Saturday, May 12, 2018
May 12-13, 2018: A Tribute to Michael K. Williams
[One of the best parts of my 2018 so far has been discovering SundanceTV’s Hap & Leonard. Based on the series of novels by Joe Lansdale, and starring James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams, the series has completed two wonderful 6-episode seasons and as I write this is in the midst of Season 3. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Hap & Leonard contexts, leading to this special weekend post on the unique career to date of Michael K. Williams!]
Revisiting three stages in the evolution of the great Michael Kenneth Williams.
1) Dancing: Because he became famous as Omar Little, one of the great criminal outlaws in American pop culture history, Williams’s professional origins as a touring and music video background dancer for artists such as Kym Sims, George Michael, and Madonna can seem surprising. But I would argue the opposite, and not only because Williams defied his family’s wishes and lived on the streets of New York in order to pursue his dream (although that is very Omar of him). I would also note that Williams brings a physicality and passion to every performance that are quite similar to dancing, and that the juxtaposition of the fine art of dance with the brutal violence of which his characters are so often capable is likewise very present in every multi-layered character Williams creates.
2) Omar Little: Once a character has been named as a favorite by a sitting president, it might seem that there’s very little left to say about him. And I can’t pretend that I have some radical new insight on one of TV’s all-time great characters. But I will say that amidst all the justified love for Omar, I’m not sure anyone has sufficiently grappled with the very reasonable critiques Bunk Moreland levels at him during this charged Season 3 conversation. They’re the same critiques we can and should level at any popular outlaw, but it’s perhaps even harder to do so with Omar, both because he’s gay (making him a far more marginalized character) and because Williams is so damn charismatic. But he’s still profiting off of death, drugs, and violence, in a way that as Bunk notes is hardly communally minded—and I think the single tear on Omar’s cheek at the end of that scene suggests he knows Bunk is right.
3) Chalky White: In many ways Chalky, the Atlantic City gangster whom Williams played for all five seasons of Boardwalk Empire, could be seen as parallel to Omar. Certainly he’s just as smart and ruthless, and just as willing to use violence to achieve his goals. But by the time we meet Chalky, he is also powerful and even (in Atlantic City terms at least) respectable—married with children, living in a grand house, in charge of an extensive operation and in league with some of the city’s other most powerful figures. Whether those things make him more or less sympathetic than Omar are a matter for each viewer to decide, but to this viewer Omar’s more marginalized and constantly endangered status makes him more sympathetic than the kingpin Chalky. As ever, Williams brings a depth and humanity to Chalky that makes it impossible to take our eyes off of him—but I can’t say I much like him. Which is the exact opposite of how I feel about the unique and wonderful actor behind him and so many other great characters.
Next context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on H&L, or other shows you’d highlight?