served as one of the most honest portrayals of the ambivalence of the human condition to ever be explored on television.
Omar believed that every man should have a code – a set of principles and values they live by; values which allow them to live fully in their truth, regardless of what anyone else thinks. He toed the line between good and bad in a way that was devoid of duplicity.
This is precisely because there is no such thing as an inherently and singularly either good or bad person. Omar embodied this. He robbed, oppressed and killed drug dealers but never innocent tax-paying civilians. If anything, from his loot, he would help the most downtrodden in his community.
An illuminating storyline that shines a light on Omar's integrity is his reaction of genuine bewilderment and subsequent anger, that members of the Barksdale crew would attempt to kill him on a Sunday morning. This is because of the longstanding tradition in West Baltimore called the Sunday truce, which was a tacit agreement among the various gangster crews, prohibiting the use of violence against rival gang members or other enemies on Sunday.
After a failed attempt on his life while on his way back from church with his grandma, Omar vents to his boyfriend, screaming: "That woman raised me! And for as long as I been grown, once a month I been with her on a church Sunday, telling myself ain't no need to worry, 'cause ain't nobody in this city that lowdown to disrespect a Sunday morning!"
Here is a man, who by all intents and purposes, is the most feared gangster in West Baltimore who has a huge bounty on his head, yet he makes it a point to go to church every month on Sunday with his grandma. Not only that, but he has a fervent belief and confidence in the integrity of his sworn enemies to not violate the Sunday truce.
Such was Omar. He cut an interesting figure where all these conflicting ideals of humanity co-existed. He had a code. He had principles. And beneath the tough exterior marked by a distinct scar occupying most of his face, lay a tender heart wholly capable of rational thought.
It was Michael K. Williams' genius that gave us the version of Omar that we got on The Wire, as he revealed in an interview with The Guardian: "I read the character and thought, 'This looks like fun'. I quickly decided that I didn't want to play this guy like an alpha male. I wanted to play him with sensitivity and integrity. He wouldn't scream or shout or get respect by intimidating people."
It is this creative license that accentuated the character of Omar to a luminous spectacle that coloured outside of the lines of television tropes. He was an openly gay man whose sexuality was not central to his character but was meaningfully explored in the show. He was a ruthless, unflinching gangster with a keen sense of wisdom and compassion. A contrast that was endearing as it was enthralling.
Williams himself was a fully-fledged performer with a reputational shtick as a reliable character actor who could pull off layered and memorable roles. He started with small supporting roles, such as in the under seen Tupac Shakur and Mickey Rourke starring film Bullet; playing a drug dealer in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead; to gradually gaining a foothold in television through minor roles in critically acclaimed shows such as Law & Order, The Sopranos and Alias, among others.
By the time of his death, he was an established and highly sought-after actor who left it all on the screen for each role he undertook. Some of his latter years monumental roles include gay Vietnam vet Leonard Pine in Hap and Leonard; hardened Rikers Island convict Freddy Knight in The Night Of; as well as American LGBT rights activist Ken Jones in When We Rise.
However, it is his turn as Montrose Freeman in the critically acclaimed Lovecraft Country that has tongues wagging. Giving an unrelenting performance of a man burdened by the chains of his own forging, Williams is already being touted as the frontrunner for the upcoming Primetime Emmy Awards in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category for the role.
May his soul rest in peace.
- Watch The Wire, Boardwalk Empire (Michael K. Williams plays the role of Chalky White) and The Night Of (Michael K. Williams plays the role of Freddie Knight) currently showing on Showmax.