Rest in Power

Heartbroken Queer Fans Remember Michael K. Williams

Yesterday, the actor Michael K. Williams, best known for his roles in “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” was found dead in his home at age 54. The news came as a blow to fans worldwide who’d grown up with Williams as a familiar face. He was, without a doubt, one of the finest actors of his generation, lending depth, grit, and honesty to every character he played, from “The Wire’s” Omar Little to Freddy Knight on “The Night Of” to Bobby McCray on “When They See Us.” He is, and will continue to be, deeply missed.

For the queer community, Williams’ death came with a special sting. As an actor who brought to life one of the first truly realistic, lived-in queer characters of the prestige TV golden age, he meant a lot to us. For many viewers, Williams’ portrayal of Omar Little was the first time they’d seen a queer character of color who didn’t feel like a sloppy afterthought. In a time when realistic queer characters were few and far between onscreen, Williams offered viewers a glimpse into a chaotic, painful world in which queerness must be publically hidden even as it is privately embraced.

Earlier this year, Williams spoke to the comedian and podcaster Marc Maron on “WTF” during a press tour for the film Body Brokers, about drug treatment fraud. In that interview, 

“I’m not shy about it.” He said. “Relapse is a part of my story.” It was far from the only part of his story, however. Williams worked hard his entire life to become something the world kept insisting he couldn’t be: a great actor. Low self-esteem and a need to fit in made him “lose [his] identity” very quickly. He attributed the ability to “chameleon” himself to his success as an actor. “By age 9, I was completely addicted to fantasy,” he told Maron of his journey toward acting. Before his big break with “The Wire,” he made a living as a backup dancer for acts like Crystal Waters and Technotronic. He taught himself choreography by watching Janet Jackson videos, gaining him a 7-year career before taking on his first film in 1996 with Bullet, for which the actor was hand-picked by none other than Tupac Shakur. It was the actor’s distinctive facial scar that caught Shakur’s notice. From there, other directors started noticing. When Hollywood came calling to cast Williams in bigger roles, he “wore it like a badge of honor.” 

“These are my people,” he told Maron, “and this is my community. I’m going to do everything possible to make sure that people who don’t know this lifestyle or this community will leave feeling empathy, compassion, and understanding.”

The world is heartbroken today. Here are some of the most thoughtful tributes to Williams from queer fans and allies:

Here’s his tribute to DMX at this year’s BET awards:

A sweet tidbit:

Folks remembered how important Williams’ portrayal of Omar Little was to them, and how important it continues to be:

But Williams was so much more than one character or one story:

Tell God:

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