Many of us will never forget Omar Little, as compelling an anti-hero who ever appeared on a cable TV series. Omar frightened us, but we adored his ruthless charm, just as we adored the pushers and pimps in blaxploitation films. Why we did might be an enigma we need to sort out.
Yet why try? Just appreciate characters like Omar and a man like Michael K. Williams, the actor who played him in the dramatic series “The Wire.” I do.
Williams, found dead of a drug overdose on Labor Day, was not a suave, matinee idol like Michael B. Jordan or Shemar Moore. He never had an epic big screen persona like Chadwick Boseman or Mahershala Ali. Still, he left behind for us to enjoy a gay, dark-skinned character that he owned — owned in the same way Richard Roundtree owned John Shaft and Danny Glover owned Mister.
Williams had other roles we ought to applaud him for. Who can forget Chalky White in “Boardwalk Empire”? Or how about his part as Jack Gee, blue singer Bessie Smith’s husband, in the HBO biopic?
But Omar will be his chef-d’œuvre, perhaps because Williams was playing a bit of himself. He grew up in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, a place similar to the rough, gritty Baltimore ‘hood in “The Wire.”
Although his youth had its troubles, Williams displayed talent for the arts early. He was a dancer, and dance opened a path to film.
The adoration that comes from doing a thing well was more than Williams could abide. Off camera, he lived a life as unorthodox as the men he played on camera. He admitted he wasted the money he made playing Omar, and he spent pieces of his life afterward in places he did not belong.
He dipped his despair in dope, for he could never separate Omar from Michael B. Williams.
“Nobody was calling Michael in the streets,” Williams once told The Hollywood Reporter. “Everything was Omar, Omar, Omar. I mistook that admiration. It felt good. But it wasn’t for me. It was for a fictional character. When that show ended, along with that character, I was clueless about how to deal with that. I crumbled.”
He could no more be Omar in real life than he could be any of the characters he played in film, and maybe that was our fault, refusing as we did to see Williams as himself and not as Omar.
Life is difficult enough for a Black man who is chasing success, and once he captures it, his next challenge is to hold tightly to success — tightly to all of it. Our Blackness makes that a task too daunting for so many of us.
Williams was among the many.
Not a single one of us can know with certainty what led Williams, all his Emmy nominations notwithstanding, to decisions he made in his life. One was a fateful decision, though: using heroin.
Drugs have taken many people who were either artists or entertainers too early. Drugs will take more — perhaps even today.
I take no solace in knowing this. I would prefer to see a person’s life play out to its end for a different reason. But that is my choice; it is not the choice, however, that Michael K. Williams made.