The Mythic Impact of Michael K. Williams
Note: This article contains spoilers from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire.
What’s resonating with me most about Michael K. Williams’ death is realizing who I thought him to be. You don’t often sit and ponder a person. You may examine that person’s works or something they said, but we don’t often think significantly about who someone is as a whole.
Not until they die.
Mr. Williams died on Labor Day. Of course, there’s something to be said about how that sparks a reflection on his work, but it would be a lie. Regardless of when he died, we would be reflecting on this man’s work, because it was phenomenal.
I was first introduced to him, like many people, when watching The Wire, a TV series that I started watching about a year after it had gone off the air. I fell in love, like many people, with Omar. If you didn’t watch The Wire and want to know more about Omar, click on over to the dozens of articles summarizing the character in the wake of this actor’s death. I’m not here to go into that level of detail about the character, and I’m actually writing this with people who already saw that performance in mind.
Here’s the spoiler: Omar dies. He dies suddenly and unceremoniously. It’s subversive in a way, particularly given the way the show builds the character up to mythic proportions only to have the rug pulled out from under us. I hated it. I also thought it was brilliant.
Not long after, Mr. Williams would take on the role of Albert “Chalky” White on Boardwalk Empire. Chalky is less likable than Omar and makes no efforts to endear himself to the viewer, but over the course of that show, the performance and the arc of the character once again create a connection. We want to see him come out of the hole he’s in. And guess what. Here’s another spoiler. Chalky dies.
Maybe it’s noteworthy that on both of these shows, Williams’ character dies near the end of the final season of the show. Maybe. But that may not actually matter all that much.
Later in his career—in what have turned out to be the final years of his life— there are two more roles that jumped out at me in Williams’ long list of performances. One was the role of Bobby McCray in Ava DuVerney’s soul-crushing mini-series When They See Us. The other was Montrose Freeman in the groundbreaking HBO hit, Lovecraft Country. These performances see Williams in a different era of his journey, playing heavily layered and challenging characters, both of which must reckon with their shortcomings as fathers.
I’ve learned a lot from watching Mr. Williams’ work. I’ve learned more than I realized, to be honest. It wasn’t until after I finished Lovecraft Country that I finally started to look into Michael K. Williams, the actor, the man outside of his roles. I began following him on Instagram. That’s when I saw the incredibly positive energy he was choosing to put out into the world. Dancing with teenagers at festivals, shouting out Tracy Morgan as an inspiration and, in a lot of ways, unintentionally embodying the mythic figure he always seemed to be.
As an actor primarily known for his roles on HBO shows, Mr. Williams never received the level of widespread recognition it seems he should have. It was a weird dichotomy. Barack Obama loved his work but many people didn’t know his real name. As I looked at the love and light he was putting out into the world, it made me wonder. In another universe, maybe Michael K. Williams could’ve been given the same “America’s dad” kind of love people like Tom Hanks receive. It didn’t happen that way. What he did receive was a lot of good energy, reciprocated from all he was pouring into those around him.
I feel genuinely hurt to read the circumstances surrounding his death, but that pales in comparison to the monumental impact the man has had on my life. A physical storyteller, an emotional connector, and a raw, unfiltered mirror to a great many people, Michael K. Williams deserves more than flowers. He deserves the whole garden.