When people think of Michael K Williams, they almost immediately visualise Omar Little. Certainly, the mercurial actor’s role as the openly gay, shotgun-toting Robin Hood of West Baltimore is among the most iconic in television history. Even a certain ex-president agrees that Omar is the GOAT and Williams’ portrayal was masterful.
Yet after bingeing as many articles and interviews as I could after the sad news of Williams’ untimely death on 6 September broke, it’s also clear that we were robbed of a man whose brand of no-bullshit leftist politics had recently emerged.
The actor behind Omar Little and other memorable characters in HBO dramas was a complex, ever-evolving person who was often open about his own scars, beyond the rugged one that marked his face. As such, the 54-year-old Williams openly admitted that he was something of a late bloomer in terms of his politics.
In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Useful Idiots podcast last year, the actor noted that he regretted falling asleep politically during the Barack Obama years (to be fair, it would be awfully hard to hate your biggest fan) but had recently woken up. But he didn’t go the typical Hollywood liberals’ route and broadcast his newfound wokeness as a kind of branding exercise, to then go to bat for the Democratic National Committee, vague progressive causes or big-moneyed non-governmental organisations. “I’m not a politician,” Williams said in an interview earlier this year. “I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, and I’m a grown-ass man, excuse my language, and it’s time to make my voice and my platform matter for something.”
That political formation was grounded in his own experience growing up as a young man in the overpoliced projects of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and as an astute observer of cross-racial poverty and under-resourced communities elsewhere.
“I get to travel around the country a lot, and I go to these rural places, and one thing I have noticed: there is a Wire in every city in every state in the goddamn country! You talkin’ Rhode Island? I done seen the hood in Rhode Island; I done seen the hood in Boston; I done seen the hood in Pittsburgh; I done seen the hood in Harrisburg; you know? It’s the same shit all over the goddamn country,” he said.
Or take his incisive answer to a question from Time about his role in HBO’s The Night Of and what impact the show would have on “the conversation about race”. Williams refused to give a rote answer.
“In my perspective, the show has very little to do with race, and everything to do with class. I’ve come to realise the race thing is a smokescreen. The real war is a war on class,” he said. “It’s about how much green you have in your pocket. In this country, you can unfortunately literally get away with murder if you have enough political background behind you. You are innocent until proven poor.”
He also decried liberals’ emphasis on empty symbolic gestures instead of changes that would make a real material difference for poor and black kids. That’s the lesson of a speech he once made at Harvard. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter from 2011, Williams recalled how everyone he polled enthusiastically raised their hands that they had seen The Wire but dropped them when he asked if they were mentoring any kids from the hood in Boston in response.
“‘You’re all up here at Harvard getting the best education in the fucking world.’ I said, ‘Boston’s streets are some of the worst in this goddamn country!’ I said, ‘Snatch you up a kid. Don’t matter what colour. Snatch you up a kid, man, and teach them some law, teach them some of the shit that you’re all getting in here. Mentor!’”
Let’s make less noise about media representation and more about redistributing resources, he thought. For instance, he questioned the utility of simply declaring that “Black Lives Matter” without fighting for policies that improved the lives of Black people.
“For anyone saying ‘Black Lives Matter’, the way to show that is by giving Black people the resources so we can do things for ourselves,” he said.
What resources, exactly? He outlined some examples in a tweet directed at New York mayor Bill de Blasio in April. At a time when gun violence was rising in New York City, Williams told De Blasio that incarceration was a bad gun violence prevention strategy.
“Addressing historic and generational harm, OPENING schools, investing in arts programming, ensuring access to mental health and basic healthcare, ending food apartheid, affordable housing and increasing the crisis management system is [a violence prevention strategy],” he posted.
That he directed his message to De Blasio reflected a laser focus on local issues and politicians in his native New York City, particularly in his native Brooklyn. For instance, he attended a New York City Council meeting in June last year to testify that the City of New York Police Department shouldn’t be defunded, exactly, but that a substantial portion of their funds should be reallocated to social services.
Then, in February, he endorsed little-known New York state assembly member Dan Quart in the crowded eight-person Democratic primary for the Manhattan district attorney’s race, because he was won over by Quart’s promises of criminal justice reform.
“We deserve a justice system that sees people, not just criminals. And we need leaders who see the difference,” Williams said in a video promoting the campaign.
He also believed that those same leaders needed to directly address the communities most affected by the city’s criminal justice system. In June, Williams assisted a community organisation called Crew Count with an unusual mayoral candidate forum during the primaries.
Seven of the city’s mayoral candidates came to answer questions from Williams and Crew Count volunteers about policing and gun violence on the streets of Brownsville, New York City’s most violent neighbourhood. In a video posted online, Williams confronted ex-cop turned mayoral candidate Eric Adams about how his rhetoric on criminal justice sounded too much like the tough-on-crime conservatives of the past.
That video only received 5 200 views, a fraction of the millions of those who watched him play Omar Little in the television show some critics laud as the best of all time. Yet here was Williams, not as a television star but as a regular guy who ultimately wanted to fulfil a civic duty to his own community.
“Man, I just want people to remember me as one cool-ass dude, you know? Someone who cared. And I would never want anybody to say, ‘Oh, he forgot where he came from.’ That would hurt me the most.”
Let it be known that Michael K Williams died a cool-ass dude whose politics proved he never forgot where he came from.
This article was first published in Jacobin.