In a memorable scene in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” a sullen, swollen-eyed Montrose Freeman stands alone in a crowded underground ballroom as his lover, Sammy, in drag, beckons him to the dance floor. Wearing a red silk shirt, Montrose, played by Michael K. Williams, glistens as his character, a queer Black man, struggles with his sexuality and his race in 1950s Chicago.
Montrose slowly begins to move from one dance partner to another, at first reluctantly and then with such revelry that he is soon drenched in his own sweat and swept up in the air by a group of drag queens. Freed, at least temporarily, from the trauma of his past and the restrictions of his present, Montrose goes on to hug, hold and finally kiss Sammy on the lips for the first time.
I’ve watched that scene many, many times. In an era in which “Pose,” “Legendary” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” put Black queer ball culture front and center, Montrose’s story line might not stick out. But when it first aired last September, after the summer of Black Lives Matter, Williams’s intimate portrayal of a man both lost and ahead of his time was so transformative, so transfixing, that I found myself clinging desperately to Montrose’s moment of exhaling and exaltation. It offered respite to viewers still reeling from George Floyd’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”
“That scene wasn’t about him coming out the closet,” Williams said in an interview with TV Guide last September. “It was more about him letting that little boy out that closet and run around the room and just be free.”
And Williams, who was found dead on Monday in his apartment in Brooklyn, knew how to be free onscreen. He chose to breathe life into characters so unconventional, so complex, and often so contradictory that they couldn’t be boxed into the traditional categories of race, sexuality and class into which they were born.
Inspired by his childhood in Vanderveer Estates, an apartment complex now known as Flatbush Gardens, in Brooklyn, Williams understood the weight of his roles. And whether his audience knew it or not, he made sure that we saw the everyday working-class Black men with whom he grew up as he saw them himself: larger than life.
Such was the case with Chalky White, the Atlantic City bootlegger in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” whom he based on his father, who was raised in the Jim Crow South. To play Ken Jones, a gay-rights activist who struggles with H.I.V., in the ABC docudrama “When We Rise,” he drew upon gay nephews who had died. Freddy Knight, a former boxer who runs a drug ring at Rikers Island in the HBO limited series “The Night Of,” was modeled on another relative who had been incarcerated at Rikers. As Freddy, who takes a naïve prisoner (played by Riz Ahmed) under his wing, Williams could shift from caring protector to cruel crime boss within a single scene, a choice that not only kept viewers guessing at Freddy’s real motives but became the emotional center of the show.
As Bobby McCray in Netflix’s “When They See Us,” a mini-series about the Central Park Five, Williams swings on a pendulum of rage, grief and guilt after he has convinced his teenage son, Antron, to sign a false confession. (Antron was later sentenced to five to 10 years for rape and assault, serving six years before his exoneration.) Rather than play Bobby’s sacrifice of his son or his later abandonment of his family as completely cold and calculated, Williams infused his character with a sense of searching and shame.
“On paper, Bobby — let’s face it, he made some bad choices,” Williams told Vanity Fair. “That is what he did. I just chose to find out the reasons why, and that was a painful journey.”
Adding to Williams’s mystique as an actor was the scar that ran down his face, marking the time a man slashed his face outside a bar in Queens when he was 25. Williams would say that his wound transformed him. “All my life I’m this cream puff, and next thing I know everyone sees me as some kind of gangster,” he told The New York Times for a 2017 article. “It almost made me laugh.”
I also saw his scar as a metaphor. A bit off-kilter. A permanent symbol of his vulnerability. A trauma that rendered him unforgettable, while providing him, and us, a road map to the tenderness and torment that he would infuse into all his characters, sometimes triggering his own trauma and his lifelong battle with depression and substance abuse.
It was a story line brought close to home through Omar Little, the stickup man from HBO’s “The Wire.” Williams’s breathtaking performance made him the ultimate outlaw: a Black, gay, shotgun-carrying gangster who operates both above the law and beyond the Baltimore street codes. Partly based on the real-life gangster Donnie Andrews, who was lionized as Baltimore’s own Robin Hood, Omar apotheosized Williams’s career but also plagued Williams in the years after the show ended. When he went back to his old neighborhood, “they were calling me Omar,” he told The Times. “That’s when the lines got blurred.”
I went back to “The Wire” today. Not to witness Omar’s anticlimactic death, but to the fifth episode of its final season, when he barely survived. After patiently waiting for hours outside of a rival’s apartment, Omar decides to go in guns blazing, only to be ambushed and his partner shot dead. For perhaps any other character on “The Wire,” escape would have been impossible, but for Omar, defying the odds was a way of life. When he jumped out the window — gunshots whizzing by him — he appeared as both man and myth.
Playing such original, sensitive, vulnerable characters not only expanded our universe of Black masculinity but also bled into Williams’s own life, making it hard for him to separate the craft from its creator. He had said that the pressures of playing Omar helped bring on an existential crisis, and a relapse. Perhaps his empathy became expressed as addiction, his talent its own form of torture.
“The characters that mean the most to me are the ones that damn near kill me,” he said in 2017. “It’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make.”