A couple of weeks ago I was watching my weekly binge of The Sopranos before I went to bed and while watching episode 13 of Season 3, I noticed an actor that I never knew was in the Sopranos, Michael K. Williams. In his role, he plays Ray Ray, a person who is hiding an on-the-run Jackie Jr. in a public housing building. I couldn’t help the line he says after Jackie Jr. knocks over pieces of a chessboard while he is playing Ray Ray’s daughter (“You should have played that out, that is the only way you are going to learn”). The line is brief but impactful and somewhat of a foreshadowing to Jackie Jr’s fate. Michael K. Williams was able to take a brief role with not even 5 minutes of screen time and give it texture.
Michael K. Williams was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was also found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on September 6th. He came from Bahamian parents. His mother was a seamstress and ended up opening a daycare later on in the Vanderveer Estates which is now known as Flatbush Gardens. The family also resided in this location as well. With this immigrant work ethic embedded within him from his family, he would venture out into the world of show business through a less likely route, as a backup dancer. Mr. Williams would dance for George Michael, Madonna and landed a role in Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” video. All of this occurred before he was 25. At the age of 25 a fateful day would change his trajectory forever when a man in a Queens bar would slash him across his face with a razor. After this happened his dreams of being a backup dancer would be crushed since no one would hire him as one. But like so many things in his life he would use this major crushing blow to his career to make him an outlier and make him stand out in his future performances,. setting off his career by getting hand-picked by Tupac to star as his brother in the movie Bullet and then leading to his small but trajectory-changing role in The Sopranos as Ray Ray.
Michael K. Williams will forever be connected with the role of Omar Little from The Wire. A shotgun wielding robber, with a “code” who also happened to be a homosexual, Omar did wonders for bridging the gap of what many black males thought a gay person could do and be. Omar was someone from a previous era that conducted violence against others with a code and understood the greater impact of that violence within the context of his neighborhood community, for the good and the bad. He stated this about Omar, saying “Omar is this dark-skinned outspoken man in the hood who didn’t care what anyone thought of him. He is everything I wished I could be.” Omar and Michael K. Williams shared the fact that they understood their local ecosystems bred them, Mike with Flatbush and Omar with East Baltimore. Without the bad and the good of these communities, there isn’t any Omar or any Michael K. Williams.
Michael K. Williams was mentioned by Wendell Pierce, his co-star from The Wire, in a heartfelt Twitter thread explaining what he meant to him and what he meant to the world as a whole. The two would forever be immortalized in the iconic scene with them both on a park bench in Baltimore where their characters discuss the differences between the black community of yesterday and today. Wendell would go on to say in his tweet thread: “THE WIRE brought us together and immortalized Omar & Bunk in that “scene” on a park bench. But for us, we aimed to take that moment in time together and say something about Black men. Our struggle with ourselves, internally, and each other.” But Michael K. Williams would also be remembered for his role as Chalky White, a black bootlegger that jumped in between the underworld and performing positive activism within the black community on the show, Boardwalk Empire. One of his most iconic scenes involves a member of the Ku Klux Klan who had murdered some of his workers. Chalky finally catches him and has a conversation with the Ku Klux member right before he tortures him with his daddy’s tools, who was a carpenter that was hung by Ku Klux members when he was younger. Michael K. Williams has the unique ability to be absolutely calm in his tone but entirely sinister in the delivery of his lines.
Michael K. Williams was much more than an actor. He delivered a stirring tribute to DMX which seems equal part prophetic and tragic now considering both were unwilling to sacrifice their authenticity as a person but also how both succumbed to the dangerous epidemic of addiction (if you know anyone struggling with addiction please call 1-800-662-4357). As Kirby from Pyer Moss put it in a lengthy and sentimental post, [“My brother would blast Donna Summer and ride the bike with no hands while dancing… He was a genius, legit genius”]
I learned a lot being a fan of Michael K. Williams — about, being a man with a “code” from his character Omar, about understanding your heritage and the leadership of your community from Chalky White. But the most important thing I learned from Michael K. Williams was from the man himself, and that was to own your beauty and be able to let it shine. A quote from him eloquently outlined this idea of beauty: “I spent a lot of my younger years not feeling beautiful. When I look back at my pictures now as a kid, I’m like, ‘Damn, you were actually beautiful’. I couldn’t see it back then. That’s a large thing that makes me go back to working with the youth in my community. I let them know they’re beautiful.” Michael K. Williams will always be beautiful.