Issue #8: Michael K. Williams’s Memoir is a Somber Rendering of the Personal Tax of Principled Success
A retrospective on Hollywood's ebony archangel and martyr
Welcome to Shamira Explains It All/Shamira Explique Tout, a culture newsletter discussing the origins and impact of Black production and exchange, identity, and intellectual property via our digital, social, and archival discussions - and whatever else may be timely and interesting. Part English, Part Francophone. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Firstly — thank you to everyone who took the time to read my review on The Woman King. It is by far my highest read post on my (fairly infrequently updated) newsletter; I am bowled over by the positive feedback. My writing is always meant to be community-oriented, and it truly means the world to be affirmed the way that I have been recently, given the unstable nature of public writing.
This retrospective essay on Michael K. Williams’ life and legacy, framed around his memoir and career, was originally intended to be published at a mainstream publication. After months of work, bringing it live would have required significant restructuring and sacrificing the narrative thread of the story, and I ultimately thought it better to preserve the integrity of the framing than obtain a byline for an essay that would have been less than satisfactory. It was not an easy choice to make, but considering who I was writing about, it felt prudent to make a principled one.
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On to the essay.
Two months after his sudden death, rapper DMX was honored with a medley of his biggest hits at the BET Awards. At the time, the rap titan’s death cast a pall over the entire city of New York; a tortured soul whose aggressive lyricism belied a deeper search for introspection and a reincarnation of testimony in the Christian tradition. For many New Yorkers who came of age in the 90s, his journey was a testament to the redemptive power of faith and purity of intent in the everlasting struggle of a life that chose to discard you before you ever had a chance to claim your own agency.
It seemed near impossible to craft a tribute befitting the impact of Earl Simmons in the wake of his sudden passing – a man whose aggressive lyricism belied a deep consideration of faith and redemption; a man whose funeral procession saw thousands of men, women, and children take one final motorcycle ride from Yonkers to Brooklyn. But guided by the creative visions of longtime friend Swizz Beatz and legendary choreographer Fatima Robinson, goliaths of New York rap paid their respects with stirring performances. In the middle of it all appeared the actor Michael K. Williams, sporting a black tank, wheat Timberland boots, and a low rumble that seemed to channel the spirit of DMX himself:
I said I'm slippin', I'm fallin', I can't get up Either let me fly or give me death I said I'm slippin', I'm fallin', I can't get up Let my soul rest, take my breath
In that moment onstage, Williams and the Yonkers legend seemed to speak as one; if you glanced too quickly, it was as if Earl Simmons had, for the briefest second, re-emerged to spread his word amongst the living one last time. The result is a performance that was greater than the sum of its parts – emotional and evocative, stirring, and spiritual — a restrained rumble that granted a sense of divine communication that washed over the audience of fellow fans. This was Williams’s art at its highest form – sinking into the crevices of a character and refashioning it in his image, so that actor and character became indistinguishable, melding into one another and forcing the viewer to gaze upon the skin of a Black man with the humanity and empathy that society had long conditioned to withhold upon the average story they saw on a news briefing. The oeuvres of both DMX and Williams honored the complexities of working-class Black life in their respective mediums, deeply informed by their own histories as young Black men once considered irredeemable in the drug wars of the 80s and the broken-windows policing of Giuliani’s 90s with a frenetic energy and frankness that set them apart from their contemporaries. A mere two and a half months later, Williams himself would be dead at the age of 54.
Williams was a prolific animator of Black experiences. He initially found salvation within the 8-count of the “Rhythm Nation” music video, finding brief moments of liberation from the punishing routine of his early life in East Flatbush when he engaged in the transformative expanse of New York’s legendary ballroom and club scene. Williams would later make his mark in the music industry as a dancer and choreographer of some of pop, house, and hip-hop’s biggest acts – such as Crystal Waters’ 1994 single “100% Pure Love” – with all of the rough and tumble byproducts of the creative grind that came with it.
Getting his first acting break in Tupac’s 1996 Film Bullet, his breakout role was in 2002 as Omar Little in critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire, leading to nearly two decades of various methods of storytelling from the East Flatbush native. His characters were always challenging and true to the complexities of human nature and evaded the simplicities of Black narratives created for Hollywood, ranging from Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White and The Night Of’s Freddy Knight to Lovecraft Country’s Montrose. His activism and organizing was just as layered, disavowing the standard politicking in favor of meeting people where they were and understanding their local needs, instead of what delegates purported them to be in their stead. The New Yorker’s television critic, Doreen St. Felix, described him as a “defender of Black fictions”. Many would posthumously refer to Williams as a character actor, intending that as a laudatory term; others would acknowledge he often used the label storyteller when referring to his work.
At its core, these conversations point to a label that remains unsaid: Williams was a method actor in the most traditional sense. Konstantin Stanislavski’s system of “experiencing,” or connecting a character’s fictional consciousness to one’s own life experiences, has influenced generations of performers, starting in the U.S. with Lee Strasberg at the seminal Actor’s Studio where Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman trained; many (white, male) actors such as DeNiro and Pacino campaigned for (and won) Oscars alongside the rave reviews of critics such as A.O. Scott for the accomplishment of “transforming” and “reinventing” themselves on the screen. Central to The Method is “affective memory”: the actor conjures a personal experience analogous to the character’s circumstance to transport themself into the emotional interiority required for the role. Williams’s own description of his craft, on the set of 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead, in his posthumous memoir Scenes From My Life, co-written with Jon Sternfeld, matches perfectly:
In my mind, I went back to the death of my friend Maurice, who I watched die seven years earlier outside Vanderveer. I was coming home from the movies and I saw his girlfriend hysterical in the alleyway off Front Page. I double-parked and got out and Maurice was there gurgling and taking his last breath as she was screaming, hovering over his body. On-set, I got inside of that memory somehow, what it must have felt like, what it looked like, the body language of what I saw him doing before he died. I didn’t even have to think about it; it just came to me. It was an instinct. I tried to channel the fear of what he must’ve felt, as his life slipped out of his body.
I felt like I honored Maurice, like I told his story. He didn’t die out of sight, ignored or forgotten or barely mentioned in the back of the newspaper. His death mattered; people would pay witness. It was an opportunity to show the world what his final moments were like.
When Marty yelled cut, Nic Cage looked at me with tears in his eyes. “Wow,” he said. “Wow.” Then he walked away.
In Scenes, Williams’s voice — a low gravel with a distinctly Brooklyn drawl — leaps off the page and projects itself into the reader’s internal narrator, augmented by Sternfeld’s skillful execution of shaping numerous conversations between the two into narrative prose to accomplish the nigh-impossible feat of articulating the life of a beloved Black public figure who was as burdened by his failings as he was empowered by his accomplishments. It’s a powerful read that almost stuns you with its pathos; a reflection on the depth of the trauma that framed Williams’s early years and undoubtedly built his career, but is rarely ever acknowledged with the heft deserved, perhaps because “representation” in film is still largely applied as a matter of rhetoric and not a lens, framework, or discipline for film studios to adhere to with any practical rigor beyond rudimentary quantification.
In Boardwalk Empire, Williams drew from his father – who existed in his memory “like glimpses in passing” — to mold Atlantic City bootlegger Chalky White, both being enterprising hustlers of the Jim Crow South. He referred to his years of close bonds with incarcerated family and friends — particularly his nephew, Dominic DuPont, whose story is told in Vice documentary Raised in the System — for The Night Of. His own memories of New York in the ’90s rounded out his portrayal of the fraught decision-making made by parent Bobby McCray in When they See Us and how the irreversibly changed Anton and his family’s life, and his moving performance as closeted Black man Montrose in his final series, Lovecraft Country, allowed him to pay homage to the ballroom community where he found safety and freedom as a teenager so many years ago.
Perhaps most devastatingly, Williams grounded his career-making turn as queer stick-up man Omar Little in the seminal HBO series The Wire at the nexus of several of his constitutional traumas: his experiences navigating homophobic slurs and his perceived femininity; his complex relationship with street life; an ongoing battle with crack cocaine addiction; and the scar that gave him his “grit” and perceived authenticity despite his reputation as the furthest thing from violent. That scar – a constant reminder of how close he came to death – was now a source of intrigue and fascination, a professional calling card that denied him the dignity of grief and the agency of owning his trauma. The fact that he was most valuable to Hollywood in his disfigurement is macabre and dehumanizing for any performer to process; it elevated him from a touring background dancer to being photographed by the internationally renowned David LaChappelle, enamored by the character his scar offered him. But in fetishizing his new jagged edge, Williams was expected to perform a level of rugged tough guy masculinity that he had actually frequently been at odds with growing up; his redemption and escape from Vanderveer Houses came with deep dysphoria.
Williams knew on some level that his work was traumatizing him. “Konstantin Stanislavski taught that you’re not supposed to use unaddressed trauma for your craft,” he wrote in his memoir. “You have to address it before it can become a tool for art. I had read that years ago, but I am only really starting to understand it now.” When your art is centered in realism and so invested in service, how can it not be disorienting? To live with those burdens and still be willing to surrender yourself completely in service of the greater project is not just a tribute but a complete submission to the work. Yielding to the heft of his accumulated experiences would, at times, contribute to relapses with his lifelong battle with addiction during or after he was filming, although he was always careful to hold himself accountable for the internal battle he fought before his first IMDB credit. As Dupont recently told the New York Times: “He was willing to sacrifice himself for some roles..and those happened to be the characters that people loved the most.”
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think how easily it could have gone the other way. So I live my life as testimony to that fact. The closeness of the ledge keeps me sharp. Taking nothing for granted keeps me honest. And letting each tough or tender moment drench me like water — that keeps me, me. I get through it all by feeling it all, taking it all in, and putting it back out there as honestly as possible. I still feel one false move away from losing it all. So I do what I can in the time that I have.”
What is so stunning about Scenes From My Life is Williams’s willingness to hold so much accountability for his missteps and create so much empathy for others, yet failing to see the power in granting himself similar dispensations. “I learned that I don’t get to shortcut my way around doing the work,” Williams wrote about his time working on Lovecraft Country, which he candidly revealed affected his mental health. “Even though I was using my pain, channeling it into the arts, that doesn’t really count. That’s not the work. The work requires you to look in the mirror, and you can’t do that until you put the drugs down.” Looking back in hindsight, would Black people be such longstanding fans of The Wire if they had known that he was still living in Vanderveer during the second season – the dockworkers’ season – as an accepted toll of immersing himself in the characterization of Omar, creating a cult antihero while leaving the emotional triggers that motivate his performance unaddressed? Williams may have needed to do the work, but the sets also needed him to show up and give an authentic performance; those objectives seemed to be at odds with one another.
Williams found honor in sharing that suffering, in the hopes that he could light someone else’s journey in his martyrdom. He injected in every role a deep commitment to embracing Black people’s humanity in all the ways society attempted to divorce them from it, including addiction, incarceration, or any of the other common coefficients of poverty. The opening remarks of Scenes From My Life recount his struggles with addiction and near-death experience, contextualizing the deep empathy he always brought to his work for the abandoned: “Not a day goes by when I don’t think how easily it could have gone the other way. So I live my life as testimony to that fact. The closeness of the ledge keeps me sharp. Taking nothing for granted keeps me honest. And letting each tough or tender moment drench me like water — that keeps me, me. I get through it all by feeling it all, taking it all in, and putting it back out there as honestly as possible. I still feel one false move away from losing it all. So I do what I can in the time that I have.”
September 6th, 2022 made it a year since Williams transitioned from Earthly life; at the time of his passing, he understood more than ever that the Brooklyn he knew and loved deserved protection. “It has continued to bother me that the marker of success is ‘getting out.’ Where am I going? What does it say to the youth who are still here?” Williams asks, in the closing remarks of Scenes from My Life. “It’s not about getting out. It never was. It’s all about being welcomed back home.” His local interviews are treasured: about 16 minutes and 30 seconds into a February 2021 interview with his nephew AJ – who still lives in Vanderveer houses, now rebranded as Flatbush Gardens – he asks, “Do you someday see your name being on the Hollywood walk of fame?” Williams pauses and takes a deep breath. “You know, what’s more important for me, nephew, is being right here with you bro. I tend to not focus my energy there. My walk of fame is Nostrand Avenue, Foster Avenue, Foster Park. That’s my walk of fame when I can come back home and be welcomed.”
His commitment to that politic was valued – a man always seeking to do better by his people and not the institutions that had long found him a menace to society until the scar on his face could be used for art. Programming such as Raised in the System and Black Market with VICE and HBO strove to illuminate the full picture behind those who are just presented to the masses as relentless evildoers hellbent on destroying the flimsily constructed guardrails of society, often revealing a working-class Black or brown person who was shown – either by an authority figure or by circumstance – the most practical means of survival in a country where class mobility is a figment of our collective imaginations . His service work was an extension of that – working with Dana Rachlin on We Build The Block, moving beyond the idea of “getting out” of the hood and speaking to the realities of inner-city life for the Black working class.
In death, his body would be used for publicity for the very institution he loathed. The NYPD brazenly celebrating the manner in which they surveilled, arrested, and sought to overcharge four men in connection to his overdose isn’t just unethical; it is an act of cruelty, a final piece of theft from a community Williams organized within to protect from such violent tactics. It is violent recrimination from Mayor Adams’s administration, who has personally heard Williams’s aversion to “law and order” tactics, and continues to treat the lives of those like Williams as disposable in a city that chooses any part of Black culture, down to our bodies, as eminent domain to tread upon. It also is the furthest thing from justice: not only does a carceral response do little to remove the fentanyl in the street drugs that ultimately killed Williams, but the potential new precedent only deters people from seeking health services for potentially treatable overdoses.
Despite a longstanding professional relationship with the prestige sheen of HBO, Williams rarely garnered the “method” label in his lifetime. Perhaps the reflex to reject nuanced roles depicting Black working-class life as anything other than “typecast” obscures the technique he was deploying, implicitly denying the individuality of Black characters and the labor required to adopt those nuances without rendering the minstrel caricatures that have long beleaguered the film industry. When Williams recounts his time working with the famed Off-Off Broadway director Ellen Stewart at LaMaMa theater on Tancredi and Erminia, you get a fleeting glimpse of a life that could have been available to him, one where his art could come from a place of abundance and pleasure, not rooted in wounds kept tender from their constant re-opening. “Theater is church,” Williams expressed in therapeutic reverence. “Those places, especially the old ones, have their own particular smell, like cathedrals—it’s embedded in the wood. There are spirits in those buildings. The room is alive”.
These moments were few and far between in his career: a role at the National Black Theater here; a light-hearted guest role on Community allowing him to merge intensity and comedy there. Williams sacrificed himself under the noble impression that it was his penance to teeter between the highs and lows in articulating the truth of Black life. It is a tragedy that continuing his work led him to turn his pain inward, with or without the use of narcotics — his community, who lovingly called him the “prophet of the projects,” would have loved to be there for him the way he has always stood by them — but it also shows that class mobility does not provide products of the American working class the tools to cope with the deep-seated pain that is produced as a natural coefficient of this rigid capitalist enterprise where Black people are often viewed as disposable and irredeemable, even with resources available to them. His success necessitated the very depletion of his own body, mind, and spirit; the cinematic bounty he produced facilitated a willful ignorance of his struggles despite repeated reports of set closures and public admissions of pain, which can be looked at as pleas for help amongst his colleagues and within the community for which he had chosen to be a martyr.
In Arthur Jafa’s 2013 film Dreams Are Colder Than Death, Fred Moten asks, “Can black people be loved?...Not desired, not wanted, not acquired, not lusted after. Can black people be loved? Can blackness be loved?” Williams’s career in the spotlight is a direct interrogation of that inquiry, examining not only his relationship within the Hollywood apparatus, but also with the viewing audience: despite much of the speculative rhetoric around the nebulous concept of Black Trauma in entertainment, Williams was expected to return to the well of his traumas time and again to offer performances many deemed authentic and powerful. Instead of having his trauma literally commodified time and again, Michael K. Williams deserved to be supported, told that he could explore and find his joy and peace in the same way he consistently conveyed as much to others. Williams is now left to be sanctified in film as what Michael Boyce Gillespie articulates in his book Film Blackness as the “ebony archangel, chosen to carry out the necessary and noble, dirty work.” Williams found honor in sharing that suffering, in the hopes that he could light someone else’s journey in his martyrdom; but perhaps he could have — should have — been granted the freedom to languish in that liberating space he found along the chain link fence in the Rhythm Nation music video, with more space to discover himself as Kenneth Banjee. After all, that was a performance, too — never one that would grant him acclaim at acting institutions of note, but a performance that granted him survival and security before the mainstream ever saw value in a young man from East Flatbush. Williams existed as a divine vessel at the cost of his renewal; he delivered that very message with the reverent, raw energy he gathered during his final moments of the BET tribute, channeling DMX’s potent mix of lyrics and vigor for one final exultation:
Just ‘cause I, love my niggas
I shed blood, for my niggas
Let a nigga holla, "where my niggas?"
All Imma hear is "right here my nigga!"
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