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Michael K. Williams was more than just Omar from The Wire. He elevated Black identity onscreen.

Williams’s breakout role was his greatest — but all of his roles were seminal.

Michael K. Williams at the 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on March 31, 2021, in Miami.
Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Before 2008, if you’d asked a US president to name their favorite television character, you’d hardly expect the answer to be a gay, Black, shotgun-wielding vigilante who made the streets of Baltimore his domain. But that was before Michael K. Williams, who died Monday at age 54, was cast in the role of Omar Little on The Wire.

Arguably the most memorable character on a show full of them, Omar became, in Williams’s hands, a transcendent portrait of complicated Black male identity. He was a beloved breakout character, a victory for both Black and queer representation in an era when the complexities of queer identity, and Black identity, let alone queer Black identity, were rarely shown on TV.

In 2002, when The Wire began airing on HBO, roles for Black actors were largely limited to typecasting. By the time the show wrapped in 2008, five seasons later, Omar had all but become a mononym — and Williams himself had become an actor renowned for his ability to portray toughness and sensitivity, callousness and empathy, all in the same deep role.

A self-described “corny kid [from] the projects,” Williams spent over a decade in the music industry working as a backup dancer and choreographer for artists like George Michael, Missy Elliott, and Madonna. After aging out of dancing, he became a renowned ensemble actor thanks to his work on The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and numerous other TV shows and films. He was nominated for four Supporting Actor Emmys, with the most recent nod landing in July for his work as a tortured father on HBO’s Lovecraft Country.

However, it was really The Wire and Omar, his breakout role and the one Williams has called life-changing, that allowed the actor to make his cultural mark.

President Obama, naming Omar as his fave first in 2008 and then again in 2012, called Omar “unbelievable.” Indeed, on paper at least, the character should have been impossible to believe: Written by The Wire creator David Simon as a modern-day Robin Hood, Omar was a larger-than-life figure who whistled “The Farmer in the Dell” to warn people of his coming like something out of a horror film. He built up the myth of himself to more effectively terrorize drug-ridden neighborhoods by robbing dealers.

“Omar comin’,” from a viral 2011 essay, now a book, treating The Wire as a Victorian novel.
Sean Michael Robinson

Unlike Robin Hood, though, Omar’s lawlessness lacked any veneer of virtue; his stealth mainly benefited himself and his henchmen. He famously lived by his own somewhat cherry-picked moral code (“A man’s got to have a code”) and refused to choose any particular side in the game of cops versus dealers.

Williams played Omar as a classic self-aware trickster, operating both within the circus and outside of it, as both participant and spectator. This ambivalence gave him a kind of straightforward clarity that frequently made for electrifying drama. Recall the moment in season two when he silenced a corrupt defense attorney’s attempts to discredit him by correctly assessing that they were both side players who profited off the ongoing war on drugs, uttering the famous line “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase”:

Omar, like many of The Wire’s characters, was based on a composite of the real people whom Wire creator Simon met during his years covering crime as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Omar was originally intended to appear in just a few episodes — until, as Williams told the Guardian in 2008, Simon and co-creator Ed Burns saw how much Williams was bringing to the role. They wrote Omar into all five seasons, and he became one of the show’s most pivotal characters.

Perhaps because he never sought to be likable or relatable, Omar arguably became The Wire’s most beloved character — a glorified everyman who functioned as a relatable point of contact in the middle of a world with which very few HBO viewers had direct experience.

Crucially, while Omar’s sexual orientation was a huge part of his character, it was never a central focus of the show: He was the rare queer character onscreen who was allowed to be three-dimensional, to fall in love, to grieve, to have a range of positive and negative qualities, without being limited to plots that revolved around his gay identity.

Williams would go on to play other queer characters, most notably Montrose Freeman on Lovecraft Country, but he strove to showcase his characters as full, complete people despite the panoply of social issues they faced. Another notable example was Williams’s five-season run as Chalky White on HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014), in which his character — a racketeer in Jazz Age Atlantic City — frequently faced not only racial prejudice but colorism and classism. In response, he became a ruthless, fearless gangster who exacted vengeance against, for example, white supremacists, while still evincing deep loyalty to his friends and his community.

Then there was Williams’s powerful turn in Netflix’s 2019 miniseries When They See Us as Bobby McCray, the heartbroken father of one of the wrongfully incarcerated Black teens who became known as the Central Park Five. Tasked with portraying a man who lived through an extraordinary human tragedy, Williams wore weariness and grief in every moment he was onscreen. For that performance, he received the third of his four Emmy nods for acting.

Williams was also open about his own issues with many of the issues his characters faced, particularly his “turbulent” childhood and brushes with drug addiction, legal troubles, and poverty, both before and after finding success in the world of entertainment. “I will not allow Hollywood to stereotype or to desensitize my experience growing up in the hood,” he wrote in a September 2020 Instagram post. “This is my job as an actor, to show the integrity, to show the class, to show the swagger, to show the danger, to show the pain, to show the bad choices.”

While Williams’s post-Wire career was long and varied, and encompasses far more than “just” his role as Omar, the importance of Omar as a cornerstone character can’t be overstated. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter in 2011, Williams reflected on Omar’s fundamental appeal: “He’s a Robin Hood. He’s an underdog.”

Then, perhaps harking back to President Obama’s previous recognition of the character, he homed in on what might be the key to Omar’s continued cultural legacy: “He is someone in society that, if given the chance, could have been President Barack Obama, had he been given the opportunities — great mind, great heart, a lot of courage.”

Above all else, Williams will be remembered for his humanity and courage, as well as for the authenticity he brought to all his roles. After Williams’s death, fellow Wire veteran Wendell Pierce wrote in a moving Twitter thread that Williams was an “immensely talented man with the ability to give voice to the human condition[,] portraying the lives of those whose humanity is seldom elevated until he sings their truth.” For many of his fans, Williams was more than an actor: He was a gateway to empathy with a host of characters who might, had they not been played by Michael K. Williams, been easy to write off, stereotype, or forget.

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