Honoring Michael Kenneth Williams: The Embodiment of Life Reflected in Art

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Characteristic of many deceased artists and performers now attributed legendary status, multi-Emmy nominated film and television actor Michael Kenneth Williams was criminally underappreciated during his lifetime. Fortunately, Williams’ filmography immortalizes him and ensures his real life contributions will not be forgotten. Predominantly known for his portrayal of layered characters on HBO shows such as The Wire, The Night Of, and Lovecraft Country, Williams was an inimitable actor who delivered visceral, emotionally-raw performances. Although he was never a leading man, he was never overshadowed in his various supporting roles. Williams was a hidden gem of an actor who shined brightly in every ensemble.

Williams adamantly sought to subvert the stereotypes associated with black actors. He refused to be typecast or pigeonholed into a particular type of role. The unique aspect of Williams’ performances was the authenticity of his characters based on his life experiences and the lives of the people around him. Williams invoked the spirit of his father in his role as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire and he drew inspiration from his nephew Dominic to play the character of Freddy Knight in The Night Of, a Rikers Island inmate just like his nephew. 

Unfortunately, Williams’ acting methodology became a double-edged sword as the line between his characters and his personal life grew blurrier. Deeply entrenched in the world of drugs during his tenure on The Wire, in 2004, he developed an addiction that became an intermittent, lifelong struggle for Williams. In a 2012 interview with nj.com, Williams presciently stated, “It was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business [addiction] ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead.”

Although Williams sadly succumbed to his addiction, he has been nothing but fondly memorialized since his passing in September. The overall consensus of the countless tributes that flooded social media in the wake of Williams’ passing remember him as a kind, gentle, and humble individual. In his hometown neighborhood of East Flatbush in Brooklyn, the residents held a vigil for the actor in front of his childhood apartment building, releasing white balloons into the sky (Fondren, 2021). The tributes Williams received transcended the landscape of film and television. The Baltimore Ravens paid tribute to Williams during their first game after his passing by playing the signature whistle of Williams’ most famous character, The Wire’s Omar. 

Many people recalled how Williams used his celebrity status altruistically to give back to his community.  Williams co-founded the social justice organization We Build the Block with Dana Rachlin in 2018. The organization focuses on reducing over-policing in communities and introducing community-based initiatives as alternatives (Fondren, 2021).

This past September, Williams was honored with a nomination at the Primetime Emmy Awards for his exemplary work on  Lovecraft Country. The show is a fitting swan song for the veteran television actor. In the show, Williams delivers an understated performance as a closeted, black gay man named Montrose living in 1950s Jim Crow America. He is perpetually conflicted with his sexuality and the excruciating pain he feels is conveyed by Williams’ incredible performance. In a 2017 New York Times interview with Noah Remnick, Williams eloquently encapsulated how meaningful his career was for him, “[t]he characters that mean the most to me are the ones that damn near kill me… It’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make.” May you rest in peace Michael Kenneth Williams.

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